AFCON 2021

Team of the tournament

Following the conclusion of the AFCON, we select a team of the most impressive performers.

Abdou Diallo (IMAGO/Sebastian Frej)

Senegal are African champions for the first time in their history.

The Teranga Lions outlasted Egypt via penalty shootout on Sunday night to claim their maiden title, bringing the curtain down to an exciting Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Cameroon.

This selection will serve as an acknowledgement of the best performers of the tournament. Attention will be paid to both quality and quantity (i.e. there is a minimum cut-off of 360 minutes for consideration) of performances, with the former given a special weighting. There will also be an attempt at tactical coherence, so do not expect strikers crowbarred into midfield simply to improve the star appeal of the selection.

In the end, it needed another monster performance in the Final to get Abou Gabal into this team. That appearance took his minutes past the cut-off, and the sheer quality of his goalkeeping makes as strong a case as is possible.

It is remarkable that the 33-year-old was second-choice coming into the tournament, and that his three previous international appearances came over the span of 10 years. None of that seemed to matter though, as the Zamalek man gave inspired performances, both in open play and in penalty shootouts. His heroics in victories over Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon will live long in the memory, as will his strong wrists and catchy – if slightly tacky – nickname.

It is genuinely a pleasure to watch Hakimi play. The Paris Saint-Germain wing-back is legitimately one of the best in the world in his position, and that came to the fore time and again in Cameroon.

When he gets going, he is close to impossible to contain or entirely control. Good in possession, both in tight and open spaces, and an outstanding passer in his vision and incisiveness, Hakimi was simply above it all. Oh, and he takes a super free-kick now. Just because.

There is little point to recommending one performance in particular. Just watch him in everything.

Senegal did not concede a goal at AFCON until their quarter-final against Equatorial Guinea. Sure, fielding a ‘trivote’ in midfield helped in terms of keeping things secure at the back. However, it is to Diallo that Senegal have looked for composure and excellence in defence.

His role has been important too, considering that partner Kalidou Koulibaly arrived in Cameroon short on fitness. The Napoli man has recovered something close to his best form, but there have been a few shaky scenes here and there. In those moments, Diallo has stepped forward to lead, and did so with distinction, composure and a super left foot. He is my Player of the Tournament.

Watching Koulibaly defend at his best is a joy. The 30-year-old actually came into the tournament having just recovered from injury, and took a while to hit his highest level. However, when he did, he was simply dominant. The sight of him swatting away attackers will never get old, and some of his passing (especially in the Final) was superb.

What is even more impressive, perhaps in a more niche way, is that he has done this while playing on the right of the centre-back pairing, as opposed to the left where he plays at club level. It is a small change, but the field of vision is completely different. That has neither deterred Koulibaly nor detracted from his level of performance.

There were a number of excellent left-backs at AFCON, and this really could have been Nouhou Tolo or Steeve Yago. However, Ciss has greater attacking menace over the former and greater consistency of performance over the latter.

Senegal looked a much more enterprising side going forward after the Group Stage, and that had a lot to do with Ciss providing added impetus, storming forward and combining well with Sadio Mane up ahead.

The Nancy defender is also an impressive specimen, and is strong defensively, both in the tackle and positionally. Senegal seldom looked in trouble defensively, but when they did it was never on account of Ciss.

Under the dictionary entry for ‘efficient’, there is a picture of Elneny. The Arsenal man goes about his business with the minimum of fuss, is almost always where he needs to be.

His engine is a thing to admire, and for all the criticism he gets for passing sideways, he did demonstrate an ability to pass through the lines and pierce the organisation of opposing midfields. Ally that to his tenacity and strength in the tackle, and there is nothing needed from a defensive midfielder that Elneny does not provide.

Sangare scored the opening goal of the 2021 AFCON with an outstanding volley against Cameroon, and went on to have a strong tournament with a Burkina Faso side that captured the imagination going forward.

What was most impressive about Sangare was his versatility. Indeed, it allowed the Stallions to switch between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3, depending on the organisation of the opponent and in order to facilitate pressing. And when it came to the latter, Sangare did not shirk his duties. Unafraid to put the boot in and battle in the middle of the park, the Quevilly-Rouen player was an all-round presence for Kamou Malo’s side, and rightfully earns his place in his team.

Hongla is another who got in here on the quality of his performances, as he barely made the minutes cut-off. By his standards, he was poor in the semi-final against Egypt as well.

However, when he was good, he was superb.

The Hellas Verona midfielder was a spectacular all-round performer in the engine room for Cameroon. His passing and appreciation of space stood out, as well as his eye for the final pass: no midfielder laid on more goals in the tournament than his three. Attacking that inside left channel, offering the overload, while at the same time mucking in defensively to keep Cameroon compact and aggressive in the centre; Hongla did it all.

Ngamaleu had one of the more unique tactical briefs at AFCON, basically playing as a roving winger. Toni Conceicao allowed him to drift across the pitch to either flank to either overload or dribble directly, trusting him to be the side’s creative lynchpin.

The Young Boys forward rose to the challenge extremely well, his dynamism providing the spark for a Cameroon side that was great at controlling games without necessarily being outrightly inventive in midfield.

His languid dribbling style is an acquired taste, but his impact was undeniable: much of what was good about Cameroon’s attacking play flowed from his boot. When you consider the Indomitable Lions scored more than anyone else, his inclusion here is a no-brainer.

Mane came alive when Senegal needed him the most. His run of three matches – Round of 16 to semi-final – was as good and as decisive as its possible to have.

A lot of that came down to finally playing in his best position and role for this Senegal side. After being mostly anonymous through the Group Stage, Mane was supercharged in the knockout stage, at least until the Final.

Against Cape Verde, he scored. Against Equatorial Guinea, he assisted twice. Against Burkina Faso, he scored and assisted. Talk about optimising for impact.

Eight goals, one assist. There is not much more that needs to be said. Six of those eight goals came from open play too. Aboubakar has been around for a long time, and despite scoring the winner in the 2017 Final, he had never really headlined a tournament for Cameroon. Until now.

What stood out about the 30-year-old was just how much quicker in his mind he was than most of the defenders he came across. His ability to roll his marker allowed him to make space for himself, and once he got that space, he was often lethal. Throughout AFCON, Aboubakar had the look of a man at the top of his craft.

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