The African Cup of Nations is famous for many things. Packed stadiums, crazy games and most of all its blistering talent. In this article we’re going to have a look at the top 10 players to keep an extra eye on in the tournament this summer.
Samuel Chukwueze (RW, Nigeria)
Chukwueze had his breakthrough this season for Villarreal in La Liga. Whilst his produced numbers might not be very impressive (5+2), Chukwueze is good example of a blind spot where stats don’t reflect the performances put in.
His blazing speed combined with his technique and 1v1 abilities made him a constant threat to the opposition all season for Villarreal. He has incredible ball control and opposed to many left footed right wingers, he’s not limited to cutting into the pitch to create something. Chukwueze is skilled at either cutting in or going past his man on the outside to create. If there’s one aspect of his game he can improve, it’s his decision-making. But as with most young players, that will likely improve with time and experience. It’s more a sign of a young player playing his first senior season than an area of weakness.
He’s been capped two times for the Super Eagles before and is relatively new to international stage, something you have to bear in mind. But there’s no question that he’s their most promising player for the future.
Diadie Samassékou (DM, Mali)
Samassékou was already rumored to a bunch of big clubs last summer, AC Milan for one, and after the season he had with Red Bull Salzburg there won’t be less clubs interested this summer.
It’s hard to narrow down Samassékou to one role or type of player. One thing that is certain is that his spearhead abilities lies on the defensive side of the game. In 26 games he averaged 2.7 interceptions per 90, 2.1 tackles won (80.9%), only got dribbled past 0.8 times per 90 and never made an error leading to either a shot or a goal. Samassékou is a defensive midfielder who rarely tackles, or more like he’s rarely in need to tackle, because of his good eye for intercepting and reading the opponents. It’s a bi-product of his great positioning. However, if in need, the stats are there to back it up that he’s capable of dispossessing the opponent via tackling.
Despite his best abilities being in the defensive areas of the game, he can also act the link between the defense and offense. He’s a good ball carrier, can distribute the ball well and is a very, very hard worker with a high and intense work rate. So far Samassékou has been capped 9 times for Mali and he goes into the tournament as one of their key players on the midfield. One of his bigger weaknesses is that he’s rather small sized for the role he occupies. That hasn’t seemed to be a problem so far in his career though.
André Onana (GK, Cameroon)
Onana comes from a season packed with success. His Ajax won the league, the cup and made it to the semi-final in Champions League where they literally fell right at the end of the finish line against Tottenham.
Onana is a former La Masia product, which is reflected in his game like how talented he is with his feet and precise distributing of the ball to his outfield players. An agile, modern day goalkeeper with impressive reflexes you can describe his style as. Onana has nice composure and has ability to wait players out to make the first move to not get fooled and his concentration rarely slips. Talented on penalty kicks.
This season Onana has kept 16 clean sheets in 33 games – almost 50% of the games he’s played. Furthermore, he’s only conceded 27 goals in grand total.
If there’s one part of his game he can improve, it’s saving crosses. He’s shown tendencies to be insecure in his timing of when to run out to box them away for example. Or how to handle some of them. But other than that, he doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses to his game.
Achraf Hakimi (RB, Morocco)
Real Madrid product Achraf Hakimi came to Dortmund ahead of this season in search of game time to learn the job per request of Real – and what a way to do it.
Hakimi started 60% of Dortmund’s game where they ended the season just 4 points behind Bayern and the Bundesliga title. He took Dortmund, the Bundesliga, Real and all fans in-between by storm. His lightning speed and ability to control the ball and dribble whilst in that speed makes him a tough opponent to handle. Hakimi also has the stamina to run up and down his lane tirelessly throughout the game, making his threat even bigger when the opposition is starting to get tired. He eases the work for the winger on his side with his talent for making overlapping runs. The winger can either pass it further to him for him to send it into the box or trick the defense by cutting in.
Hakimi provided 2 goals and 4 assists this season in 21 games. Sadly, his season got ended early in April due to an injury. He ended the season with two Bundesliga “Rookie of The Month” awards in September and November.
The Moroccan has tendencies to make errors though. Much due to lack of concentration at times. It could be because of inexperience and his young age, but it’s aspects of his game he needs to improve before taking the next step.
Ismaïla Sarr (LW, Senegal)
Aside from most other wingers being mentioned in this article, Sarr isn’t the most technically gifted or relies much at all on technique in his game. He knows it’s not one of his best areas and instead uses his speed and agility to get past his opponents. Rather insightful from such a young player to already be aware of his “flaws” and instead lean on his strong suits. Sarr is also very unafraid to take on his opposition, something he usually succeeds with his lighting fast speed. His finishing and crossing abilities are also to strong traits in his game. A very raw talent. This past season Sarr has really improved his defensive contribution and football IQ both defensively and offensively.
Coming from a successful season at Rennes he’s one of the most looked at players ahead of this tournament. He ended the season with 8 goals + 7 assists registered to his name in the league and 13 goals + 11 assists across all competitions. He also helped Rennes win Coupe de France. Sarr allegedly turned down Barcelona before joining Rennes in 2017, something that speaks volumes on his potential and quality.
Ibrahim Sangaré (DM, Ivory Coast)
Ibrahim Sangaré was a pillar for Toulouse this season and one of the more impressive midfielders in Ligue 1.
A big sized defensive midfielder who’s like a wall to get by. Sangare had 8.2 duels won per 90 and only dribbled past 1.1 times per 90. The cherry on the top of these stats is that he only drew 1.8 fouls per 90. 8.2 duels and only 1.8 result in a foul, that makes you good at what you do.
As a defensive midfielder he reads the game very well, a reluctant presser who never stops chasing the ball. Great tackler and read of the game. Offensively he’s a good ball carrier due to his ball control, physique to fend of opposition in his runs and his ball control. He also has a nice comprehension of the game and a nice passing foot for distribution. A hybrid of a box-to-box and a number six.
“His first touch is one of the best I’ve seen. He’s calm in small spaces and comes out of pressure in incredible ways. He’s also got a great ability to recover the ball and does a huge amount of running” – Sangare’s former coach Alain Casanova.
What he certainly has improved in this past season is his resilience to the oppositions press. Sangaré is very composed and rarely makes mistakes due to stress. His managers have said that he might need to improve a bit tactically.
Youcef Atal (RB, Algeria)
Youcef Atal had his breakthrough season this year and quickly became a very sought-after fullback.
Atal is a quick fullback with incredible dribbling skills and 1v1 abilities. Looking at him offensively you’d never think he’s a right-back – until you see his impressive defensive skills as well. Not only is he a big offensive threat with his take ons, goalscoring and speed, but he’s a tremendous asset defensively as well with his stand out traits being interceptions, tackling and work rate.
Atal is very liked by manager Patrick Viera, who’ve on multiple occasions publicly stated his desire to keep Atal for next season. Offensively Atal had 4.5 successful dribbles per 90, 6 goals and 0 assists. It’s a consensus amongst those who’ve followed him in Ligue 1 that he needs to improve his crossing – hence the 0 assists. He’s only been dispossessed 1.1 times per 90 this past season.
Defensively, Atal has 9.3 duels won per 90, 1.9 interceptions and only takes 1.4 fouls per 90. He’s a talented two-way defender, who has tremendous potential as he’s only 23 years old.
Chelsea were very interested in the €40m rated Atal before they got their transfer ban handed to them. But If he has a good tournament this summer, plenty of clubs will probably come knocking for his signature.
Henry Onyekuru (LW, Nigeria)
Onyekuru had his big break this season as well. The young winger averaged 2.10 points per game at Galatasaray where he scored 14 goals and assisted 5.
Onyekuru is one of those wingers you hate to face as a defender. Quick, technical and a very composed and confident finisher. He often uses his pace to accelerate past his opponents but is equally as good at getting past his man with technical abilities. This have the tendencies of irritating and frustrating the opposition who usually goes after him harder and harder the longer the games goes by.
Almost looks to thrive in tight and pressured spaces at times due to his outstanding composure. Onyekuru isn’t just a winger who scores, he has a very good eye to find his teammates in good areas or read what their next moves are to be one step ahead in his supply to his teammates. A big perk for him both in a scoring and assisting manner is that he’s bipedal.
He’s still quite small though, and sometimes gets muscled off rather easily by the opposition. If he hits the gym and builds some muscle, he could become an even more complete winger. Currently he’s both a scorer and supplier and very versatile on top of that, as he can play anywhere across a front three.
Francois Kamano (LW, Guinea)
The man who overtook Naby Keita in the Nimba D’Or – best Guinean player of the year. One of the more experienced internationals on this list as he has 23 caps and 5 goals under his belt.
Kamano had perhaps his best season yet in Ligue 1 for his Bordeaux, where he ended the season with 10 goals and 1 assist. Kamano is a quick winger with a lot of flair. He likes to dribble, is very technically gifted and very unpredictable. Clinical finisher. He’s a master of the art that is cutting in and finishing in the rear corner of the goal.
He’s a dynamic winger who’s both strong and quick. Almost as good off the ball as on the ball. His movement is great and his comprehension of the game, his teammates and the opposition are superb. Particularly good movement in the penalty box.
Defensively he’s a tremendous asset in the first line of defense. His tireless, intense pressing combined with his high work rate and stamina makes him an ideal player to have stressing the oppositions defense and midfield to commit errors. His big size is also of his benefit both defensively and offensively. He’s very hard to dispossess on the ball due to it and defensively he’s usually able to muscle off the opposition.
If there’s one area of his game he can improve, it’s his crossing. He only managed to get 1 assist this season and it should’ve been more.
Ismaël Bennacer (DM, Empoli)
The former Arsenal product was one of Empoli’s most tone-setting players this season in their return to the Serie A.
Bennacer is not your traditional DM. First off, he’s short with his 175cm and not very competitive physically. Secondly, he’s a very technical DM with a great ability to carry the ball up the pitch because of it. He likes to start deep and run through the opposition to then pass it on. He’s often the player who assists the player who assists the goal. A very intelligent midfielder with high footballing IQ. Bennacer has 8 caps at the age of 21.
He was one of Empoli’s key players this season as he was the link both between defense-midfield and midfield-attackers. It’s also because of how useful he is both defensively and offensively. Bennacer is excellent at winning back possession, regardless if it’s through taking it from the opposition or intercepting it. Offensively he’s a great passer to create fluidity in the attacks, he’s got pin-point long passes, a good dribbler and good through balls as he created 4 big chances apart from the four assists he made.
6.8 duels won per 90, 1.5 interceptions made and only dribbled past 1.2 times per 90. Furthermore, he was only dispossessed 1.2 times per 90 this season, which is impressive given his size and how easy it is for bigger players to out-muscle him due to his 175cms. He featured in all Empoli’s games but one.
By: Max Juhlin