AFCON 2021: Seven players who surprised us in Week 1
The African Cup of Nations (AFCON) is always a nice opportunity to watch some of the best players in the world but also to discover players from leagues that are almost impossible to follow not only for the average football fan but also for professional analysts.
With lots of players in the AFCON 2021 still playing in their local leagues or in very small leagues, the tournament is their opportunity to compare themselves to top footballers and prove they can perform at their level and earn a move to a better league either within Africa or outside.
Clubs at every level must be following the tournament closely as there are opportunities for everyone. For example, the highest-paid players in the Ethiopian Premier League reportedly make less than 2,500€ a month so they would be available for almost any professional club in Europe.
In this tactical analysis piece, we have selected seven players still playing in relatively small leagues that have shown a good level in the first week of the AFCON 2021. For each of them, we have provided a scout report and analysis. They’re not the best performers or the best players in the tournament, just players who have performed at a level we didn’t expect.
Mohamed Kamara – 22, Sierra Leone & East End Lions – Goalkeeper
Sierra Leone’s #1 was one of the most talked-about players in the first week of the AFCON 2021. His impressive performances against the defending champions and his heart-warming reaction to receiving the Man of the Match Award have caught the attention of fans and scouts alike and at 22, the game vs Algeria is probably a life-changing one for him. He and the former EPL star Steven Caulker were key in Sierra Leone’s draw.
Kamara (1999) has spent his whole career so far in his country, playing for FC Johansen first and currently for East End Lions. At 22, this is his first major tournament but he has already been capped 10 times and even captained Sierra Leone in a historical 0-0 draw against Nigeria in 2020.
A modern goalkeeper with a very aggressive and proactive positioning. Intercepted many passes outside the box and was also good at claiming and intercepting crosses. Very keen to leave the goal and challenge for the ball outside the box. Standing at 1.87m, he has good size to fight for aerial balls and displayed a tendency to go for them and take risks.
The map above shows Kamara’s interceptions, tackles, defensive and aerial duels during the games. It’s very rare for a goalkeeper to engage in so many actions far from his goal but he was extremely effective, preventing many good chances with his anticipation and determination.
Another strong point of Kamara’s game was his shot-stopping ability. He showed good reflexes to save Algeria’s eight shots on target. He was always well-positioned and showed his agility to save a low shot and his reflexes and quick hands to save a shot that was deflected too. The shots he saved were worth 0.95 xG. Below we can see all the shots in the game.
He wasn’t bad on the ball either. Kamara displayed a good long kick and wanted to play quickly to create dangerous situations on the counterattack.
It was a spectacular and eye-catching performance from the Sierra Leone goalkeeper. He has already got the attention of all the people watching the tournament so his next games will be crucial for him to continue showing he can do it consistently and convince clubs from a higher level to sign him.
Aschalew Tamene – 30, Ethiopia & Fasil Kenema – Centre-back
Ethiopia’s #15 was one of the main reasons why the Walias only conceded once against Cape Verde in their first game and he was also very solid in the first half against Cameroon before the hosts unleashed all their attacking power to win the game 4-1.
The 1991-born right-footed centre-back has always played in his country for Dedebit FC, Saint George SC and now for Fasil Kenema. At 30, he’s unlikely to reach a top league but his performances in his first two AFCON 2021 games have been full of positives that could make him an interesting gamble for a team in a better African league or in a small league in Europe or Asia. He has been capped 59 times for Ethiopia and has also played many games in the CAF Champions League so he’s not an inexperienced player at his age.
Tamene has shown he’s a centre-back who likes to go tight with forwards and doesn’t mind leaving his position to defend wide. He’s intense, strong in duels and quite mobile so he usually succeeds in 1v1 situations. His body position is very good to force rivals wide too and his pace has been good when competing with top players like Toko Ekambi or Aboubakar. Very focused in the game, he’s quick to jump at any loose ball and doesn’t let rivals a second to think. He has had some very good last-second tackles to prevent rivals from scoring.
The map below shows Tamene’s defensive actions in the first two matches of the AFCON 2021. The blue dots represent successful tackles, defensive and aerial duels, while the yellow triangles are interceptions and blocked shots. We see he has had a high success rate in duels and has intervened in crucial zones near the goal.
On the ball, he’s calm to choose the right passing option and feels comfortable carrying the ball forward and attracting pressure before releasing itt. He completed 90% of his 38 passes per 90 in his first two games (97% against Cameroon), showing he’s a reliable centre-back in the build-up and even playing forward and breaking lines on some occasions.
Tamene is doing very well in his first AFCON. His presence at the back has helped Ethiopia massively and without him, they would have surely lost both games by a much bigger margin. Even if he doesn’t earn a move to a bigger league because of his age, performances like these will strengthen his position in Ethiopia’s backline even more for the following games.
Abubeker Nasir – 21, Ethiopia & Ethiopian Coffee – False 9
Abubeker Nasir is an Ethiopian forward born in 2000 who came through the academy at his current club Ethiopia Coffee, where he scored 29 goals last season. Despite his young age, he’s been capped 16 times and scored four goals for Ethiopia so far, starting every official game since his debut in 2019. He’s considered the star of his country and one of the most promising players in East Africa.
Against Cameroon, the match in which he caught my eye, Nasir started as the striker in a 4-3-3 but had the freedom to roam around the final third so his role was more that of a false 9. Always moving to receive the ball and help his teammates. He was excellent at combining in small spaces, completing 92% of the 39 passes he attempted in the game.
The map below shows Nasir’s passes in the game. We can see he was mostly active in the half-spaces, playing short and accurate passes which helped his team progress with 1-2s and establish themselves in the opposition half. He was everyone’s ally and present in most of Ethiopia’s attacks.
By dropping to the second line, Nasir created doubts in the Cameroonian defensive line. When someone stepped out to mark him, the Ethiopian wingers were very intelligent to run in behind and exploit that space. He participated in the first goal providing the second assist and attracting one of the centre-backs so the cross could arrive at his teammate. Nasir was also active with runs in behind and understood when and how to make them to open up spaces for his teammates to advance.
Apart from his movement and combinations, which were the main positives of his performance, Nasir also had opportunities to affect the scoreline. He shot three times amounting to 0.37 xG and assisted one shot too. Going forward, he needs to prove he can score and assist but he had a promising performance to build upon.
Nasir seems to have achieved it all in Ethiopia, captaining his team and winning the Player of the Season, Best Young Player and Golden Boot awards last season in the Ethiopian Premier League. A move to a higher level should be on the cards for the young striker if he wants to continue his development and become one of the best East African players.
Peter Banda – 21, Malawi & Simba – Attacking midfielder
Peter Banda is another East African young player who’s earning his name as one of the most promising players still in the continent. He came through the academy at Griffin Young Stars FC in Malawi before moving to Big Bullets, the current league champions. After two seasons at Big Bullets, Banda earned a loan move to Sheriff in Moldova, where he played 21 games at a good level (five goals and five assists, 1.55 goal contributions per 90) but failed to earn a permanent move. His performances in Moldova caught the attention of Simba SC, one of the two big clubs in Tanzania, signing for them in August 2021. He has been capped 15 for Malawi and even captained them once against Ivory Coast.
Banda impressed playing as the attacking midfielder in Malawi’s 4-2-3-1 tactics against Guinea. A very dynamic midfielder, Banda tries to get on the ball as often as possible and get it forward by getting wide or taking the ball from the defenders. Like Nasir in Ethiopia, he had a lot of successful combinations and also showed quality to get the ball into the box. In this match, Banda created three chances (0.39 xA) and was unlucky not to get an assist that would have meant Malawi’s draw.
The map below shows all Banda’s passes against Guinea. He completed 78% of his 27 passes and he completed three passes into the box. We see he went wide to combine and progress but appeared at the edge of the box in central areas as the attacks advanced.
Another aspect in which Banda stood out is his ball-carrying ability. He’s fast and skilled to run with the ball at his feet, progressing deep into the rival’s half and single-handedly advancing his team’s attacks. He’s also a very agile player to turn and escape pressure.
In general, Banda displayed a direct playing style topped with creativity and skill to beat players. He shot twice but from difficult positions but was still unlucky to leave the game without a goal or an assist.
His defensive work wasn’t especially good though. Once the ball got past him, he didn’t display a lot of intensity to track back and was often isolated from the two central midfielders in Malawi’s 4-2-3-1. As one of the star players in his team, it’s normal he doesn’t have much defensive responsibility but he could still do more.
Banda showed very promising signs of being a great ball progressor both through carries and passes and a creative player in the final third. He has the quality to assist and can also dribble in the final third, which makes him a complete attacking midfielder. If he can get more consistent in his 1v1 duels and add some shots from good positions to his game, he will catch the attention of higher-level clubs.
At 21, Banda is playing for one of the best teams in one of the fastest-growing leagues in Africa like the Tanzanian Premier League. His first experience in Europe wasn’t bad at all but it wasn’t a complete success either so he needs to choose his next steps wisely. He’s still very young and showing the ability and personality to lead his country in the AFCON 2021 so he just has to continue this way and his career will progress for sure.
Other interesting performances
Apart from the four players we highlighted before, we also have short scout reports on another four players that showed interesting details even if not enough to deserve a full-length commentary. It will be interesting to follow these players in the upcoming games to see if they can translate the interesting details displayed into good consistent performances.
These are the other surprising performers from the first week of the AFCON 2021:
Amanuel Yohanis – 22, Ethiopia & Ethiopian Coffee – Central midfielder
Yohanis is a defensive midfielder born in 1999 who plays for Ethiopian Coffee. He has 16 caps to his name so far.
He’s a small (1.72m) but strong defensive midfielder who wins duels easily and covers a lot of ground in front of the defensive line. With his size and playing style, the #8 reminds of Chelsea’s Kanté.
He makes him available in central areas in the build-up and usually plays in two touches, one to control and turn and one to pass, so he rarely sees himself under pressure. His first touch is very good to orient the play forward or to the sides, being a key part of his ability to progress under pressure. He has completed 94% of his 104 attempted passes so far in the AFCON 2021 and can also play forward when given some time.
When his team attacks a low block, he’s usually the deepest midfielder and is always available to recycle possession but also ready to press and prevent rival counter-attacks before they reach Ethiopia’s half. He does well when pressing high with his anticipation and speed.
Yohanis did very well against Cape Verde but his performance dropped against a top rival like Cameroon. He still looks very interesting with his ability to cover space, press and then play quickly and accurately. At his age, he could be an interesting target for teams in secondary leagues and he seems to have the conditions to adapt to a higher-tempo football.
Dawa Hotessa – 25, Ethiopia & Hossana – Winger
Hotessa is a right-footed winger born in 1996 who started his career at Saint George SC before moving to Adama City and then to Hossana, always in the Ethiopian Premier League. He has been capped 16 times and scored his first international goal against Cameroon in the AFCON 2021.
Starting on the left of Ethiopia’s 4-3-3 tactics, Hotessa displayed excellent physical conditions. His pace was difficult to handle for Standard Liège’s Collins Fai and he managed to get away from him time and time again with off-the-ball movements. Ethiopia’s #27 also worked very hard in defence and was often seen supporting Ethiopia’s left-back.
Hotessa’s big moment in the game against Cameroon came in the fourth minute, when he made an excellent run from the left side and into the penalty spot area, anticipating the defender and calmly scoring with a low shot past Ajax’s goalkeeper André Onana.
It was with his movement off the ball that he threatened the most. He usually played short simple passes (86% passing accuracy) and then ran into space to receive the ball back. He was intelligent to finish the attacks in good positions and had a great chance to score again in the 24th minute but he couldn’t get his shot on target after catching a rebound at the edge of the six-yard box.
With a size of around 1.90m, Hotessa offers a great physical presence on the wing. His strength, pace and power are difficult to match even for top-level players. According to transfermarkt, he’s naturally a striker and it’s no surprise he shows scoring instinct in his movements. He’s not a youngster anymore but he still has time to improve as a player and earn an opportunity abroad.
Gerald Takwara – 27, Zimbabwe & Venda – Centre-back
Takwara is a Zimbabwean centre-back born in 1994 who plays for Venda in the South African second division since August 2021. He started his career at Tsholotsho FC and has also played for FC Platinum and Ngezi Platinum in Zimbabwe, with an 18-month spell at Ajax Cape Town between 2018 and 2019. He only has 11 caps to his name but has become an important part of Zimbabwe’s defence in the last few months.
Zimbabwe’s #5 had a great game against Senegal, one of the favourites to win AFCON 2021, and stepped up to the challenge of defending top players like Liverpool’s Sadio Mané. Only an unlucky penalty in the 97th minute denied Zimbabwe the goalless draw and Takwara was an important part of his country’s defensive setup.
Despite looking a little bit heavy, Takwara was quick to cover space to defend passes in behind and proved to be good enough in 1v1 to defend against one of the best dribblers in the world like Mané. His body position was excellent and he didn’t need to have top mobility or acceleration to stop the fast Senegalese forwards.
His discipline to follow strikers and prevent them from having space and time to run at him combined with his strength in duels made him have a great game in terms of individual duels. In general, his positioning was spot on both to anticipate and to run backwards and he wasn’t caught ball-watching or out of position. He was also very proactive in crosses and managed to clear several of them and won most of his aerial duels.
The map of his defensive actions above is worth admiration. He was perfect in the box and intercepted lots of passes and crosses in decisive areas to complete an excellent defensive game.
Many superstars in the AFCON 2021 are having a great tournament so far and also players from second or third-level leagues who are impressing and can be considered a surprise. In this piece, we have highlighted completely unknown players who have stepped up and performed well so far.
They’re worth following during the rest of the tournament and also scouted further in their club games as they can be unearthed gems and prove to be excellent value-for-money signings for clubs who can afford to gamble on them and help them fulfil their potential.