Even if most players move from Africa before making their senior debuts in the local leagues, the strongest competitions in the continent still have the power to keep their best young players and use them before they leave to higher-level leagues.
One of the latest examples of a great African player who played in one of the top-five African leagues before moving to Europe and reaching the best clubs in the Old Continent is Mohamed Elneny. The current EPL & Arsenal player started his career at El Mokawloon SC, playing 35 games in the Egyptian Premier League before moving to Basel.
In this data analysis, we’ll have a look at the central midfielders in the top five African leagues. According to the CAF, the best five leagues in the continent are the Moroccan Botola Pro Inwi, the Egyptian Premier League, the Tunisian Ligue 1, the Algerian Ligue 1 and the South African Premiership.
We have taken the data from Wyscout and it includes players whose primary positions were central or defensive midfielder, with more than 1,000 minutes played in the last calendar year. We have decided not to include attacking midfielders as their numbers were closer to the forwards’.
In the first section of the data analysis, we’ll have a look at the successful defensive and offensive actions to find those players who influence a lot on both ends and also some complete profiles. The colour of the dots shows the success rate in all duels.
The most influential player in attack was Abdelkahar Kadri (21, Algeria), who played for Paradou AC in the Algerian Ligue 1 last season. Kadri had 5.88 successful offensive actions per 90—more than any other player in our sample—and won an above-average 51.37% of his duels. Despite standing out in attack, he was average in defence with 8.59 successful defensive actions per 90. Just looking at this and his age, it’s easy to understand why K.V. Kortrijk of the Belgian First Division signed the former Algeria U18 and U23 international in the summer for €500,000. He has already provided an assist in his first two games and will be one to watch for top clubs.
On the opposite side, as the most active and influential defensive player, we find Aymen Trabelsi (29, Tunisia), who played for Club Athlétique Bizertin in the Tunisian Ligue 1. Trabelsi averaged 14.59 successful defensive actions per 90 (highest) and won 58.51% of his duels. The former Tunisia international, who had already experienced Egyptian and Qatari football, earned a presumably lucrative move to Saudi Arabia in the summer, signing for Al-Jeel Club in the second division.
With a more balanced profile, we find Emam Ashour (23, Egypt) of Zamalek in the Egyptian Premier League. Ashour ranked in the top 25% both for successful defensive and offensive actions with 10.43 and 4.23 per 90, respectively, and won 56.48% of his duels. Ashour is one of the most promising Egyptian players at the moment, having played 64 games in the Premier League, making 15 goal contributions. He was in the Olympics with the U23 national team and also has 5 senior caps to his name.
Mohanad Lasheen (25, Egypt) also stands out in both statistics but with a more defensive profile than Ashour. The Tala’ea El Gaish midfielder averaged 13.21 successful defensive actions and 2.26 successful defensive actions last year in the Egyptian Premier League and won 54.93% of his duels. With more than 100 professional games in Egypt, Lasheen has a good mix of experience and youth to progress in his career.
Looking at younger profiles, Chris Kouakou (21, Côte d’Ivoire) of Club Sportif Sfaxien stands out. The young midfielder was in the top 25% for both defensive and offensive successful actions per 90 (11.63 and 2.17 respectively) and won 61.28% of his duels in the Tunisian Ligue 1. Born in 1999, he’s one of the most interesting U23 midfielders still playing in Africa and should be closely followed by higher-level clubs.
To assess the central midfielders’ ability to break lines and progress, we have used three metrics. In the y-axis, we have progressive passes per 100 passes to show how direct they are, and in the x-axis, progressive passes per 90 to show the volume regardless of the directness. The colour shows the accuracy of the progressive passes.
Topping two of the three metrics we’ve considered here, Keagan Buchanan (29, South Africa) who played for Maritzburg United FC last season is the standout player. 28.55% of Buchanan’s passes were progressive ones, amounting to a total of 15.11 per 90 and with excellent accuracy of 81.78%. His impressive statistics in progressing earned Buchanan a move to AmaZulu FC, also in the South African Premiership. At his age, it seems unlikely that he’ll play at a higher level but he’s one to follow for anyone interested in this market.
Similar to Buchanan but not at his level, we have Lantshene Phalane (31, South Africa) of Royal AM FC, formerly Bloemfontein Celtic. Phalane attempted 25.19 progressive passes every 100 passes (12.91 progressive passes per 90) and completed 71.88% of them. He has always played in South Africa and has over 150 appearances in the Premiership so he’s unlikely to move abroad at his age.
Looking at U23 players, Chris Kouakou (21, Côte d’Ivoire) again comes out on top. 20.9% of his passes are progressive passes, which is 9.37 per 90, and he completes 73.21% of them. Considering he stands out as a high-volume and effective defender and is capable of winning duels both on and off the ball, he starts to look like a very interesting player to keep an eye on.
Other interesting players are the following:
Abdelkhalek Ait Ourehbi (27, Morocco) of Club Athletic Youssoufia Berrechid. He attempts 9.25 progressive passes per 90 (25.5% of his passes) and completes 76.72% of them. Having always played in Morocco, it’s probable that he stays there now but he still has some of his best years ahead of him and could be an interesting target for European teams outside the top-five leagues.
Bakr El Helali (34, Morocco) of Renaissance de Berkane. His 10.09 progressive passes per 90 represent 24.21% of his passes and he completed 78.82% of them. El Helali is playing for his hometown club after a successful career in Morocco and has won the 2020 CAF Confederation Cup (the second continental competition) and the 2017/18 Moroccan Cup with them.
Chamseddine Harrag (29, Algeria) of MC Alger. With 23.37% of his passes being progressive (13.11 progressive passes per 90) and completing 77.56 of them, he’s a good profile too. Harrag has over 160 games and 25 assists in Algerian football and will probably stay there.
Amine Benbelaid (29, Algeria) of WA Tlemcen. He attempted 11.23 progressive passes per 90, 22.3% of his total passes, completing 85.88% of them. Benbelaid’s case is an interesting one as the 2020/21 season was his first in the first division and his performances earned him a move to the 8-time league champions and twice winners of the CAF Champions League ES Sétif.
Ball-carrying and dribbling
Here, we’ll see which central midfielders can progress with the ball at their feet and also how press-resistant and skilled in 1v1 they are. In the y-axis, we have progressive runs per 90, while in the x-axis we have attempted dribbles per 90. The colour shows the successful dribbles per 90.
Abdelkahar Kadri (21, Algeria), recently signed by Kortrijk, stands out here too after being the player with the most successful offensive actions per 90. Kadri made 2.41 progressive runs and attempted 5.43 dribbles per 90 (4.37 successful). He seems to be a player capable of getting past players both in long and short distances and advancing by himself, which is surely one of the reasons why he has stepped up to a higher level at such a young age.
As the central midfielder with the most progressive runs (3.57 per 90), we find Akram Djahnit (30, Algeria) of ES Sétif. Apart from being an excellent runner on the ball, Djahnit also attempts lots of dribbles (4.1 per 90) and completes 2.38 per 90. Apart from a brief spell in Kuwait, Djahnit has always played for ES Sétif (282 appearances, 45 goals and 50 assists), winning four Algerian leagues and one CAF Champions League. Despite his successful career, he has never played for the Algerian national team.
On the other side, we find Omar Fathi “Saviola” (27, Egypt) of Enppi SC. Nicknamed after the former Barcelona star, Saviola attempted 6.41 dribbles per 90 and completed 3.36 of them, while also achieving 1.78 progressive runs per 90 while on loan at El Mokawloon SC last season. He has always played in Egypt and at his age, he’ll probably continue his career there.
This time, we have four very interesting U23 players:
Chris Kouakou (21, Côte d’Ivoire) appears again with 2.51 progressive runs and 1.84 completed dribbles per 90, which suggests he tends to run with the ball when there’s free space ahead of him more than he tries to dribble past players. Another great stat for the young star.
Abdelrahman Osama (22, Egypt) of Tala’ea El Gaish on loan from Entag El Harby, where he played last season, and Egypt U23. Osama completed 2.16 progressive runs and 2.86 dribbles per 90 out of the 5.1 he attempted. Playing mostly as a central midfielder but also as a winger sometimes, he’s very capable of progressing with the ball at his feet. His loan will ensure he keeps playing in the Egyptian Premier League instead of in the second division with his parent club.
Mohamed Sadok Jemmali (20, Morocco) of JS Kairouanaise, recently relegated from the Moroccan Botola Pro. Jemmali attempted 5.19 dribbles per 90 and completed 2.85, which added to his 1.17 progressive runs per 90 to make him a very difficult player to dispossess, who’s capable of running towards the goal with the ball at his feet. Last season was Jemmali’s first full one at the top level in Morocco and he’ll surely attract interest now his club was relegated.
Mohamed Ali Ben Romdhane (22, Tunisia) of ES Tunis. He completed 1.67 progressive runs and 2.42 out of the 4.47 dribbles he attempted per 90 last season. He’s been linked with top clubs in the Ligue 1, like Lille and Lyon, and is one of the most exciting players still in Africa. We’ve already spoken about him in this analysis.
Moving into more creative passes, we’ll have a look at three metrics. In the y-axis, we have deep completions per 90, defined as “a non-cross pass that is targeted to the zone within 20 meters of the opponent’s goal”. In the x-axis, passes to the final third per 90, defined as “any pass that originates outside of the final third and the next ball touch occurs within the final third”. The colour shows through passes per 90 (“A pass played into the space behind the defensive line for a teammate to contest”).
Abdallah Said (36, Egypt) of Pyramids is the first player we highlight here. Said has more deep completions than anyone else in this analysis with 2.42 per 90 while also being very close to the top in passes to the final third (12.2 per 90) and through passes (3 per 90). The offensive midfielder captains his club and has 360 appearances in the Egyptian Premier League (112 goals and 76 assists), while he’s also enjoyed experiences in Saudi Arabia with Al Ahli and in Finland with Kuopion Palloseura. He has won the Egyptian league four times and the CAF Champions League twice, while he was the top scorer of the league in the 2019/20 season with 17 goals.
Another very interesting player is Keagan Buchanan (29, South Africa), recently signed by AmaZulu and who was also our best progressive passer. Buchanan has 15.99 passes to the final third and 3.09 through passes per 90, being the best in both metrics. He’s also among the central midfielders with the highest number of deep completions per 90 with 1.41.
Between Buchanan and Said, we find Ferjani Sassi (29, Tunisia). Sassi has the second-most passes to the final third and deep completions with 13.66 and 1.94 per 90 respectively. His 2.67 through passes per 90 are also one of the best in our sample. Sassi’s numbers for Zamalek in Egypt earned him a move to Al-Duhail in Qatar this summer. In the past, he has played in France with Metz and in Saudi Arabia with Al-Nassr, apart from winning the Tunisian league both with ES Tunis and Club Sportif Sfaxien. He also has 63 caps for Tunisia, completing a fantastic international career.
Another three players worth mentioning are:
Xolani Mlambo (30, South Africa) of AmaZulu has 1.72 deep completions per 90 (third-most) and is in the top 25% for passes into the final third with 9.12, while his 1.87 through passes per 90 are also above average. Mlambo has always played in his home country, winning the league and cup with Bidvest Wits FC in the 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons respectively.
Amine Benbelaid (29, Algeria) of WA Tlemcen has 1.59 deep completions, 2.91 through passes and 12.03 passes to the final third per 90, all of them among the best among the central midfielders in the top-five African Leagues. He was also one of the best progressive passers in our analysis.
Ghaylen Chalali (27, Tunisia) of ES Tunis was the central midfielder with the third-most passes into the final third with 13.49 per 90 while also being among the best ones in deep completions (0.96 per 90) and through passes (1.93 per 90). He spent the 2019/20 season in Turkey with Yeni Malatyaspor but wasn’t especially successful and returned to his country. He has played for Tunisia 18 times and has won four leagues, two cups and two CAF Champions Leagues.
Creating chances and assisting
Moving even further up the pitch, we’ll now assess the central midfielders’ ability to create chances and the quality of those chances. In the y-axis, we have expected assists (xA) per 90 (The xA value for a pass is the value of xG of the shot that this pass led to. To qualify for this, the pass should be a ‘shot assist’). In the x-axis, key passes per 90, defined as “a pass that immediately creates a clear goal-scoring opportunity for a teammate”. Finally, the colour shows shots assists per 90.
Abdallah Said (36, Egypt) of Pyramids stands out here too. He has the highest xA with 0.25 per 90 and is second-best in key passes with 0.73 per 90. Logically, he’s also very high in shot assists (2.06 per 90). An excellent creative player, he dominates the Egyptian Premier League despite his age and is still part of the national team, playing in most of their official games over the last two years.
Another very interesting one is Nhlanhla Mgaga (25, South Africa) of Baroka. Mgaga is second in xA per 90 (0.24) and has the most shot assists per 90 (2.25) while also being in the top quartile for key passes per 90 (0.32). During his career, Mgaga has played more in the second division than in the first in South Africa but seems to be growing quickly to become a very good player. Maybe it’s too late for him to have a big move abroad but he’s one of the most creative midfielders in the league at the moment.
The best U23 here is Amadou Sabo (21, Niger) of Club Africain in Tunisia. Sabo registered the most key passes per 90 with 0.77 and was also quite close to the top in shot assists (1.64 per 90) and xA (0.15 per 90). He started his career at AS SONIDEP in Niger and moved to Club Athlétique Bizertin in December 2020, where he registered those figures before moving to the 13-time champions Club Africain this summer.
Other interesting players (most of them U23) are:
Mehdi Karnass (31, Morocco) of FUS Rabat with 0.21 xA per 90 (third-most) from “just” 1.67 shot assists and 0.23 key passes per 90. He averaged those numbers with Difaâ El Jadida and earned a move in the summer. In 2014, Karnass played for Aalesunds in Norway but apart from that, he has always played in Morocco, winning the league in the 2016/17 season with Wydad Casablanca and getting capped twice.
Sipho Mbule (23, South Africa) of SuperSport United with 0.2 xA per 90, which came from his 0.4 key passes and 1.62 shot assists per 90. Mbule played in the Olympics with South Africa this summer and has three caps with the senior national team—well deserved after playing over 75 league games at his age.
Jamie Webber (23, South Africa), also of SuperSport United, with 0.18 xA, 1.75 shot assists and 0.49 key passes per 90—all among the best. A former South Africa U23 international, Webber also has good experience in the league with 62 games so far and is growing into a great creator.
Ahmed Kendouci (22, Algeria) of ES Sétif with 0.73 key passes per 90 (second-most), 0.18 xA and 1.36 shot assists. He’s a current Algeria U23 international and has already played 65 games for ES Sétif, scoring 14 goals and providing 13 assists, which are great figures for a young player. Born in 1999, he’s surely one to watch.
Even if not their main task, adding some goals from midfield is a rare quality that can set a player apart from the crowd. The y-axis shows non-penalty goals per 90 and the x-axis shows expected goals (xG) per 90. When we refer to xG and goals during this analysis, it’s always non-penalty. The colour shows shots per 90.
Phathutshedzo Nange (29, South Africa) of Kaizer Chiefs (signed from Stellenbosch FC this summer) is the first player we highlight here. With an astonishing 0.36 non-penalty goals from 0.17 xG and 1.24 shots per 90, he’s the biggest goal threat in this data analysis. It’s true that he’s overperforming his xG and he’s expected to reduce his scoring figures but he’s still getting into good positions and would still be a scoring midfielder even if he regresses to the mean. Nange has never played for South Africa and this will just be his fourth season in the Premiership after playing in the second division for most of his career.
When we speak about shooting from good positions, Islam Issa (25, Egypt) of Pyramids is the standout player. Issa averages 0.24 xG and 2.35 shots per 90—both top of the table. His finishing was also very good, scoring more than expected with 0.29 goals per 90. After 111 matches (19 goals and 14 assists) in the Egyptian Premier League, Issa has recently earned his first call for the national team but hasn’t made his debut yet.
Between Issa and Nange, we find Hamza Moujahid (26, Morocco) of FAR Rabat. Moujahid didn’t shoot a lot (0.98 times per 90) but did it from very good positions (0.23 xG per 90) and with excellent efficiency (0.3 goals per 90). Despite his great performances in front of the goal, Moujahid wasn’t a regular starter last season and needs to prove he can keep his level if he plays every minute.
There are three U23 players worth mentioning here:
Mohamed Ali Ben Romdhane (22, Tunisia) of ES Tunis, who was also one of the best progressive runners and dribblers, scoring 0.22 goals from 0.16 xG and 1.76 shots per 90. Capable of transporting the ball forward, getting into good scoring positions and finishing at his age, Ben Romdhane is clearly someone who deserves a move to a higher level, as rumoured.
Ahmed Kendouci (22, Algeria) of ES Sétif, who stood out for his chance creation, also appears here with 0.27 goals from 1.39 shots and 0.19 xG per 90. Capable of assisting and scoring, Kendouci surely deserves a closer look
The defensive ability of a player isn’t easy to assess on stats, so it occupies just one section of the analysis. In the x-axis, we have defensive duels per 90 and in the y-axis, the success rate in those duels. The colour shows the possession-adjusted interceptions per 90, giving us some context about the involvement in defence related to the team playing style too.
The most complete profile here is Oussema Ben Ayed (27, Tunisia), who played for AS Soliman. Ben Ayed got into 11.13 defensive duels per 90 and won 70.24% of them, proving to be a very tough defender. He also has the fourth-most successful defensive actions per 90 with 14.18 and ranks very well in possession-adjusted interceptions with 8.49 per 90. Ben Ayed has been loaned to the Saudi club Al-Kwakab this summer and should help them achieve promotion.
Looking at players who dominate in duels, we find Ahmida Zenasni (28, Algeria) of WA Tlemcen. Zenasni has the highest success rate in defensive duels with 76.92% and despite not getting into many of them (just 6.39 per 90), he’s still above average in defensive duels won per 90 with 4.92. He’s just ok in possession-adjusted interceptions with 5.83 per 90. Zenasni is very experienced in the Algerian Ligue 1 but hasn’t played abroad yet and he’s already in his peak so his chances are low.
Close to Zenasni but with more involvement, we find Tlakusani Mthethwa (28, South Africa) of Swallows FC. Mthethwa won 74.49% of the 8.58 defensive duels he got into per 90 for a total of 12.27 successful defensive actions per 90. He’s above average in possession-adjusted interceptions too with 6.7 per 90. Another example of a late bloomer, last season was Mthethwa’s first in the Premiership after a career spent in the lower leagues in South Africa. It’s probably too late now for him to move to a higher level but given his statistics, it could be worth monitoring him.
The best U23 option is, again, Chris Kouakou (21, Côte d’Ivoire). Apart from his offensive contribution, Kouakou wins 69.89% of the 7.78 defensive duels he contests per 90. Such a physical and dominant profile in all phases of the game defines a modern midfielder and will surely attract interest soon. He’s also the central midfielder with the third-most possession-adjusted interceptions with 9.77 per 90, showing he reads the game well in defence.
Another two interesting options are:
Aymen Trabelsi (29, Tunisia), who was already highlighted as the player with the most successful defensive actions per 90. He wins 62.59% of his 12.15 defensive fuels per 90. He also has 8.66 possession-adjusted interceptions per 90, one of the highest.
Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (29, Tunisia) of ES Sahel and Tunisia (34 caps). Ben Amor wins 63.11% of his 11.79 defensive duels per 90 and also stands out in successful defensive actions per 90 with 12.25 and possession-adjusted interceptions with 8.7 per 90. One of the best players in the Tunisian league, Ben Amor has played 34 times with the national team and spent six months in Saudi Arabia on loan with Al-Ahli in 2018 but two ACL injuries since 2019 have made it difficult for him to perform at his highest level.
There are a good number of central midfielders of different ages that look very interesting on stats. Africa has some interesting young players who are still developing in the continent and getting ready for a move to a more prestigious league.
Some of the most interesting young names are Chris Kouakou (1999, CS Sfaxien), Mohamed Ali Ben Romdhane (1999, ES Tunis), Ahmed Kendouci (1999, ES Sétif) or Sipho Mbule (1998, SuperSport United) but there are also older players who could be creative acquisitions for smart clubs that see good value in them.
Further scouting the highlighted names would be very interesting and a chance to discover great players who may have been overlooked by most teams in Europe or other powerful leagues.