Football Features

2021 Africa Cup of Nations: The best defenders

By Harry Edwards

Published: 12:30, 8 January 2022

The first major tournament of the year is almost upon us as 24 teams travel to Cameroon for the 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations.

Algeria will kick off the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations as defending champions. The Fennec Foxes are looking to become the first team since Egypt in 2010 with consecutive Africa Cup of Nations wins. The tournament kicks off on Sunday, January 9, and runs until February 6, and the final at the Olembe Stadium in Cameroon’s capital city of Yaoundé.

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There is no shortage of quality sides taking part in the tournament, featuring a number of top defenders who’ll be hoping to help their nation capture the cup.

Here’s a look at some of the tournament’s potential standout defenders:

Achraf Hakimi (Morocco)

Club: PSG

International caps: 41

It feels a bit strange including Achraf Hakimi in a list of top defenders, given his talent and inclination for attacking play. However, though he’s built his reputation playing as a wing-back for Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund, the Moroccan is, in fact, actually a defender. Now with PSG, Hakimi has slotted in at a “traditional” full-back role, though this has not stifled Hakimi’s attacking instincts. In fact, playing with the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi ahead of him, Hakimi’s attacking play has actually been enhanced. Hakimi, who is still just 23, is easily one of the best full-backs in the world right now, and will be a big player for Morocco.

Hakimi’s place in the squad allows Morocco to play either with a back four or three/five, depending on the situation. Though he’s also even deputised on the left flank for his national team, we can expect him to line up at right-back at Afcon, and maraud down the wing to link up with the likes of Munir and Youssef En-Nesyri.

Youcef Atal (Algeria)

Club: Nice

International caps: 23

Another Ligue 1 full-back, Youcef Atal isn’t as prolific in attack as Hakimi – though he’s no slouch – but performs his defensive duties extremely well. In fact, thanks to the level of competition in France’s top-flight and the modern perception of full-backs, Atal is probably one of  more under-appreciated defenders in this tournament.

Since joining Nice in 2018, Atal has created an impressive 0.85 chances per 90 minutes in Ligue 1. At the same time, he’s  shown his strength in defender, registered 2.49 tackles per 90 minutes. Since Atal’s debut, only nine players who’ve played at least 2,195 minutes have averaged more interceptions per 90 in Ligue 1 than Atal’s 2.3. Of those nine, only four are full-backs or wing-backs. He also loves a take-on, having completing 3.19 per 90 in Ligue 1 since 2018, and averages 3.47 crosses per 90.

For Algeria, Atal’s presence allows Riyad Mahrez (or anyone else in front of him) to attack with the confidence that comes with knowing that there is ample protection at the back. Atal started three of seven matches in Algeria’s triumphant 2019 Africa Cup of Nations run,  and figures to have an even greater impact in this campaign.


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Ahmed Hegazi (Egypt)

Club: Ittihad

International caps: 73

Ahmed Hegazi may moved out of the mainstream spotlight in the summer of 2020, joining Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad Jeddah from West Brom, initially on loan and then permanently. However, the 30-year-old remains a top defender and will play a key role for Egypt this month, as the most experienced member of the Egypt back line.

Hegazi played all of Egypt’s World Cup qualifying games in 2021, and was an important part of the side that took third place in the Fifa Arab Cup last month. If Hegazi can lead the Egyptian defence well, there’s nothing to say the Pharaohs couldn’t go all the way in Cameroon.

Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal)

Club: Napoli

International caps: 53

It’s not too long ago that Kalidou Koulibaly was one of the most-sought-after defenders in all of Europe. Interest in the Senegalese centre-back has died down a bit since, coinciding with some rocky times at Napoli, but Koulibaly remains a top-tier defender and is one of the vert best set to feature in the Afcon.

Koulibaly has started 14 games in Serie A for Napoli this season, helping the side to 11 victories and nine clean sheets. The only defeat this season in which Kouliably has been involved was a 3-2 thriller against league leaders Inter Milan. His importance has only been emphasised by Napoli’s collapse since a recent thigh injury, with Luciano Spalletti’s side losing three of four matches in his absence. It is hoped that Koulibaly, who has made 2.62 clearances per 90 minutes and completed 89.59% of his passes in Serie A this season, will be fit to play in Cameroon. Should he back full strength, Senegal will thrive.

Eric Bailly (Ivory Coast)

Club: Manchester United

International caps: 41

Say what you will about Eric Bailly the Manchester United centre-back, Eric Bailly the Ivory Coast centre-back is a top quality defender. Let’s not kid ourselves, as a Man United centre-back, Bailly is still a good defender, but is often let down by injuries, wavering confidence, coaching and questionable defensive partnerships. The 27-year-old is currently enduring a frustrating season at Man United, made just seven appearances and sitting on the periphery of the first team. In fact, he’s started as many times for Ivory Coast this season as he has for Man United in the Premier League (three).

You can guarantee Bailly will start at Afcon this month. In fact, he will probably start every meaningful game that Ivory Coast play. And it’s a safe bet that, once again, he’ll be great for his nation.

Honourable mentions:

Aside from the headliners above, here a handful of other defenders who will be on show – and may thrive – in Cameroon:

Jerome Onguene (Cameroon): After a delayed start to the campaign, Onguene has becoming a big part of a Red Bull Salzburg side that is currently leading the Austrian Bundesliga and has advanced for the first time ever into the last 16 of the Champions League. Onguene has contributed two goals to Salzburg’s attack, while also starring in a defence that has conceded just six goals in 10 league matches.

Edmond Tapsoba (Burkina Faso): Still just 22, Tapsoba is not only an extremely promising young defender, but is also quickly becoming one of the better ball-playing centre-backs in the Bundesliga. He isn’t in the very top tier of players here, but Tapsoba is a solid player who’s playing at a good level. That will surely benefit Burkina Faso this month.

Abdou Diallo (Senegal): Diallo has been a surprise inclusion in PSG’s team this season, starting nine of 17 Ligue 1 games thus far, at both left-back and centre-back. Though he’s not a guaranteed starter, he performs well when asked and will bring that quality to Senegal at the Afcon.

William Troost-Ekong (Nigera): Leon Balogun’s injury was a big blow for Nigeria. They’ll thus be relying on the experience of Troost-Ekong. The 28-year-old has started 15 Premier League games for Watford this season. While he’s admittedly not enjoyed himself much on the pitch for his club, Troost-Ekong is sure to relish an opportunity to start fresh for his national side.

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