Finding the next Aguerd, Hegazy or Feddal: The best centre-backs in the top-5 African leagues – data analysis
After looking at the best forwards in the top-5 African leagues in a previous data analysis, we’ll now focus on the opposite side of the pitch and look at the best centre-backs in those leagues.
According to the CAF, the best five leagues in Africa are the Moroccan Botola Pro Inwi, the Egyptian Premier League, the Tunisian Ligue 1, the Algerian Ligue 1 and the South African Premiership.
These leagues have produced some great centre-backs in the past, with the most recent examples being Zouhair Feddal, who played in La Liga, the Serie A and now for Sporting CP after standing out in Morocco for FUS Rabat; Ahmed Hegazy, who played for top teams in Egypt like Al Ahly and Ismaily before his experiences in the Championship, EPL and Serie A; or Nayef Aguerd, who also played for FUS Rabat before moving to Dijon and Rennes in the Ligue 1.
We have taken the statistics from Wyscout and our sample includes every centre-back who has played at least 1,000 minutes in the last calendar year in the aforementioned leagues. Please note that for some of these players, the data isn’t 100% complete but it’s still more than enough to ensure a consistent picture.
Positioning and general defending
First and as an introduction, we’ll look at two very general defensive metrics. In the x-axis, we have successful defensive actions per 90, defined as the sum of defensive duels won, interceptions and sliding tackles normalized per 90 minutes; and on the y-axis, possession-adjusted interceptions, which helps us put the rest of the stats into context regarding the teams’ playing styles. The colour of the dots is the total number of interceptions so we know in which direction they were adjusted for possession.
In terms of positioning, Lyes Oukkal (29, Algeria) seems the best player. Playing for the relegated side JSM Skikda, Oukkal had 7.48 interceptions per 90 (11.58 if possession-adjusted) while also being in the top 25% in successful defensive actions with 10.55 per 90 but couldn’t help his team stay in the Algerian Ligue 1 last season. With good experience at the highest level in his country and these stats, he’ll surely come back to the first division soon.
Another interesting one is Aymen Ben Mahmoud (25, Tunisia), who played last season for AS Soliman on loan from ES Tunis in the Tunisian Ligue 1. Ben Mahmoud achieved 7.07 interceptions (10.75 if possession-adjusted) and 10.6 successful defensive actions per 90, helping his team to a 4th-position finish just one point away from the continental competitions. His good performances weren’t enough to stay at ES Tunis, the country’s biggest club, but he earned a lucrative move to Al Arabi SC in Kuwait. Still quite young for a centre-back, we shouldn’t rule out a move to a higher-level league in the middle term.
Similar in age to Ben Mahmoud, we find the Rapide Oued Zem centre-back Marouane Louadni (26, Morocco). Louadni averaged 7.84 interceptions (10 if possession-adjusted) and 12.77 successful defensive actions (second-best in our sample) per 90 in his first season at RCOZ. If he continues reaching these stats next season and with his contract expiring in 2022, he could be an interesting market opportunity.
If we travel South, we find Nkosinathi Sibisi (25, South Africa), who plays for Golden Arrows in the South African DStv Premiership. Sibisi is a very busy defender with 13.62 successful defensive actions per 90 and also shows good positioning, achieving 7.18 interceptions per 90 (9.82 if possession-adjusted). After more than 90 first-team appearances with Golden Arrows, Sibisi recently made his debut with South Africa and has already been targeted by the country’s top clubs Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates.
If we turn to younger options, Keanu Cupido (23, South Africa) is the most interesting one in this section of the analysis. Playing for Cape Town City FC, Cupido had 6 interceptions (9.65 if possession-adjusted) and 9.93 successful defensive actions per 90, both metrics in the upper part of the chart. Cupido has good experience in the DStv Premiership, won the MTN 8 Cup and has been part of the U17, U20 and currently the U23 South African national teams, apart from a season-long spell at Ajaccio B in France. With this CV and statistics, he’s one to follow in the next couple of seasons.
Getting more specific, we’ll now look at defensive duels, defined as “when a player attempts to dispossess an opposition player to stop an attack progressing”. On the x-axis, we have the quantity and on the y-axis the success rate. The colour represents the total defensive duels won per 90 as a different way of visualizing the other metrics.
The first standout player here is again the Golden Arrows defender Nkosinathi Sibisi (25, South Africa). Despite being just 1.72m / 5’8’’, Sibisi shows great strength and defensive abilities winning 76.83% of the 8.01 defensive duels he gets into per 90. He already stood out in key data like interceptions and successful defensive actions per 90, putting up a very interesting profile for clubs at a higher level.
Sibisi’s centre-back partner at Golden Arrows, Trevor Mathiane (32, South Africa), is also great here. The veteran centre-back wins 79.66% of the 6.2 defensive duels he contests per 90, the highest percentage in the top-5 African Leagues. Having played for the same team for more than eight years and reaching the end of his career, a move seems unlikely for Mathiane.
Looking at U23 players, Mohamed Ammar (22, Egypt) is the most interesting one here. Ammar won 72.85% of the 7.1 defensive duels he got into per 90 while playing for Ismaily SC in the Egyptian Premier League. Born in 1999 and with just 24 senior appearances in his career, Ammar is surely one to follow in the next few months.
Some players worth mentioning are:
Ronald Pfumbidzai (26, Zimbabwe), a left-footed defender who won 74.03% of the 7.81 defensive duels he contested per 90 for Royal AM FC in South Africa. He has four caps for Zimbabwe and had a brief spell in Danish football five years ago.
Damion Lowe (28, Jamaica), a 1.90m / 6’3’’ defender who won 72.48% of his 7.45 defensive duels per 90 while playing for Ittihad Alexandria in Egypt. With experience in the USA and Norway but not always in the first division (never played in the MLS), Lowe joined Ittihad last November.
Mahmoud El Badry (30, Egypt), who won 78.05% of his 6.74 defensive duels per 90 playing for Smouha SC in Egypt. His good performances earned him a move to Cleopatra FC, also in Egypt, this summer.
Being dominant in the air is another key aspect for any centre-back. This time, we have the number of aerial duels per 90 in the x-axis and the success rate in the y-axis, with the colour representing the won aerial duels per 90 again.
In the air, Mohamed Ali Yaakoubi (30, Tunisia) seems to be the best one. Standing at 1.92m / 6’4’’ and 2inning 77.53% of the 7.23 aerial duels he gets into per 90, the ES Tunis defender is among the best in the air both for quantity and quality. Yaakoubi has already played abroad for Caykur Rizespor in Turkey, Al-Fateh in Saudi Arabia and Quevilly Rouen Métropole in France and at his age, it seems unlikely that he leaves again. He has 16 senior caps and has won every domestic trophy and two CAF Champions League.
Another interesting centre-back is Khaled Bouhakak (27, Algeria), who plays for the recently relegated side AS Aïn M’lila in Algeria. Bouhakak has the highest winning rate in the air (86.67%) but doesn’t get into many duels (3.03 per 90). Standing at 1.90m / 6’3’’ and with good experience for Algeria U23 and in the Algerian Ligue 1, Bouhakak surely deserves to play in the first division of his country.
In the U23 group, Mohamed Amine Tougai (21, Algeria) stands out. Playing for ES Tunis like Yaakoubi, the young centre-back won 71.23% of his 6.68 aerial duels per 90, in part thanks to his great size (1.91m / 6’3’’). Tougai joined ES Tunis from the Algerian side NA Hussein Dey in January 2020 and only an injury prevented him from being the starter centre-back at his new team. Having played for Algeria U18, U20 and U23, he’s someone to follow as a young and dominant defender.
Other centre-backs who stood out for their aerial game are:
Cláudio (28, Brazil), who won 76.22% of his 5.77 aerial duels per 90 while playing for Olympique Safi in Morocco. After playing for several regional-league clubs in Brazil, Claúdio seems to have found his place in Morocco and has played for his current club for more than four years now.
Seif Teka (30, Tunisia), who won 75.26% of his 6.43 aerial duels per 90 for Cleopatra FC in Egypt. Teka signed for his current club in January 2021, having spent most of his career in Tunisia apart from a brief spell at Lens in the French Ligue 2 in the 2018/19 season.
Imadeddine Boubekeur (26, Algeria), who won 73.92% of the 6.89 duels he contested per 90 for JS Saoura in Algeria. Boubekeur has always played in his home country and has been around the national team without making his debut. At his age, a move to a higher level is still a possibility.
Mohamed Fathallah “Camacho” (28, Egypt), who won 68.53% of his aerial duels despite being involved in lots of them (7.87 per 90). Nicknamed after the former Real Madrid star José Antonio Camacho, Fathallah has always played for Ghazl Mahalla in Egypt and it doesn’t look like he could move in the near future.
Changing the focus to the on-the-ball contribution of the centre-backs, we’ll now see how good they are at progressing the ball.
For this section, we’ve created two metrics. In the x-axis, we have accurate forward passes every 100 attempted passes, trying to measure how often they successfully play the ball forward. In the y-axis, accurate progressive passes every 100 attempted forward passes, looking at how often the forward pass successfully advances a team significantly closer to the opponent’s goal.
Choosing these metrics instead of just per 90 statistics adds some context to the analysis, giving us a good overview of both the tendency to play forward and the quality of those forward passes. We still have the per 90 stat in the colour, which shows the successful progressive passes per 90.
Looking at the chart, the standout player is Ricardo Nascimento (34, Brazil) of Mamelodi Sundowns. 42.69% of Nascimento’s passes are accurate forward passes and 44.23% of the forward passes he attempts are successful progressive passes, meaning that he combines directness with accuracy. His quality on the ball amounts to 10.64 progressive passes per 90, the highest among centre-backs in the top-5 African Leagues. Nascimento has travelled a lot in his career, playing in Portugal, Romania and Brazil before finding his place in South Africa, where he has won the last four leagues and became the captain of Sundowns last season.
Looking at those players who tend to accurately play forward, we find Wael Ben Othmane (26, Tunisia), who plays for Avenir Sportif Rejiche in the Tunisian Ligue 1. For every 100 passes Ben Othmane attempts, 49.64 are accurate forward passes, the highest in our sample. And 43.01% of the times he tries to play forward he completes a progressive pass, which is also a very high proportion. His total number of progressive passes (5.86 per 90) isn’t impressive, probably because he doesn’t get on the ball a lot, but he’s very direct when he has the chance to build up. At 26, last season was Ben Othmane’s first in his country’s top tier but he surely impressed (at least on the ball), helping his newly promoted team to the 6th position.
Moving to players who don’t play forward as often but are very direct and progress when they do, we find Rodrigue Kossi Fiogbé (21, Benin) of Club Africain in Tunisia. The young centre-back who can also be deployed as a defensive midfielder completed a progressive pass 47.77% of the times he played forward, the highest percentage in our sample, leading to an above-average 6.45 completed progressive passes per 90. He doesn’t play forward as often or as accurately as other centre-backs, with just 31.86% of his attempted passes being successful forward passes but this could be also because of him playing in a more advanced position sometimes. Apart from his young age, versatility and ability on the ball, Kossi is creating a nice international CV with four senior caps to his name and helping the 13-times Tunisian champions and former CAF Champions League winners Club Africain to get back to their glory days.
Another three players worth mentioning are:
Mohamed Achref Aib (31, Algeria) of NC Magra in his country’s Ligue 1. Aib registered 39.59 successful forward passes every 100 attempted passes and 45.73% of the forward passes he attempted were progressive ones, which led to 8.13 successful progressive passes per 90.
Ahmed Ayman Mansour (27, Egypt) of Pyramids FC and the national team (5 caps). Mansour’s 10.08 successful progressive passes per 90 were the 43.63% of the forward passes he attempted. He’s also direct in his play and completed 39.31 forward passes every 100 attempted passes.
Mohamed Samir (33, Egypt) of El Mokawloon SC. He completed a progressive pass 41.38% of the times he played forward and 43.07% of his passes were accurate forward passes, leading to 8.51 progressive passes per 90.
Another interesting contribution a centre-back can make on the ball is moving the ball directly with long passes. Here we have the number of long passes attempted per 90 on the x-axis and the accuracy on the y-axis. The colour shows the average pass length, which helps us to understand how often these long passes are played and how far they reach.
Like in the previous section, where we looked at progressive passing data, Mohamed Achref Aib (31, Algeria) of NC Magra stands out again. Aib attempted 8.7 long passes per 90, which is in the top 25% and completed a record 76.09% of them. Despite his ability to play long, he has a good mix in his passing and his average pass length is 24.08 meters, slightly above average.
This time, we have three U23 players who stand out:
Mohamed Amine Tougai (21, Algeria) of ES Tunis, who also stood out in the aerial duels data, is worth mentioning here as he completes 65.88% of the 7.78 long passes he attempts per 90. His average passing length is below average (21.76 meters), showing he can play both long and short passes. It’s already two important statistics where Tougai has impressed and at just 21 he seems a very interesting prospect.
Salah Harrab (22, Tunisia) of Etoile Sportive du Sahel completed 63.86% of the 10.55 long passes he attempted per 90 (second-most). Knowing his ability to play long, it’s normal that his average passing length is above average with 24.93 meters. Harrabi has always played for his current club and his contract expires next summer so he’s one to watch as a market opportunity.
Abdelmounaim Boutouil (23, Morocco) of SC Chabab Mohammedia and Morocco U23. Boutouil completed 63.56% of the 9.62 long passes he attempted per 90, reaching an average pass length of 23.64 meters. Boutouil was bought by Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium in 2020 but never made his debut there, spending most of the season on loan at his current club and earning a permanent move this summer. Despite his young age and being relatively new to the squad, he’s already the captain and still has a bright future in front of him.
And looking at older players, we have two centre-backs we’ve already talked about:
Mohamed Samir (33, Egypt) of El Mokawloon SC, who was a great progressive passer, also completes 63.55% of the 10.35 long passes he attempts per 90. He’s very aggressive in his passing and has an average pass length of 27.14 meters.
Ricardo Nascimento (34, Brazil) of Mamelodi Sundowns, who also stood out as a great progressor, attempts 10.53 long passes per 90 and completes 62.75% of them, which explains his average pass length of 25.89 meters.
Even if not a defender’s main task, it’s always good for any team to add some goals from the centre-backs. Here we’ll have a quick look at non-penalty goals per 90 (y-axis) and non-penalty xG per 90 (x-axis), with the colour showing shots per 90.
Aymen Ben Mahmoud (25, Tunisia), who also stood out in the first section of this data analysis for his general defending and positioning statistics, is the clear winner here. From the available data, Ben Mahmoud scored a stunning 0.74 goals from just 0.08 xG per 90. While the lack of complete data exaggerates his scoring stats, Ben Mahmoud still scored seven goals in 20 games last season at a rate of around 0.38 goals per 90, which is still crazy for a centre-back. We’ve already mentioned that he’s now playing in Kuwait and it’s clear why he caught the attention of his new club.
Far from Ben Mahmoud but still great for a centre-back we find El Mahdi Bellaaroussi (31, Morocco) of Renaissance Zemamra. Bellaaroussi scored four goals in just 18 appearances last season, which is 0.22 goals from 0.16 xG per 90. However, his attacking contribution couldn’t prevent his team relegation and the veteran defender is now in the second division of Morocco.
The last player we’re highlighting here is Boualem Masmoudi (27, Algeria), who played for MC Oran in his country last season. With 0.23 goals from just 0.09 xG per 90, Masmoudi scored three goals and attracted attention from abroad, signing for Etoile Sportive du Sahel in Tunisia in the summer.
There are many interesting centre-backs still in Africa and quite young who would be worth scouting further. Players like Tougai who was excellent in the air and in long passes, Sibisi who excelled in defensive duels and interceptions or Ben Mohamed who excelled both in positioning, successful defensive actions and scoring are some of the names that immediately catch the eye, but every other player we have highlighted has shown something special and is worth checking.
As data becomes more and more a part of the recruitment process for clubs at any level, it will be important for the development of football in lesser-known leagues like most African ones to ensure there’s data available for their games and players so they can export talent and improve their own recruitment and grow into stronger and more competitive leagues.