Finding another Atal: the best full-backs in the top-5 African leagues – data analysis
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 example being Youcef Atal, currently at Nice in the French Ligue 1 and related to Chelsea or Real Madrid recently. Atal (25, Algeria) started his career at Paradou AC in his country before moving to Belgium with Kortrijk and then to Nice. He has played for Algeria 20 times and was part of the team that won the African Cup of Nations in 2019.
We have taken the statistics from Wyscout and our sample includes every full-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.
In this first section of the data analysis, we’ll look at the successful offensive (x-axis) and defensive (y-axis) actions per 90. The colour of the dots represents what percentage of successful actions is attacking actions. This way, we’ll get some names that stand out in defence, in attack, or both ways.
The most offensive-minded full-back in our analysis is Alaa Salama (30, Egypt), last season at Entag El Harby. Salama had the most successful defensive actions per 90 with 5.21, which represented 42.39% of his total successful actions. The right-back has always played in Egypt but hasn’t reached a top club or the national team and at his age, it seems difficult for him to do it.
Opposite to Salama, we find Khalil Khennab (32, Algeria) of JSM Skikda. In only his second season in the Algerian top-flight, Khennab averaged 14.52 successful defensive actions per 90 (more than anyone else), representing 91.38% of his successful actions. A veteran and very defensive-minded left-back who can also play as a central defender, Khennab couldn’t avoid his team relegation from the Algerian Ligue 1.
In a more balanced role, we have Billal Boukarroum (27, Algeria) of US Biskra. Boukarroum was among the best both for successful defensive and offensive actions per 9o with 12.14 and 4.29 per 90 respectively. Successful attacking actions represented 26.11% of his total successful actions, which is slightly above average. The right-back has only played two seasons in the Algerian Ligue 1 and still needs to show more to deserve a move to a higher level at his age.
Looking at U23 players, Akram Tawfik (23, Egypt) of Al Ahly was the most interesting one. Tawfik was quite defensive-minded with his 12.76 successful defensive actions per 90 representing 80.56% of his total successful actions. Anyway, he was in the top 25% for successful offensive actions per 90 too with 3.08. Young but already playing for the biggest team in his country and with 4 senior caps to his name, the right-back (can also play as a defensive midfielder) is one of the most interesting players in Africa at the moment.
Other interesting players are the following:
Bassem Triki (27, Tunisia) of AS Soliman. The right-back, who can also play as a defensive midfielder, is second in successful defensive actions per 90 with 14.31, representing 86.67% of his total successful actions. He has always played in Tunisia and hasn’t played for the national team.
Amir Belaïli (30, Algeria) of AS Aïn M’lila last season. The right-back, who can also play higher up the pitch, was second in successful attacking actions per 90 with 4.79 per 90 but still above average in successful defensive actions with 9.2 per 90. Despite having over 200 appearances in the Algerian Ligue 1, Belaïli hasn’t played abroad or for the national team but his performances last season were enough to sign for CS Constantine despite the relegation of his team.
Hesham Salah (24, Egypt) of Al Ittihad Alexandria. Salah had the third-most successful attacking actions per 90 with 4.51 but was in the top 25% for successful defensive actions too with 10.77 per 90. With 29.52% of his successful actions being offensive, he’s on the attacking-minded side of the spectrum. Last season was the right-back’s first in the Egyptian Premier League and he needs to grow from there before considering a move abroad.
Ball progression: passes & carries
Progressing the ball has become an important part of every full-back’s game. Here, we have progressive runs per 90 in the y-axis and progressive passes per 90 in the x-axis (the colour shows the accuracy of these passes).
The most complete full-back here is Philani Zulu (29, South Africa), who has just signed for AmaZulu from Kaizer Chiefs. Zulu attempted 12.88 progressive passes and completed 2.19 progressive runs per 90. On top of that, he often tried to play forward, completing 25.48 progressive passes every 100 attempted passes. The left-back has always played in South Africa and has 145 games in the DStv Premiership so far in his career.
Focusing on those full-backs capable of running with the ball at their feet, Billel Bouzid (24, Algeria) of RC Rélizane is the one who stands out. He’s the full-back with the most progressive runs in the top-5 African leagues with 3.06 per 90. He’s poor in progressive passes but makes up for it by advancing by himself. An academy product of his current club, Bouzid has only played 36 games so far in the Algerian Ligue 1 and is still waiting for an opportunity at a higher level.
On the other side, Ali Maâloul (31, Tunisia) of Al Ahly is the full-back with the most progressive passes per 90 with 14.22. For every 100 passes Maâloul attempts, 22.74 are successful progressive passes, which is above average, and he’s close to the mean in progressive runs with 1.08 per 90. The left-back has had a very successful career with 13 trophies in Africa, including two CAF Champions League (both with Al Ahly) and a CAF Confederation Cup with CS Sfaxien. He has 68 caps for Tunisia and even was the top scorer of the Tunisian league in the 2015/16 season, which earned him a move to Al Ahly in Egypt.
There weren’t any U23 players worth highlighting in this section but these ones deserve a mention:
Hesham Salah (24, Egypt) of Al Ittihad Alexandria. Salah, who also appeared in the previous section as an offensive-minded but still solid full-back, stands out here in his progressive passes with 13.22 per 90. He completes 30.38 progressive passes every 100 passes, which is the highest in our sample, and is also in the top 25% for progressive runs with 1.68 per 90.
Luckyboy Mokoena (27, South Africa) of TS Galaxy. The right-back has similar numbers to Salah in progressive passes with 13.28 per 90 and his successful one representing 26.94% of his total passes. He’s quite good in progressive runs too with 1.96 per 90. The former South Africa U20 international has played all his career in South Africa, the last four in the top tier after six seasons in the second division.
Abdallah Gomaa (25, Egypt) of Zamalek. The left-back is among the best in progressive runs with 2.5 per 90 and ranks well in progressive passes per 90 with 9.94, even if it’s because he gets the ball a lot and his successful progressive passes only represent 16.94% of his total passes. Apart from a short period at Union Berlin in the 2. Bundesliga when he was 18, Gomaa has always played in Egypt and is a very successful player there, having won six trophies with Zamalek and getting 5 senior caps.
Ahmed Tawfik (29, Egypt) of Pyramids. Not to be mistaken for his brother Akram (highlighted in the previous section), Ahmed Tawfik had a similar profile to Gomaa with 2.57 progressive runs and 9.73 progressive passes per 90. The right-back, who has always played in his country, has won six trophies in Egypt and played three times with the national team.
Creating chances: assists & crosses
In this section, we’re covering how the full-backs contribute higher up the pitch. On the x-axis, we have expected assists (xA) per 90 and on the y-axis, shot assists per 90. The colour shows how many crosses each player completes per 90.
Ali Maâloul (31, Tunisia) of Al Ahly is the best player here. Already highlighted as the full-back with the most progressive passes per 90, Maâloul also has the most xA (0.31 per 90), shot assists (2.31 per 90) and completed crosses (2.46 per 90). He also stands out in other statistics we haven’t shown here, being the full-back with the most touches in the box (2.38 per 90), attempted crosses (2.46 per 90) and deep completions (1.54 per 90). Maâloul still has it despite his age and could probably play at a higher level but his age and the salary attached to it are a big obstacle for a move abroad.
There aren’t any excellent U23 players here but we still want to mention Adem Taous (21, Tunisia) of Club Africain. The left-back had 0.12 xA and 0.96 shot assist per 90, both in the top 25% in our sample. He was average at crossing and completed 1.11 crosses per 90, more because of his insistence (3.4 crosses per 90, top 25%) than of his accuracy (32.61%, close to the average). Despite his young age, Taous has already played 47 games for his club and is adapting to a more defensive position after starting his career as a winger so he’s expected to be better and better in the following years.
Other interesting players who form the group below Maâloul are these four:
Aubrey Modiba (26, South Africa) of Mamelodi Sundowns. The left-back averaged 1.9 shot assists and 0.24 xA per 90, completing 1.32 crosses per 90. Modiba has always played in South Africa winning the league and both cups once and has seven caps for his country.
Mohamed Chibi (28, Morocco), recently signed by FAR Rabat from Ittihad Tanger. The right-back averaged 0.26 xA from his 1.61 completed crosses and 1.78 shot assists per 90. Having already played for nine teams in Morocco (over 150 matches in the Botola Pro), Chibi is a solid full-back at this level.
Amr El Halwani (36, Egypt) of Aswan SC. The left-back had 0.25 xA per 90 from his 1.7 shot assists. He doesn’t need to cross to assist his teammates and averaged just 0.95 successful crosses per 90. El Halwani moved to Egypt when he was just 21 and spent four years there between the first and second divisions before returning to Egypt. Back in his country, he has played for three teams, including nine years at Enppi, when he got his only senior cap. Last season he couldn’t avoid Aswan’s relegation and at his age, he may stay there to finish his career.
Amr El Saadawy (24, Egypt) of El Gouna. The former Egypt U23 left-back achieved 0.23 xA from his 1.8 shot assists per 90. Like El Halwani, he didn’t cross a lot (just 1.13 successful crosses per 90). Still quite young, El Saadawy couldn’t make it at Al Ahly after coming through their academy but is starting to make a name for himself in the Egyptian Premier League.
General defending: positioning & recoveries
As a first approach to the defensive side of the game, we’re using defensive duels won per 90 on the y-axis and possession-adjusted interceptions per 90 on the x-axis. The colour shows the total successful defensive actions per 90.
Here, it’s Bassem Triki (27, Tunisia) of AS Soliman who looks like the best defensive full-back. The right-back is second in the three statistics we’re considering here with 6.88 won defensive duels, 10.68 possession-adjusted interceptions and 14.31 successful defensive actions per 90. A very solid and defensively complete player, Triki is very reliable at the back but should contribute some more in attack to be attractive to higher-level clubs.
As a positive surprise, three U23 players are among the best defenders:
Marwane Khelif (21, Algeria) of JS Saoura. The left-back is among the best in defensive duels won per 90 with 6.3 while also ranking near the top in successful defensive actions (13.55 per 90) and possession-adjusted interceptions (8.54 per 90). Khelif has just played 20 games in the Algerian Ligue 1 and his future seems bright as a defensively solid full-back.
Riyaaz Ismail (23, South Africa) of Maritzburg United FC. The left-back, who can also play as a centre-back given his size (1.86m / 6’1’’), excelled in his defensive positioning, registering the most possession-adjusted interceptions with 11.52 per 90. He was also in the top 25% for defensive duels won per 90 with 4.72 and very close to the top in successful defensive actions with 14 per 90. The former South Africa U17 and U20 international has only played 23 games in the DStv Premiership so far after starting his career in the second division. His progression will surely attract interest and it remains to be seen if he’s better as a full-back or as a centre-back.
Akram Tawfik (23, Egypt) of Al Ahly appears here too. No one wins more defensive duels than him (6.92 per 90) and he’s also close to the top in successful defensive actions (12.76 per 90). Despite being just average in possession-adjusted interceptions (6.47 per 90), Akram Tawfik is still a very interesting one as he was in the top 25% for successful offensive actions per 90 too as we saw in the first section of this data analysis.
For older players, these two deserve a mention too:
Ayoub Tlili (26, Tunisia) of Union Sportive de Ben Guerdane. The right-back excelled in all the three metrics we considered with 5.51 defensive duels won, 9.83 possession-adjusted interceptions and 12.02 successful defensive actions per 90. At 26, Tlili has good experience in the Tunisian Ligue 1 with almost 90 appearances but has never played abroad or been part of the national team so he still needs to show more.
Khalil Khennab (32, Algeria) of JSM Skikda. The left-back, who can also play as a centre-back or defensive midfielder, was also highlighted as one of the players with the most successful defensive actions (14.52 per 90). He also shows great positioning with his 10.63 possession-adjusted interceptions per 90 (second-most) and is powerful in defensive duels, winning 6.44 per 90 (third-most).
Ground & air duels
Another interesting aspect of defending is winning duels. IN this part, we’re looking only at the success rate in aerial (y-axis) and defensive (x-axis) duels. The colour shows the success rate in all duels, including offensive duels too, as a form of showing the physicality and also the skill to win duels in general.
The first highlighted player here is Khalil Sassi (27, Tunisia) of Club Athlétique Bizertin. The left-back, who can also play as a centre-back, is the best full-back in aerial duels with a winning rate of 79.41% and is also very close to the top in defensive duels, winning 70.83% of them. Considering all duels, Sassi is the best full-back here, winning 67.19% of them. At 27, Sassi has already played for seven clubs in Tunisia but last season was his first back in the Ligue 1 after three seasons in the second division. He looks like a solid physical profile.
The best in defensive duels was Luckyboy Mokoena (27, South Africa) of TS Galaxy. We already highlighted him as one of the best ball progressors so it’s very interesting to see he’s also great at defending, winning 81.25% of his defensive duels. Despite not being small (1.80m / 5’11’’), he’s not especially good in the air and wins just 43.75% of his aerials. His success rate in all duels is still above average (54.88%). Capable in duels and also good at breaking lines, Mokoena should be paid some attention.
Between the previous two, we find Toufik Zeghdane (29, France/Algeria), who’s a free agent after leaving the relegated CA Bordj Bou Arreridj. The French-born left-back wins 73.82% of his defensive duels (second-best) and 66.67% of his aerial duels. Zeghdane came through Sedan’s academy but has played in Algeria since he was 21 and for most of his career, except two seasons he spent back at Sedan between 2017 and 2019. He won the Algerian cup twice with MC Alger and was the best young player in the Algerian Ligue 1 in 2014 so he’s an interesting market opportunity as he’s free at the moment.
Three U23 players stand out here:
Ahmed Eid (20, Egypt) of Zamalek last season and now on loan at Tala’ea El Gaish. The right-back was great in the air, winning 73.33% of his aerial duels and was also among the best in defensive duels, winning 65% of them. Born in 2001, he has only played 16 games in the Egyptian Premier League and another 5 in the CAF Champions League. Former U19, U20 and U23 international, Eid will surely benefit from his loan this season and will be interesting to follow.
Mostafa Dowidar (22, Egypt) of Enppi SC. Right-footed but playing more on the left side, Dowidar is excellent in defensive duels, winning 73.31% of them. His small size (1.70m / 5’7’’) makes him struggle in the air but he still wins a decent 44.26% of his aerials. With 50 appearances so far in the Egyptian Premier League and having been part of the Egypt U20 team, Dowidar is one to watch this season.
Moufid Mohamed (21, Morocco) of FAR Rabat. The right-back is quite balanced here, winning 68.84% of his defensive duels and 63.16% of his aerial duels despite being small at 1.72m / 5’7’’. Despite his young age, he has already played 41 games for FAR Rabat and even provided six assists, showing he can contribute to the attack too. Not capped at any level, he’s someone to consider when looking for young and solid full-backs.
Players like Luckyboy Mokoena (27, TS Galaxy & South Africa), Akram Tawfik (23, Al Ahly & Egypt) or Maâloul (31, Al Ahly & Tunisia) are some of the ones who stand out in this data analysis but every player we’ve mentioned has something special and is worth checking.
This data analysis proves there’re still plenty of talents waiting to be discovered in the top-5 leagues in Africa and using statistics and data to unearth them could be a good start for clubs at a higher level.