Football Features

2021 Africa Cup of Nations: The best midfielders

By Harry Edwards

Published: 12:15, 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 midfielders who’ll be hoping to help their nation capture the cup.

Here’s a look at some of the tournament’s potential standout midfielders who’ll be controlling  the action in Cameroon:

Franck Kessié (Ivory Coast)

Club: AC Milan

International caps: 52

Franck Kessié does not receive too much recognition from those outside of AC Milan and Serie A, but he is undoubtedly one of the top midfielders in Europe right now. He has already scored five goals (two from the penalty spot) in Serie A this season, while helping to power Milan to the top of the table with his excellent ability to win and keep the ball in midfield.

Kessié plays a similar role in the Ivory Coast team and can do so either has part of a midfield duo or trio. He’s also capable of playing further forward as an advanced pressing man, though his qualities are maximised when slightly deeper. He is part of a very exciting Ivory Coast midfield, and will be integral to his nation’s chances at the Afcon.

Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria)

Club: Leicester City

International caps: 43

Wilfred Ndidi is one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League. His reading of the game is among the best in Europe, he’s an excellent tackler, and is also a capable defender in the air. Ndidi is seventh in the Premier League this season (among players who’ve played at least 360 minutes) with an average of 3.62 tackles per 90 minutes. Of the six players ahead of him, three are defenders. In terms of interceptions, no Premier League midfielder (again, minimum 360 minutes played) can match Ndidi’s average of 2.38.

For Nigeria, Ndidi is the man holding things together just ahead of the defence. The Leicester City man serves as a protective shield, allowing the attacking talent to be aggressive, knowing they’ve got cover behind them. This is a very valuable trait to bring to the table for this Nigeria side, who like to play with as many attacking players on the pitch as is reasonably possible.

Thomas Partey (Ghana)

Club: Arsenal

International caps: 34

Thomas Partey had a slow start to life at Arsenal but has since shown his quality and established himself as a vital part of Mikel Arteta’s midfield. Of course, Partey’s quality has always been there, as evidenced by his play at Atletico Madrid. However, where Diego Simeone is committed to a defence-first style, Arteta and Arsenal have allowed Partey to flourish. Though many still see Partey as a defensive midfielder, the Ghanaian has so much more to his game. He is an excellent passer and dribbler, having completed 85.32% of his passes (including 153 in the final third) this season in the Premier League and 80% of his 25 attempted take-ons.

Partey plays a different, more aggressive role for his national team, with whom he truly thrives. In 34 caps for Ghana, Partey has scored 12 goals, including two in his past two matches in qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.

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Idrissa Gueye (Senegal)

Club: PSG

International caps: 84

Idrissa Gueye isn’t a ‘sexy’ midfielder, but he’s a really good one. For more than a decade as a senior pro, Gueye carries out the jobs on the pitch that no one else wants to do, and does so perfectly. His seamless fit into Paris Saint-Germain’s midfield since his arrival in 2019 has allowed Mauricio Pochettino’s side to attack with maximum aggressiveness, with far less fear of retaliation. The Senegalese midfielder has always had a gift for winning the ball back in midfield and helping to control the game. More recently, however, he’s also started to get further forward, as evidenced by a career-best-equaling four goals in Ligue 1 and Champions League already this season. Since his arrival in Paris, Gueye has averaged 3.49 tackles per 90 minutes in Ligue 1, won possession in the middle third 4.3 times per 90, and completed an outstanding 92.57& of his passes.

This is a role he perfectly mirrors in the Senegal national team. As with PSG, Gueye is content to sit deep and allow the likes of Sadio Mane, Famara Diedhiou and Krepin Diatta to freely attack. His defensive midfield partnership, likely with either Cheikhou Kouyate, will be key to Senegal’s success in Cameroon.

Yves Bissouma (Mali)

Club: Brighton

International caps: 18

Yves Bissouma joins Wilfred Ndidi as one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League right now. That quality means he likely won’t be a Brighton player for much longer. Since the Malian midfielder’s arrival in the English top flight ahead of the 2018/19 season, Bissouma has made 265 tackles, at an average of 4.0 per 90 minutes, and has completed 156 take-ons and made 145 interceptions. Among players to have played at least Premier League 2,000 minutes during that time, only four players (including Gueye and Ndidi) have managed more tackles per 90. Bissouma, who recently passed the 100-match milestone in the Premier League, impressively averages a tackle or interception every 17.9 minutes in league play.

Bissouma hasn’t actually played a great deal for Mali. As a result of a reported falling out with the coach, his last call-up to the national team came in 2018. However, he is back, and will undoubtedly be a star in the Malian side.

Honourable mentions

Aside from the stars above, there is a handful of midfielders who will be in Cameroon, ready to control the action from the midfield:

André-Frank Zambo Anguissa (Cameroon): Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa may wear a ridiculous shirt number for Napoli (99), but he is an excellent midfielder, especially with the ball at his feet. The Cameroonian has completed 29 take-ons in Serie A so far this season and will bring that ball-carrying ability with him to for the Afcon hosts.

Ibrahim Sangaré (Ivory Coast): An under-the-radar star (at least for those who don’t follow the Dutch Eredivisie or play loads of FIFA), Ibrahim Sangaré is one of the best young defensive midfielders in Europe right now. Among central and defensive midfielders 185cm or taller across Europe’s big seven leagues, Sangaré ranks second for completed dribbles, fifth for passes completed, third for tackles (48) and first for interceptions (49).

Ismael Bennacer (Algeria): Ismael Bennacer doesn’t get the minutes at AC Milan that Kessié does. However, when the Algerian is on the pitch, his quality is on full display as the defensive-minded midfielder in Milan’s title-chasing team. It’s a role he will replicate – extremely well – for Algeria in their quest to defend their Afcon crown.

Naby Keita (Guinea): Naby Keita may not have set the world alight for Liverpool; injury often strikes right when he looks destined to establish himself. But he remains a key player (and captain) for Guinea, for whom he regularly display his true quality. Keita often plays in a more advanced role for Guinea, which has translated into eight goals in 44 caps.