CAF Champions League 2020/21: finding the best players in Africa – data analysis
African club football is still an unknown world for most football fans and analysts. The lack of quality footage and data for most of the local leagues makes it difficult to follow and analyze it. Even considering African football as a single identity is quite misleading as differences across the 54 countries in the continent are huge in style, resources and quality.
The CAF Champions League, the highest-level continental competition in Africa, is the best chance we have to see the top teams of every country play each other with quality footage and data. Ahead of the final on Saturday between Kaizer Chiefs and Al-Ahly, we’ve looked at the data to highlight some interesting names in this edition of the tournament.
All the data is taken from InStat and we have only considered players who have played at least 270 minutes.
Starting with the most important data, we’ll have a look at the goal-scoring ability of the players in the CAF Champions League. Here, we have only considered midfielders and forwards and have looked at their expected goals (xG) per 90 in the y-axis and their scored goals per 90 in the x-axis. The colour of the dots shows the total number of goals scored, with dark green being the highest.
The clear standout player here is Firas Chaouat. The 25-year-old Tunisian striker played four games in the CAF Champions League this season with CS Sfaxien and scored five goals. He leads the ranking in goals per 90 with 1.19 and is second in xG with 0.77 per 90, an overperformance of 54.5%. He scored these goals by shooting 3.8 times per 90, 69% of the time on target. Chaouat, who has 12 caps to his name for Tunisia, has only played abroad for 10 months in Saudi Arabia and he didn’t really work out there but looking at his form this season, it could be tempting for foreign clubs to give him another chance.
One that could have done much more but deserves credit is Al Ahly’s Kahrabi. The 27-year-old Egyptian striker had the highest xG per 90 with 0.79 but only managed to score 0.55 goals per 90 and a total of two in the tournament. He has had a very successful career so far, getting 27 caps with Egypt and playing in Portugal, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia apart from Egypt. At his age, he can still be an important player but seems to have had a bad spell in front of goal.
The top scorer in the tournament for sure deserved a mention too. At 30, the Algerian Amir Sayoud has scored 8 goals for CR Belouizdad, which is 0.77 goals per 90. He overperformed his 0.45 xG per 90 by 71%, a massive streak in front of goal. Sayoud has played and won trophies in Tunisia, Algeria and Bulgaria and also enjoyed less successful spells in Tunisia, UAE and Kuwait.
With less effectiveness but also great figures, Mohamed Sherif from Al Ahly also stands out. The Egyptian striker scored 0.66 goals from the same xG to a total of 5 goals. Sherif made his debut with Egypt less than a year ago and has two goals and one assist in his first three caps. With a goal every 229 minutes in his career in the Egyptian Premier League so far (34 goals in 123 appearances), it could be a good time for good teams at a higher level to look at him.
Finally, an honourable mention goes to Mohamed Ali Ben Romdhane. The 21-year-old Tunisian central midfielder has managed to score 5 goals in the tournament (0.5 goals from 0.19 xG per 90) playing for Esperance Tunis. At his young age and not being a forward those are fantastic figures. He already has six caps for Tunisia and his future looks bright.
As important as scoring the chances is creating them and in this section of the data analysis we’ll have a look at the players who have created the most for their teammates in the CAF Champions League 2020/21.
Here, we have looked at players in every position except centre-back. The y-axis shows the expected assists (xA) per 90 and the x-axis, the assists per 90. The colour shows the total number of assists with dark green being the highest.
Three players dominate the rest here. First, we have Themba Zwane, a 31-year-old winger playing for Mamelodi Sundowns in South Africa. The South African international (27 caps) has 0.71 assists per 90, by some distance the most in the tournament and amounting to 3 assists in total. His teammates have finished better than expected but he still has a very good 0.44 xA per 90 to his name. Zwane has always played in his home country and has over 300 games and 100 goal contributions in his professional career, five South African Leagues and one CAF Champions League. Undoubtedly, one of the best players in the continent.
Creating even more but unlucky with his teammates’ finishing we find Tony Edjomariegwe, a 28-year-old Nigerian winger who plays for Al Merreikh Omdurman in Sudan. He has the highest xA per 90 with 0.69 but that only translated into 0.23 assists per 90 and just one assist in total. Edjomariegwe has never left Africa but has been a very good player in Nigeria, Morocco and now Sudan and his recent performances prove he’s still a very important player at a continental level.
In a middle ground between the previous two, we find the 29-year-old South African left-back Lyle Lakay, who plays for Mamelodi Sundowns too. From the full-back position, he has generated 0.44 assists from 0.48 expected assists per 90, amounting to a total of three. Despite having spent all his career in South Africa and winning the league three times, Lakay only has one cap to his name and it was in November 2020. Anyway, an excellent tournament for the wing-back who still has time to add the precious CAF Champions League trophy to his cabinet.
The last player we’re highlighting here is Afsha, a 25-year-old attacking midfielder playing for Al Ahly in Egypt. He has the most assists in the tournament with five (0.47 per 90) from 0.37 xA per 90. The small playmaker has always played in Egypt but has moved between big clubs and has nine caps to his name. Knowing the Egyptian players take some time to leave their country, he’s still in a good age to take the next step and prove himself at a good European club.
Dribbling metrics don’t automatically highlight great players but they’re very telling about that specific ability. Dribbling too much can sometimes be a problem or a lack of other solutions but still shows that a player can create things by himself and consistently beat rivals.
For this section of the data analysis, we’ve looked at players in all positions except centre-back and defensive midfielder. In the y-axis, we see the dribbling completion percentage and in the x-axis, the number of attempted dribbles per 90. The colour shows the total number of completed dribbles per 90.
The first name we highlight here is Tony Edjomariegwe, who was also the player with the most xA in the tournament. The Nigerian winger attempts 10 dribbles per 90 (most in the tournament) and completes an above-average 62% of them. We have already seen that he translates all this dribbling into creating chances and with 0.32 xG per 90 he’s also in the top 25% of attacking players there. A very interesting player capable of cresting by himself and both for himself and others.
The next player that stands out is Jesus Ducapel Moloko, a 23-year-old winger who plays for AS Vita Club in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He’s fifth in dribbles per 90 with 7 and in the top 25% for success rate with 72%. Moloko has a lot of experience in African clubs competitions but hasn’t left his country yet so could be an interesting one to keep an eye on as he also has 0.25 xA per 90.
With the same dribbles attempted as Moloko but a lower completion rate of 53% we find Isaac Tshibangu. He also has 0.18 xG per 90, which is quite good for a winger of his age. We highlight him because he has recently signed for Anderlecht from TP Mazembe and at 18 he was one of the hottest prospects still playing in Africa. It will be very interesting to see how he does in Belgium.
Zemanga Soze (21, AS Vita Club) and Aymane El Hassouni (26, Wydad Casablanca) are the other two highlighted players. They’re both in the top 25% both for dribbles attempted and completion and among the most creative and skilled players in individual duels in the tournament.
Playmaking and controlling the midfield
Moving into more specific positions, we have looked at who are the most reliable central and defensive midfielders on the ball. For that, we have compared the pass completion percentage (y-axis) with the number of passes attempted per 90 (x-axis). To add a little bit of context, the colour represents the number of chances created per 90 so we can check if any player is capable of being reliable and creative with his passing.
The standout player here is the 24-year-old Mamelodi Sundowns central midfielder Rivaldo Coetzee. The South African playmaker has the highest passing accuracy among central midfielders in the CAF Champions League with 94% and is second in passes per 90 with 76. Keeping the attacks fluid from the back and ensuring his team dominates possession, Coetzee is already a well-known figure in South African football and has 22 caps to his name. Indeed, he doesn’t create chances (just 0.33 per 90) but his contribution in possession is vital for the ‘The Brazilians’ and despite not being a very physical player, he manages to recover 8 balls per 90, one of the highest figures in the tournament.
In a similar position is the 32-year-old Egyptian playmaker Tarek Hamed, who plays for Zamalek. With 69 passes per 90 and an accuracy of 90%, he’s one of the most reliable players in the tournament on the ball and like Coetzee, he doesn’t create chances. Hamed has played for Egypt 46 times since his international debut under the current Los Angeles FC coach in the MLS Bob Bradley and is one of the most recognizable names in Egyptian and African football.
We also want to highlight two players who are reliable passers but also create chances, a rare combination. First, we find Zemanga Soze again. Apart from being a fantastic dribbler, Soze has a passing accuracy of 90% and gets involved in an above-average 42 passes per 90. On top of that, he creates 0.88 chances per 90. All this means the 21-year-old midfielder is very complete and one to be tracked for sure and it’s no surprise that TP Mazembe, RD Congo’s biggest club, have signed him this summer.
The second one is Larbi Tabti, a 28-year-old midfielder playing for CR Belouizdad. He’s involved a lot in the attacks with 65 passes per 90, keeps an above-average accuracy of 85% and creates lots of chances with 1.27 per 90. Combining a high pass completion with the ability to create chances means he makes good decisions on the ball and has the quality to execute them. Despite having won the Algerian league and cup, Tabti has never played for the Desert Warriors and is still waiting for his first senior cap.
Winning the ball back
Moving into the defensive side of the game, we’ll now see which players are more involved and have more ability at recovering the ball. We have compared defensive challenges won per 90 (y-axis) with tackles won per 90 (x-axis), adding more information with the total number of recoveries per 90 represented in the colour. For this section of the analysis, we have excluded centre-backs as they’ll have their own separate section and attacking players.
Here we start with the most recoveries per 90 in the CAF Champions League: Omar Arjoune (25, Raja Casablanca). The Moroccan has been huge in midfield and no one gets close to his 11 recoveries per 90. He’s excellent in defensive duels, winning 7.02 per 90, and also in tackles, winning 3.47 per 90. He’s decent on the ball with a passing accuracy of 82%, so can recover and keep the attacks going. He was an important player for the youth national teams of Morocco but is still waiting for a senior cap.
As the best tackler in the tournament, we find Akram Tawfik (23, Al Ahly). The Egyptian defensive midfielder has more successful tackles per 90 than everyone else with 4.8 and also ranks third in defensive challenges won per 90 with 7.32. This leads to a very good figure of 7 recoveries per 90. Currently part of Egypt U23, Tawfik has been called with the senior national team and has five trophies to his name despite his young age: two Egyptian leagues, two Egyptian cups and a U23 Africa Cup. His future seems bright and should be monitored closely by teams in Europe.
Looking at the defensive duels won, Abdelilah Madkour (21, Raja Casablanca) is the standout player. The young Moroccan right-back wins 9 defensive challenges per 90 and also 3.67 tackles. However, he’s not among the players with the most recoveries, probably because of his position on the pitch (full-backs don’t make as many interceptions as players playing more centrally). In attack, he averages 1.14 key passes per 90, which is in the top 15% of all field players. He has never been part of the Moroccan national teams but his stats in the CAF Champions League suggest he’s a special right-back worth considering.
Lastly, we’ll have a look at which centre-backs dominate their rivals in individual duels and can command the backline. In the y-axis, we have shown the success rate in aerial duels and in the x-axis, in defensive challenges. The colour represents the percentage of tackles won.
Mohamed Ali Yacoubi is the first name that stands out in this graph. The 30-year-old centre-back who plays for Esperance Tunis has the highest air duels winning percentage (86%) and is second in defensive challenges (80%). He also wins 54% of his tackles, which isn’t bad considering he stands at 192 cm / 6’4’’. The Tunisian centre-back has 16 senior caps to his name and has won eight trophies with his current club, including two CAF Champions League. He has also played in Turkey, France and Saudi Arabia and is the most commanding centre-back in the tournament according to the statistics.
The only player better in defensive duels than Yacoubi is Nour Zamen Zammouri (23, CS Sfaxien). Also Tunisian, Zammouri wins 83% of his defensive duels and is still above-average in the air, winning 69% of his duels there. He has won every tackle he has attempted in the tournament, proving he’s the best in ground duels. He has already won two Tunisian cups with his club and despite not having played with the national team at any level, he’s one to watch for bigger clubs in and outside Africa.
The last centre-back worth highlighting because of his age and statistics is Ibrahima Condé (23, Horoya AC). This Guinean centre-back born in 1998 has already played four games with his national team and his data suggests he’s one of the most interesting young players in the tournament. Condé wins 80% of his aerial duels, 74% of his defensive duels and 86% of his tackles, which makes him a very complete and dominating defender. It’s worth noting he’s not playing for a North African club as the other two centre-backs we’ve mentioned so he’s still a relatively hidden gem worth checking.
The youngest player in the tournament: Pedro Francisco
Even if he wasn’t a clear standout player in any of the previous sections of this data analysis, it’s worth having a close look at Pedro Francisco’s data as he’s the youngest player in the tournament with at least 270 minutes played.
Francisco is a 16-year-old (born in 2004) Angolan left-back who plays for Petro Luanda in his home country. He played 767 minutes in this season’s CAF Champions League and registered impressive numbers for his age.
From the full-back position, Francisco attempted 1.76 dribbles per 90, which is in the middle 50% among all the full-backs, wingers, attacking midfielders and forwards in the tournament. That’s good considering his age but his completion is impressive. With a dribbling success rate of 73%, he’s in the top 25% and is one of the most effective dribbles in the tournament. He also wins 67% of his attacking duels, which is also well above average.
His defending is average compared to every other defensive player in the tournament, being above-average in defensive duels won per 90 (66% of his 7 challenges) and slightly below-average in tackles won per 90 (72% of his 2.1 tackles). These are still good figures and with more involvement in defence, he would look even better here.
He also passes the eye test. Francisco looks like a top athlete who wants to get involved in all phases of the game and can keep his high work rate during the 90 minutes. He’s technically sound, enough to take advantage of his physical attributes, and even if he loses focus at some points, he’s aggressive but keeps control of himself.
Pedro Francisco is still more than two years away from turning eighteen and being able to sign for a foreign club so he has plenty of time to develop and show his full potential. It will be very interesting for clubs all around the world to follow his progression to be able to make a decision as soon as he’s available. Coming from a Portuguese-speaking country, it would be no surprise if Portuguese (and even Brazilian) clubs were the most interested in the left-back.
After a glance at data for all positions, we have found some interesting players coming from different parts of the continent and of different ages. It will be very interesting to check their data further and also scout them on video to have a complete picture of their ability.
Africa remains an unexplored continent for most clubs in Europe. Most players coming from there move very early and those who stay in Africa are often overlooked and find it difficult to progress to European football. With more and more footage and data available, this paradigm is changing and it shouldn’t be a surprise if clubs start looking at Africa as a source of relatively cheap high-quality players. Clubs in the EPL and the EFL have it difficult to take African players because of the work permit regulations. On the opposite side, clubs in the MLS or Asia can find here a source of players to buy, develop and improve their level.