The Africa U-23 Cup of Nations wrapped up in late November, with Egypt narrowly beating Ivory Coast 2-1 in extra time. The tournament saw an abundance of young African stars make their mark for the very first time with the national team, and plenty rose to the occasion despite it being their first appearance on the big stage. The players were also fighting for a spot at the 2020 Summer Olympics Men’s tournament, with first, second, and third place respectively earning the spots to represent CAF in Japan next summer.
Ramadan Sobhi, who went on to score the winning goal in the 114th minute in the final, was unsurprisingly named player of the tournament. The Egyptian winger captained his side to the final while becoming integral in every game to the side’s attack.
That being said, before the tournament, an easy bet to pick for player of the tournament would have been Sobhi. He was by far the player at the tournament with the most experience, having played in the Premier League, and having made appearances for the senior national team at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations and the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Sobhi has spent the past few years playing at a much higher level than most, if not all of the U23 players at this tournament. It was no surprise that he was the tournament’s standout player.
Unlike Sobhi, many other players made an impact who are very new to the scene. CAF’s team of the tournament featured several players who have just begun their professional careers for their club’s first team within the past year.
Two players that particularly impressed were Mostafa Mohamed of Egypt and Aboubakar Keita of Ivory Coast. These two players were crucial in getting both their respective teams to the final. This tactical analysis will show how, throughout their tournament, they were able to show some of their strengths, which can make them a huge advantage for the senior squad in years to come.
Mostafa Mohamed, 22 years old, currently plays for Zamalek, one of the biggest football clubs in Egypt along with Al Ahly.
Towering at over 185 cm, he’s often used as a target man striker, his big build allowing him the ability to win duels against the biggest of centre-backs.
Because of this, aerial duels are his biggest strength. Attempting an average of 9.8 per 90, he wins over 60% of them.
Furthermore, he wins them in very dangerous positions, giving him the opportunity to score or head it down to a teammate to take the shot.
Mohamed is also a great asset to his team when it comes to dead balls from the opposition team. Despite being a striker, he usually will be in his own box when the opposition have been awarded a corner or a freekick.
Another attribute that Mohamed possesses is his 1vs1 dribbling. A lot of times strikers that are seen as ‘target men’ lack a bit of technical skill, at least compared to their counterparts on the pitch. They are so used to the attacking play revolving around their ability to win balls in the air, that they lack the skills to successfully beat a man on the ground. Mohamed, on the other hand, is quite skilled in ground duels. Completing just over 79% of dribbles, Mohamed uses this skill, as well as his bigger build to fend off defenders.
Usually, when he receives the ball to his feet, he’ll have two centre-backs covering him. If his dribbling ability was not as good as it was, Mohamed would most likely lose the ball in this situation, because of the fact that he’s double-teamed. However, because of his quick feet, he’s usually able to bypass them. Because of the fact that he had two centre-backs covering him, this usually leaves one of Mohamed’s teammates unmarked.
As the game becomes more modernized, more and more players are expected to have a wider range of skill sets, including strikers. However, at the end of the day, most strikers’ main role is to finish chances, and score goals. At the U-23 AFCON, Mohamed scored four goals, in six matches for Egypt. However, his xG was never higher than 0.53 at the tournament. This shows how clinical he was. Mohamed did not need a high quantity of chances, nor did he need easy chances to score. His goals in the tournament had an xG of 0.14, 0.05, 0.13, and 0.38 respectively, all very low numbers. Is this sustainable? It is hard to tell as Mohamed is still developing, and a six-match tournament is not a large enough sample size to know for sure. However, a lot of young strikers are often the opposite in that they need multiple, easy chances to score goals. For now, a low xG and a high scoring rate can only be a positive for Mohamed.
How he can fit into the senior squad
Egypt have been crying out for a consistent, dynamic striker for at least half a decade now. The Port Said Stadium riot, which resulted in the shutting down of the Egyptian league for over two years, and in turn resulted in the stalling of players development, saw many players either not playing football for two years, or travelling to Europe where their development was halted because they were not ready for a European move yet. The effects of the stadium disaster are still affecting the national team today.
Since the retirement of Mido, Mohamed Zidan, and Geddo in 2009, 2012, and 2014 respectively, Egypt have had to rely on Mahmoud Kahraba, Marwan Mohsen, and Ahmed Hassan Kouka, all decent players in their right, but a lack of playing time in Europe, as well as a lack of training with the national team due to political issues that led to the stadium riot, has led to them having underwhelming and lacklustre performances in an Egypt top.
At the 2017 AFCON, 2018 World Cup, and the 2019 AFCON, it was clear that Egypt were severely lacking in a striker. Mohamed can use his linkup play, height, and creative abilities to combine with Mohamed Salah and Trézéguet (Egypt’s current starting wingers) and lead the attack.
Aboubakar Keita (22 years old), is an Ivorian midfielder who currently plays for Oud-Heverlee Leuven, a Belgian football club based in the city of Leuven, who play in the second-highest division in the Belgian league system: the Belgian First Division B. Playing as a #6 in multiple formations during the competition, Keita helped his side reach the final, to unfortunately suffer a 2-1 defeat. Nonetheless, his contribution was massive in leading Ivory Coast to their highest ever position in the tournament.
Unlike Mohamed, who always played as a striker for Egypt, Keita was much more adaptable for Ivory Coast. Throughout the tournament, Ivory Coast changed their tactics, which saw Keita be deployed as a right defensive midfielder in a double pivot, a left defensive midfielder in a double pivot, and as a sole defensive midfielder in the #6 role.
When played in a double pivot, it was clear that he was used to cover for the full-back on his side. Against Zambia in the group stages of the tournament, Keita played alongside Ibrahim Sangaré in a double pivot, with the two often switching positions. When fullbacks were pushed up, Keita and Sangaré were responsible for covering for them if Zambia gained possession, and quickly went on the attack.
Against Ghana, in the semi-finals, Keita was deployed as the sole defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3, his job here was mostly to protect the central areas, as it was trusted that Keita’s wide teammates would be able to cover the flanks. As a sole defensive midfielder, he’s much more active, in the game, as he has less support.
It is clear that he called upon in more areas of the pitch when he acts as a sole #6, but this chart also showcases that Keita does have the capabilities to hold down that role on his own.
One of his best attributes defensively is his agility, as is his quickness to get the ball away from opposition players in dangerous areas. One of the aspects that allows him to excel at this is his ability to read his own teammates’ moves well and help them cover when needed.
Keita’s passing is one of his best attributes alongside his defending. For such a deep-lying midfielder, he is quite creative – an attribute that many top clubs look for in a #6.
Averaging two key passes a match, Keita’s passes into the opposition half are 83.3% accurate, with approximately half of those making them into the box. He also has a 74% cross accuracy into the box, showing that he is a constant threat offensively.
Keita will often quickly release the ball after winning a duel, or when he’s under pressure from the opposition. This allows his teammates to worry about one less opposition player defending against them, as they are occupied with Keita.
How he can fit into the senior squad
Ivory Coast’s starting defensive midfielder at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations was Serey Dié, and while Dié has been a constant for the national team for over six years, it was clear that at 35 years old, his body could not handle the stress of the international breaks, as well as club football. Dié retiring from Ivory Coast duties this year has freed a hole in defensive midfield.
Ibrahim Kamara, the current coach for the national team has called up Habib Maïga in Dié’s place for recent matches. The 23-year old plays for Ligue 1 side, FC Metz. Maïga has similar attributes to Keita, but it is clear that Kamara has chosen him over Keita because of Maïga’s experience playing in a club that competes in the first division. That being said, Keita has played at a higher level for the U-23’s than Maïga did, and it would not be surprising if Keita eventually surpasses Maïga in quality. Both will be needed for the future, and it gives Kamara options for different formations, having both of them available for selection.
The Future of African Football
The U-23 Africa Cup of Nations is a relatively new tournament, with this one only being the third. It is a fantastic way to showcase the young talent that the continent has, and the hope is that this tournament will further develop these players beyond their club teams, in order for them to make the jump quicker to the senior national team.
Furthermore, having the top three of the tournament qualify for the Olympics gives the chance for many of these young African players to get more experience playing against international teams.
Although Mostafa Mohamed and Aboubakar Keita were my two favourite players to watch during the tournament, there were many other young African stars that can become stars if they continue their proper development, both technically, physically, and tactically.
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