Using Wyscout data, we analyze the latest edition of the Africa Cup of Nations and delve into some of the tendencies from the tournament.

Ivory Coast lifted the Africa Cup of Nations in front of a jubilant home crowd, a sea of 60,000 orange shirts celebrating what had often seemed the most unlikely of victories.

After losing two of their three group stage games - including a humbling 4-0 loss to minnows Equatorial Guinea - Les Éléphants were staring down the barrel of an unexpected early exit. 

Off the back of their group stage performances, they made the decision to part ways with their French coach Jean-Louis Gasset. Nevertheless, a combination of fortuitous events - including Morocco‘s victory over Zambia and Ghana’s concession of two injury-time goals to Mozambique - allowed the hosts to narrowly progress to the knockout round by the skin of their teeth as the fourth best third-placed team.

Group A standings from Wyscout season report - Ivory Coast make it through despite finishing third

Former Ivory Coast international and rookie coach Emerse Faé took the reins as the team dubbed ‘Les Revenants’ - literally ‘The Returned’, perhaps better translated as ‘The Ghosts’ - stepped out of the elephant’s graveyard and marched onwards.

The drama didn’t stop there. Ivory Coast proceeded to knock out reigning champions Senegal in the round of 16, after Frank Kessié scored an 86th minute equalizer to take the game to penalties. They then snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Mali in the quarter finals with a 90th minute equalizer and a 120th minute winner in extra time to beat Les Aigles 2-1.

What started as a tongue-in-cheek, almost mocking, nickname had now turned into a rallying cry and sense of destiny as Les Revenants came back from the dead time and time again.  

DR Congo were dispatched 1-0 in the semi-finals, setting up an all-star clash with Nigeria in the final. A rematch of their group stage encounter, there were echoes of that defeat when William Troost-Ekong put the Super Eagles ahead in the first half. But, in now customary fashion, Ivory Coast turned the game around once again with goals from Kessié in the 62nd minute and Sebastien Haller in the 81st minute to win their third Africa Cup of Nations title.

The numbers behind Ivory Coast's AFCON victory

It was fitting that the winner was scored by Haller, the living embodiment of Ivory Coast’s indomitable spirit. The Borussia Dortmund striker, who bravely fought testicular cancer just 18 months ago, made a remarkable comeback to play professionally and represent his country. Injured during the group stage, he returned to score the winner in both semi-final and final for a Hollywood sign-off to the tournament. 

If Ivory Coast’s victory was something of a surprise, then it was very much in keeping with an unpredictable tournament full of upsets and giant-killings. Ghana, Tunisia and Algeria crashed out at the group stage, while big names like Senegal, Egypt, Cameroon and Morocco all went home earlier than expected at the Round of 16. 

The fact that the quarter-final line-up didn’t include a single team that made the quarters in 2021 illustrates this unpredictability perfectly, while also highlighting the increasingly competitive nature of the Africa Cup of Nations.

Case in point were two of the smallest nations at the competition, Cape Verde and Equatorial Guinea (populations of 600,000 and 1.7 million respectively), who both won their groups without losing a game and beat some continental giants along the way. Cape Verde managed to get all the way to the quarter-finals, along with another surprise package Angola, while Mauritania and Namibia also achieved historic results as the underdog reigned supreme at AFCON 2023.

As the level of traditionally smaller African nations catches up with the more established elite, it reinforces the importance of scouting across a broad range of countries, especially those that are less easily accessible.

Even South Africa finishing in third place - their best finish since 2000 - felt like a turn up for the books. Hugo Broos’ side were indebted to goalkeeper Ronwen Williams, who made an incredible four saves in the quarter-final penalty shoot out victory against Cape Verde and another two against DR Congo in the third-place play-off, but across the board showed signs of improvement.

Ronwen Williams penalties faced vs Cape Verde on Wyscout's Penalty App

For a tournament defined by its unpredictability, the question remains as to how it’s possible to draw conclusions and insights from the apparent randomness. Using Wyscout data, we analyze some of the patterns and trends that emerge when looking deeper at the numbers.

Goals on the rise

One of the first areas that jumps out is the number of goals scored at the recent edition of the Africa Cup of Nations. After a decade of steady decline, the figure jumped up to 2.29 goals per game, the highest that it has been since 2012.

When we compare this to other continental international tournaments from around the world we can see that traditionally AFCON has yielded a lower number of goals per game. However, the rise shown in the recent edition suggests a potential move towards leveling up.

It is important to stress that an increase in goals doesn’t necessarily equate to an increase in the quality of the football. It could point to the strength of defensive players on the continent and pervading tactical tendencies or even factors such as quality of pitches and the influence of climate.

When looking at AFCON 2023, we can see that the top scorers were Equatorial Guinea with 9 goals and an average of 1.97 per 90, despite going out in the round of 16. Senegal and Angola also managed 9 goals but played more minutes.

AFCON 2023 team goals on Wyscout's Rankings tool

By contrast, finalists Nigeria and Ivory Coast rank further down the list. Nigeria’s 0.96 is just above the tournament average while Ivory Coast averaged 0.92 goals per 90. What’s more, semi-finalists South Africa and DR Congo also posted below average, with 0.82 and 0.73, perhaps suggesting that strong defenses are a greater predictor of success than goals scored. 

When looking at the individual top scorers it’s no surprise to see Equatorial Guinea’s Emilio Nsue top the chart, while two players from Angola also make the top 10. Gelson Dala in particular stands out as one of the biggest outperformers of their xG and he also provided 1 assist to make him joint top of direct goal contributions.

Bertrand Traore’s record of 3 goals in 225 minutes gives him the highest goals per 90 in the tournament with 1.2, just ahead of Nsue. Baghdad Bounedjah, responsible for all of Algeria’s goals, also features highly with 0.95 goals per 90. Prolific for Al Sadd in Qatar, he also scored the winner in the 2019 final but couldn’t drag the Desert Foxes out of the group stage.

Despite having African Footballer of the Year, Victor Osimhen, leading the line, six of Nigeria’s eight goals were split between Ademola Lookman and captain Troost-Ekong. Although a centre back by trade, Troost-Ekong proved to be a cool head in penalty situations with two of his three goals coming from the spot, as well as another converted in the semi-final shoot-out against South Africa.

Osimhen was one of a number of heralded strikers who didn’t quite meet pre-tournament expectations. A marked man and suffering from abdominal discomfort, Osimhen scored one goal but nevertheless adopted a selfless role for Nigeria in their run to the final. The likes of Salah, Guirassy, Haller and Aboubakar were all hampered by injury too, while Leverkusen's in-form Victor Boniface was ruled out on the eve of the tournament.

More minutes than ever before

Perhaps one contributing factor to the increase in goals scored in the tournament is the increase in additional time played, giving players more time to score, as well as the cumulative effect on tiredness and concentration from the extra minutes played.

In the graph below, we can see a marked increase in the number of additional minutes played in this year’s competition compared to previous years. More than twice the additional minutes were played at AFCON 2023 than the previous edition and winners Ivory Coast played over an hour's more football than when Senegal won in 2021.

This trend is reflected in the recently played AFC Asia Cup, where additional time jumped to an average of 14.789, as per data collated by Hudl’s Data as a Service consultants. This pattern is also in line with the increase in additional time in Europe’s Top 5 leagues, with the English Premier League averaging 12.194 and Spain’s La Liga currently at 10.819 at the time of writing.

Older squads, younger winners? 

Looking at the squad make-up of AFCON squads in recent years we can see that there has been a slight but steady increase in the average weighted age of teams competing. 

Weighting the age means that more weight or importance is given to the players who played more minutes during this period, giving us a more realistic measure than purely the ages of the squad.

Looking at this year’s edition in more detail, we can see that Ivory Coast have one of the youngest squads in the tournament with an average age of just 26.2. The likes of Wilfried Singo and Yahia Fofana (both 23) were ever-present for the winners, while Simon Adingra (22) and Oumar Diakhité (20) regularly made important contributions. 

Having said that, their weighted average age of 27.387 shows that, while below the tournament average, the most-used players weren’t necessarily drawn from the youngest members of the squad. 

Nevertheless, in comparison to previous years, the winning team has tended to have a squad significantly above the tournament average age. Time will tell if this is a pattern that repeats itself in the future or whether this was an outlier to the norm.

On the other end of the spectrum were Egypt, with an average squad age of 28.5. Last year’s finalists and 7-time winners, the Pharaohs were among the favourites going into the tournament but, scuppered by injury to star man Mohamed Salah, struggled through the group stage and were knocked out by DR Congo in the round of 16, having drawn all four of their games.

Looking at their squad profile can help identify areas of development and help to build succession plans for the future. We can see that 44% of their squad is aged 30 or above and featured only three players under the age of 25, all of whom were 24 at the start of the tournament. Given their underwhelming performances in Ivory Coast, it could be a sign that new blood is needed.

Senegal may have exited the tournament at the same stage as Egypt but looking at their squad profile suggests that there is less cause for long term concern. With an average age of 26.8, their on-pitch performances and a number of impressive young players - as well as the fact they are African champions at U20 and U17 level - the signs look promising that they’ll be well set for life after Mané, Koulibaly and Gueye.

In line with the trend of squad average weighted age increasing is the amount of game time for U21 players. 2023 marked the smallest percentage of U21 playing minutes at an AFCON in the last 13 years with just 2.5%.

One explanation for the lower number of U21 minutes in the last three tournaments could be due to the expansion from 16 to 24 teams in 2019, meaning more minutes being played and diluting the percentage. However, it is also true that there appears to be a preference for players in the 23-30 bracket than trusting in youth.

Focusing on the 2023 tournament, Guinea were the squad who gave the most opportunities to U21 players. Ibrahim Diakhité (20), Ilaix Moriba (21) and Facinet Conté (18) all saw plenty of minutes as the Syli National reached the quarter finals.

Mali’s Kamory Doumbia was the U21 player with most minutes in the competition (434) and the talented playmaker laid on 2 assists, as well as being the U21 player with most passes (137) and shots (9). This has backed up his excellent club form, scoring 5 goals and 2 assists in 15 appearances on loan at Brest from Reims this season - even more impressive when considering he's mainly been used as an impact substitute in France.

Kamory Doumbia's shot map from Wyscout Player Reports

Despite standout performances from the likes of Doumbia, Adingra and Maseko, chances for younger players remain few and far between, as shown by the fact that 10 out of the 24 teams at AFCON 2023 did not field any U21 players at all.

Passing, Pressing, Discipline

Looking into some key metrics we can see some other interesting patterns emerge from AFCON 2023. For example, when analyzing the passing rate, we can see that there has been a steady increase in recent years.

Passing rate measures the number of successful passes a team makes per minute of possession, so we can deduce the teams are moving the ball more frequently and quicker than before. This could be an indicator of a greater technical ability or perhaps a more possession-based approach, given that longer balls tend to be harder to complete.

Having said that, looking at the teams who have won the tournament in recent years, most tend to be around the average, rather than the top end, of the passing rate statistics. This year, Ivory Coast had a passing rate of 13.6, Senegal had 13.1 in 2021, Algeria had 12.6 in 2019 and Cameroon had 11.4 in 2017. Typically the teams at each of these tournaments with the highest passing rate averaged around 15, suggesting that overly possession-based approach may not be the most conducive for winning and that there remains a need for a mix with some direct and counter-attacking options.

By measuring the PPDA - passes per defensive action - we are able to determine which teams press the highest. Looking at the figure above, we can see that the average tournament PPDA has increased over the last four editions, suggesting that teams tend to not press as high or aggressively as before. The expansion of the tournament to 24 teams could be part of the reason or it might indicate more of a shift in tactics on the continent.

What is noticeable is that each of the last four winners have had a much lower than average score when it comes to PPDA, meaning that they press higher up the pitch. Ivory Coast (7.79 in 2023), Senegal (7.31 in 2021), Algeria (6.53 in 2019) and to a lesser extent Cameroon (7.52 in 2017) all were under the tournament average, indicating a potentially successful aspect of their style of play.

When analyzing the discipline statistics, we can see an inevitable jump in the number of yellow and red cards once the tournament was expanded in 2019, given that there are now 20 more games per tournament. 

Having said that, 2023 has seen the lowest amount of yellow cards given in the 52-game era, with the average number of cautions dropping to 7.08 from 8.33 per team since 2021. That said, the number of red cards has remained the same, with 2023 and 2021 more than double 2019.

Despite this increase, the average of fouls per 90 has dropped since 2017, which leads to some interesting conclusions. Certainly less fouls in a game would explain a drop in the yellow cards in 2023 but the same number of reds would suggest either more bad fouls or a changing approach in refereeing. 

Given that VAR was introduced in the 2021 tournament, this could partly explain why more red cards are being given despite less fouls occurring or that more lenient refereeing is seeing less fouls but encouraging red card-worthy infringements.

The quality of football in Africa is clearly rising and the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations was testament to that marked improvement. Smaller nations are closing the gap in quality with the more established forces, levelling the playing field and creating entertaining and dramatic matches. 

With the increased adoption of data and video, that trend will only continue as player development improves, analysis becomes more data-driven and more visibility is given to younger players from leagues around the continent.

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