Following Salah’s footsteps: The best forwards in the top 5 African leagues – data analysis
Normally, the best African players move to Europe very young before making any kind of impact in their local leagues. However, this isn’t always the case and some players’ careers take them to the best leagues in Africa before making a move to the highest level. Mohamed Salah is a great example, having played 44 games for El Mokawloon SC in Egypt before signing for Basel.
In this data analysis, we’ll have a look at the forwards in the top 5 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 has all the forwards (strikers, wingers and attacking midfielders) with more than 700 minutes played in the last calendar year.
The first thing we’re looking at is the goal contributions (goals and assists). In the graph below, we have the expected goal contributions (expected goals plus expected assists) per 90 on the x-axis and goal contributions per 90 on the y-axis. The colour of the dots represents the total goal contributions, going from 1 (red) to 28 (dark green).
The first standout player here is Tshegofatso Mabasa (24, South Africa) a striker who plays for Orlando Pirates in his home country. Mabasa has 0.9 goal contributions per 90 (all goals), exactly as expected (0.9 xGC per 90). However, Mabasa had some injuries and was absent from lots of games in the last year so his excellent per 90 statistics only amounted to 8 goals in total. If he manages to stay fit, he will surely come back to the national team and be an important player in the DStv Premiership.
Another very interesting player when looking at goal contributions is Mohamed Sherif (25, Egypt), who plays for Al Ahly in the Egyptian Premier League. Sherif has 0.84 goal contributions per 90 from an expected 0.78. With a total of 23 goal contributions (21 goals and 2 assists) in the last 365 days, Sherif was a key player in Al Ahly’s CAF Champions League-winning campaign and is becoming an important player for Egypt with two goals in his first four caps. Born in 1996, he still has time to make an impact in European football.
In this part of the data analysis, we couldn’t skip the player with the most goal contributions in the last year: Peter Shalulile (27, South Africa). The Namibian national team captain (25 caps, 8 goals) scored 20 goals and provided 8 assists in the last year, amounting to 0.7 goal contributions per 90 from an expected 0.55, which helped Mamelodi Sundowns win the South African DStv Premiership. At 27, it seems like he will continue his career at the top level in Africa but he could be an interesting bet for a creative team in Europe.
Some players worth mentioning are:
Karim Bambo (28, Egypt), a winger who scored 9 goals for Bank El Ahly in Egypt (0.86 GC from 0.75 xGC per 90).
Amir Sayoud (30, Algeria), an attacking midfielder who had 13 goals and 4 assists for CR Belouizdad in Algeria (0.86 GC from 0.69 xGC per 90) and earned a move to Al-Tai in the Saudi Professional League.
Mohamed El Amine Amoura (21, Algeria), a small striker or winger who registered 15 goals and 3 assists for ES Sétif in Algeria (0.83 GC from 0.57 xGC per 90) and earned a move to the Swiss Super League side Lugano FC:
Themba Zwane (32, South Africa), a winger with 27 caps (4 goals) who scored 18 goals and provided 9 assists at Mamelodi Sundowns (0.59 GC from 0.56 xGC).
Adil Djabout (28, Algeria), an attacking midfielder with just 4 goals but excellent per 90 statistics (0.62 GC from 0.73 xGC) for the relegated side AS Aïn M’lila. He surely deserves a shot in the Algerian Ligue 1 soon.
Alimi Sikiru (25, Nigeria), a tall striker with just 6 goals but great underlying statistics (0.48 GC per 90 from 0.79 xGC). He played half of the season for Stade Tunisien before moving to Morocco to play for MAS Fes. Aged just 25, he’s one to watch for European teams.
Walter Bwalya (26, DR Congo), a striker with 12 goals and 2 assists and also great data per 90 (0.57 GC from 0.72 xGC). He played in the Egyptian Premier League, joining Al Ahly in Egypt in January from El Gouna. He only has one cap for DR Congo.
Ayoub El Kaabi (28, Morocco), a striker with 15 goals and 3 assists (0.56 GC from 0.59 xGC per 90). El Kaabi joined Wydad Casablanca from the Chinese side Hebei FC in October 2020 and has recently signed for the Turkish Super League team Hatayspor. He has 10 international caps and has scored 2 goals for Morocco.
Activity in the box
In this section of the analysis, we’ll assess how active the players in the box are. We have shots per 90 in the x-axis and touches in the box per 90 in the y-axis. The colour shows the percentage of shots in the attacking actions (shots, crosses and dribbles). Strikers specializing in finishing and poaching goals like PSG’s Icardi are expected to have a higher percentage of shots.
Rhulani Manzini (33, South Africa) stands out here. No forward shoots more than him in the top-5 African leagues (4.93 shots per 90) and he’s second in touches in the box (5.27 per 90). With 13.5% of his attacking actions being shots, he’s focused more on finishing the plays rather than on creating them. Manzini played just 773 minutes last season in the South African Premiership with Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila and managed to score just two goals despite his immense activity in the box.
Salah Mohsen (23, Egypt) also looks very good here. The young Al Ahly winger had 5.7 touches in the box (best) and 3.17 shots per 90. He can create and finish and just 11.2% of his attacking actions are shots, which is around average. This way, Mohsen got seven goals and earned a spot in the Egyptian Olympic squad. At a young age, he has already won everything at club level in Africa and is definitely someone who can move to Europe soon.
Tshegofatso Mabasa appears again here. The 24-year-old striker stands out with 3.59 shots and 4.38 touches in the box per 90. But what’s really impressive is that 21.6% of his attacking actions are shots, the highest percentage among forwards in the top-5 African Leagues. Looking at this and knowing his excellent scoring numbers, we can conclude Mabasa is a threatening presence in the box and someone who guarantees goals if provided the right service.
On the opposite side to Mabasa, we find Gastón Sirino (30, Uruguay). The small Mamelodi Sundowns winger manages to be among the players with the most shots (2.8 per 90) and touches in the box (4.32 per 90) but shooting represents just 4.8% of his attacking actions, meaning he does a lot more. Sirino registered 6 goals and 4 assists last year and could still be a good acquisition for good clubs in South America or smaller ones in Europe, especially in Spain because of the language.
Other players worth mentioning are:
Mohamed El Amine Amoura (21, Algeria), who also stands out here with 3.65 shots and 5.16 touches in the box per 90. Shots constitute 11.68% of his attacking actions, which is around average.
Mohamed Sherif (25, Egypt) also appears again with 3.12 shots and 4.69 touches in the box per 90. Interestingly, 14.5% of his attacking actions are shots, which is above average.
Ben Malango (27, DR Congo), a big striker who had 3.65 shots and 4.65 touches in the box per 90 playing for Raja Casablanca in Morocco. Malango scored 14 non-penalty goals and earned a move to Sharjah FC in the United Arab Emirates. He has eight caps and two goals for DR Congo.
Oussama Lamlioui (25, Morocco), a striker who has 3.44 shots and 4.36 touches in the box per 90, with 17.6% of his attacking actions being shots. Playing for SC Chabab Mohammedia, a bottom-half team in Morocco, Lamlioui scored seven goals last year. It would be interesting to look at him further as he could be a hidden gem as a pure striker.
An interesting characteristic in a forward is his ability to be an effective target man and receive direct passes. To assess this, we have aerial duels per 90 on the y-axis and the success rate in those duels on the x-axis. To complement this information, the colour shows the number of long passes received by each player.
Mohamed Abdelmaguid (27, Egypt) is the first player we highlight here. Playing for Entag El Harby, who got relegated from the Egyptian Premier League, Abdelmaguid got involved in 15.37 aerial duels per 90 and won 51.11% of them. With 3.42 received long passes per 90, he also stands out there. He registered seven goals and two assists for a struggling team so could be an interesting gamble for a club looking for a cheap target man.
Close to Abdelmaguid we find Mame Gueye (23, Senegal). Standing at 1.94m / 6’4’’, Gueye got into 15.48 aerial duels per 90 and won 50.62% of them, receiving 3.88 long passes per 90. A product of the Génération Foot Academy like Liverpool’s Sadio Mane or the new Tottenham’s signing Pape Sarr, Gueye is one to follow given his size and if he starts scoring some goals he will surely attract interest from Europe.
Another very interesting one is Mohamed Anis Saltou (29, Libya), who plays for FUS Rabat in Morocco. Saltou won 52.94% of his 13.52 aerial duels per 90, mostly thanks to his 1.97m / 6’6’’. An experienced player with 17 caps (5 goals), Saltou is probably too old to seek a move to a higher level but would surely cause problems with his size at almost any level.
Lastly, Aimen Mahious (23, Algeria) also deserves recognition. The USM Alger striker wins 60.38% of his 7.3 aerials per 90 and his team looks to play directly to him, receiving 3.31 long passes per 90. Mahious scored just 3 goals in the last year but has a total of 11 in 54 appearances in the Algerian Ligue 1. Part of Algeria U21 and U23 squads and with good performances in the CAF Champions League (four goals in eight games), he’s one to follow.
Moving more into second-line players, the ability to produce goals is a key one. In this section of the data analysis, we look at expected assists (xA) per 90 in the x-axis and key passes per 90 in the y-axis. The colour of the dots shows the number of crosses attempted per 90, which helps us understand how the players create chances.
Houssam Ghacha (25, Algeria) is the player with the most key passes among the forwards in the top-5 African leagues with 1.27 per 90. Combining that with his 3.12 crosses per 90, Ghacha registered 0.25 xA per 90 playing for ES Sétif in the Algerian Ligue 1, which earned him a move to the Turkish Süper Lig aide Antalyaspor. Ghacha has only played one match with his national team and this movement to Turkey should put him on the radar of his country.
Abdessamad El Mobaraky (40, Morocco) stands out as the player with the highest xA with 0.34 per 90, which is especially impressive considering he played for the relegated side Renaissance Zemamra in Morocco. El Mobaraky registered these statistics with 0.78 key passes and 2.85 crosses per 90. At 40 and with almost 200 games and 80 goal contributions in the Moroccan league, El Mobaraky is very unlikely to move but deserves recognition as one of the most creative players in Africa.
Thembinkosi Lorch (28, South Africa) also deserves a special mention. The small Orlando Pirates’ winger had 0.29 xA per 90 and combined a high amount of crosses (3.55 per 90) with lots of key passes (0.94 per 90) to become one of the most creative wingers in Africa. If he hasn’t already left his country he’s unlikely to do now but Lorch is a great winger who can create lots of very good chances with his right foot.
There are lots of interesting players here but we want to highlight these:
Abdelilah Hafidi (29, Morocco), an attacking midfielder who had 0.3 xA per 90, mostly through key passes (1.08 per 90). With over 200 games and almost 100 goal contributions in the Moroccan league, Hafidi is an established player at Raja Casablanca, the only club he has played in. He has eight caps with Morocco but hasn’t been part of their squad since 2019.
Khama Billiat (31, Zimbabwe), a player who can play all around the second line of the attack and registered 0.3 xA per 90, with a good balance between key passes (0.88 per 90) and crosses (2.82 per 90). Billiat is a well-known name in South Africa, where he plays for Kaizer Chiefs and was the Player of the Season in 2016. He’s also one of the best players in Zimbabwe with 41 caps and 15 goals.
Shikabala (35, Egypt), an attacking midfielder who captains Zamalek and had 0.27 xA per 90, mostly through key passes (0.98 per 90). Shikabala has experienced foreign football in the past with PAOK, Sporting CP, Al Wasl, Al Raed and Apollon Smyrnis and was an important part of the Egyptian national team (32 caps) in the past and now seems to be spending the last years of his career at home.
Afsha (25, Egypt), an attacking midfielder at Al Ahly and Egypt (10 caps) who registered 0.24 xA and 0.97 key passes per 90. Afsha is one of the most valuable players in the Egyptian Premier League and he’s at a perfect age to move to a higher level.
Adam Ennaffati (27, Morocco), who registered 0.2 xA per 90 and was one of the players with the most crosses with 4.16 per 90 playing for Mouloudia d’Oujda in Morocco. His performances earned him a move to Emirates Club in the UAE. He made his debut for Morocco but hasn’t returned to the national team since then.
Ismail El Haddad (31, Morocco), with 0.22 xA per 90, mostly through crosses (4.09 per 90) playing for Wydad Casablanca. In January, he signed for Al Khor in Qatar. He has 12 caps for Morocco but hasn’t been in the national team for some time now.
Zwane and Sirino, who were already highlighted, stand out here too with 0.22 and 0.26 xA per 90 respectively. Zwane rarely crosses while Sirino appears more on the wing and has 2.85 crosses per 90.
Apart from directly assisting goals, getting the ball into dangerous positions and breaking lines is another important aspect of a forward’s game. Here we see deep completions per 90 on the y-axis (non-cross passes that are targeted to the zone within 20 metres of the opponent’s goal) and passes to the penalty area on the x-axis. The colour of the dots shows progressive passes per 90 (a forward pass that attempts to advance a team significantly closer to the opponent’s goal).
Saleh Gomaa (28, Egypt) is the first player we highlight here. Playing for Al Ahly and Cleopatra FC in his country, Gomaa registered 6.81 passes to the penalty area, 13.69 progressive passes and 2.38 deep completions per 90. All this led to a very good 0.21 xA per 90, making him one of the most creative passers in Africa. Gomaa has 14 caps to his name but hasn’t been with the national team since 2017. Currently suffering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, it seems unlikely that he moves to a high level now, especially considering he has already experienced foreign football with Nacional in Portugal and Al-Faisaly Harmah in Saudi Arabia.
The other four highlighted players have already been mentioned in this data analysis:
Sirino is great at getting the ball into dangerous areas with 3.63 deep completions, 5.88 passes into the box and 8.55 progressive passes per 90.
Lorch also gets the ball into the box but not into such dangerous positions with 2.56 deep completions, 5.95 passes into the box and 8.41 progressive passes per 90.
Shikabala ranks similar to Lorch with 2.74 deep completions, 5.54 passes into the box and 7.3 progressive passes per 90.
Afsha doesn’t put the ball in the box as often but still passes to very dangerous positions with 2.82 deep completions, 4.61 passes into the box and 7.72 progressive passes per 90.
Finally, Zwane stands out in deep completions with 3.2 per 90 but is just ok in progressive passes (6.08 per 90) and passes into the box (3.31 per 90).
Finally, we have a look at the players’ ability to get past rivals and create things by themselves. On the x-axis, we have completed dribbles per 90 and on the y-axis, progressive runs per 90 (a continuous ball control by one player attempting to draw the team significantly closer to the opponent goal). The colour shows offensive duels won per 90.
With 5.12 completed dribbles per 90, Ismail Saadi (24, Algeria) is the standout player here. The former ES Sétif who recently signed for JS Saoura (both in the Algerian Ligue 1) completes 54.79% of the 9.35 dribbles he attempts per 90 and also has 2.56 progressive runs per 90. As it’s normal for players who repeatedly try to get past rivals, Saadi wins lots of offensive duels (8.07 per 90). Part of Algeria U23 in the past, Saadi didn’t enjoy a lot of playing time at ES Sétif and his recent transfer seems a great opportunity for him to get his career back on track.
With similar statistics to Saadi, we find Ahmed Afifi (28, Egypt), who plays for the recently relegated Entag El Harby in Egypt. Afifi completes 4.3 dribbles (50.44% of the 8.53 he attempts per 90) and 2.34 progressive runs per 90. He wins 8.08 offensive duels per 90 too, more than any other forward in the leagues we’re considering. Afifi has over 100 appearances in the Egyptian Premier League but has struggled to produce goals with just 12 goal contributions in his career. However, a player capable of beating rivals and running with the ball could be very useful for lots of clubs and even more considering his team got relegated and he could be available for a cut-price.
With much more ability to progress, we find Abderrahim Deghmoum (22, Algeria), who plays for ES Sétif in Algeria. Deghmoum completes 4.06 dribbles per 90 (59.63% of the 6.81 he attempts) and is spectacular at progressing with the ball at his feet with 3.25 progressive runs per 90. Despite his young age, Deghmoum has already played more than 50 games in the Algerian Ligue 1 and has contributed five goals and seven assists. Part of the Algeria U23 squad, a lot is expected from the young forward.
As a very direct runner, we find Billel El Mammeri (30, Algeria), who plays for AS Aïn M’lila, recently relegated from the Algerian Ligue 1. El Mammeri completes more progressive runs than anyone else with 3.31 per 90 and does it with just 2.52 completed dribbles per 90 (42.22% of the 5.96 he attempts), meaning he runs forward without beating any rival very often, most probably in transitions. He hasn’t played a lot at the highest level in Algeria but has some impressive statistics so he could be someone to check for teams looking for someone capable of running with the ball.
The other two highlighted players have already been mentioned before. El Mobaraky is an excellent dribbler, completing 4.69 dribbles per 90 (59.57% of the 7.88 he attempts per 90). Playing in a more central role, he doesn’t progress that much (just 2.18 progressive runs per 90) and considering he’s 40, we could assume he’s very skilled in tight spaces rather than a very quick player. Capable of dribbling and with excellent vision to assist, El Mobaraky is a very talented veteran.
The other one is Ghacha. With 3.57 completed dribbles (47.88% of the7.46 he attempts per 90) and 3.03 progressive runs per 90, the new Antalyaspor winger has everything a wide player needs considering he also has 0.25 xA per 90 and is the player with the most key passes per 90 in this analysis. He has already earned a move to a higher level and it will be interesting to follow his progress in Turkey.
Lots of interesting players have emerged from this analysis, going from young promising players like Abderrahim Deghmoum to seasoned veterans who still have it like Abdessamad El Mobaraky.
Looking at players who are still in Africa and entering their peak years is a very interesting strategy as not every good player moves to Europe at a very young age. By looking at older players who are performing very well, European clubs could find some bargains that are overlooked by others who simply ignore players in Africa after they reach a certain age.