Every two years, Premier League clubs up and down the land face the prospect of losing some of their players to the Africa Cup of Nations. The thought of players leaving a club for an international tournament midway through the season can fill supporters with dread, particularly if those leaving are considered key. As a Portsmouth supporter, the African Nations wasn’t a competition I looked forward to during their Premier League years (which feels a lifetime ago), as it meant losing a number of important players at a vital juncture of the season.
This year, just 21 players from England’s top flight are making the trip to Africa, a number that may seem low, but is actually an increase on the 16 who were absent for the last tournament in 2015. The number could have even been higher had a handful not pulled out of their own accord (Joel Matip, Allan Nyom and Benik Afobe), while the failure of Nigeria to qualify limits the number going even further.
Eight clubs will be completely unaffected by the tournament and are not seeing any of their stars leave. Southampton did see Sofiane Boufal called up, but injury has curtailed his involvement, with the same being said for Watford’s Nordin Amrabat. This leaves 12 teams without at least one player until the tournament ends. But who is likely to be impacted the most by these absentees? I have used StrataData to investigate further, looking particularly at goals and chance creation, but first, here’s a complete rundown of the number of players missing from each team:
Three clubs instantly jump out, as Leicester, Stoke and Sunderland all lose three players each. Are they going to be the most affected from a statistical point of view, though? One could instantly make a case for Sunderland being hit hard, but this is purely on a squad depth basis, with David Moyes’ resources already at breaking point due to injuries even before the three absentees, two of whom have featured regularly and played quite well. However, from an offensive statistical point of view, Sunderland aren’t actually losing a great deal, with the trio of absentees having not contributed a single goal or assist between them all season, though admittedly both Ndong and Kone are defensive oriented.
From purely a goals perspective, Liverpool are one of the hardest hit, despite only losing one player. Sadio Mane is their top scorer this season in the Premier League with nine; nearly double that of any other player who is departing for the Africa Cup of Nations. Leicester’s Algerian pairing of Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez have contributed eight goals between them, while Crystal Palace’s Wilfred Zaha has chipped in with four of his own. It’s unsurprising that there is a correlation between playing time and goal output, but taken to a more granular level, Liverpool are losing an average of 0.45 goals per game through the absence of Mane, a number that could be significant to the team in the next month, and something that must not be overlooked when considering Liverpool on a betting front, particularly in the Asian Handicap and Total Goals markets.
Overall, 25 goals have been scored in the Premier League this season by those 21 players on international duty, but some naturally make a much greater impact with their absence. Interestingly, only five teams are losing any goal output by those missing, but Liverpool and Leicester are comfortably the most affected, with Leicester’s average being even with the Merseyside club courtesy of a solitary goal from Daniel Amartey, the third departure for Claudio Ranieri to deal with:
In Leicester’s case the absentees could indeed be argued as being more important, as Liverpool have amassed a far greater overall goal output this season, netting exactly double Leicester’s total (48 to 24) as of Round 20, the final round of games before players were required to link up with their international squads. Broken down, Liverpool are losing just under a fifth of their attacking output (18.75%) and in comparison to Leicester the number looks far more manageable, with the reigning champions now losing 37.5% of their goals total to the African Nations. So, in theory, Leicester will score at a much lower rate during this period, while Liverpool will suffer to a degree, but nowhere near the same level. The other teams are impacted far less, though Crystal Palace lose a fairly sizeable 13%, while Stoke and West Ham’s figures dip even more, suggesting they will be able to replace or compensate for their absentees far more comfortably.
Much has been made of Leicester’s dip in form this season and in particular that of Mahrez, and though that is indeed the case from the previous campaign, it appears the winger is still contributing to the cause to a degree that makes him difficult to replace adequately, something highlighted with his two goals for Algeria in their opening African Nations match:
With this in mind, Leicester suddenly become a less attractive prospect for Overs backers in the Total Goals market, with that amount of goals being incredibly hard to replace in such a short space of time, something that was evident in the previous round of fixtures where they drew a blank, albeit against a very stout Chelsea defence who have been keeping clean sheets for fun of late. Liverpool should have the firepower to cope with Mane’s absence, particularly with the return of Philippe Coutinho, but he will certainly be missed to enough of a degree that their goal output will suffer.
A further suggestion that Leicester are going to be the hardest hit comes from a glance at creation statistics amongst those missing, with the trio of absentees for Claudio Ranieri’s side contributing seven assists between them, close to a third of all goals scored, and a number exceeding that of any of the other club impacted by international call ups. Liverpool and Crystal Palace once again feature fairly heavily through the contributions of Mane and Zaha respectively, with the latter having made six goals on his own this season, being comfortably the most creative force in Sam Allardyce’s squad. Interestingly, the four leading scorers that make up this year’s African Nations contingent (Mahrez, Mane, Slimani and Zaha) are also the most creative, with Stoke’s Mame Biram Diouf the only other player to create more than a solitary goal before the international call up. A handful of other clubs are losing players with one assist to their name, but their impact is nominal:
Aside from actual assists however is chance creation, and of the list of those players departing for Africa, Mane once again tops the pile with 20 chances made. However, it’s not just the quantity of the opportunities he’s fashioned, also the quality, with seven of the 20 openings being considered either “Great” (40% conversion) or “Very Good” (25% conversion). This suggests that in terms of individual output, he will be the most sorely missed individual from the Premier League absentees, with no other coming close to matching the quality or quantity of his chance creation. This is not something Liverpool will want to be without as they try and sustain a title push and is something that could once again impact their ability to overcome pre-match betting handicaps.
So can we assume that aside from Leicester, Liverpool and Crystal Palace no teams are going to be impacted by the Africa Cup of Nations? Not really. Other teams have been hurt, albeit to a lesser degree. Arsenal for example, minus just Mohamed El Nenny, have been in strong goal scoring form whenever he is on the pitch, netting on average every 38 minutes. He’s only been a bit part player and doesn’t offer any consistent threat in the final third, but with injuries mounting up in midfield for Arsene Wenger’s side, his absence could have an effect on team balance. After Mane, who Liverpool average a goal scored every 36 minutes when he’s on the pitch, none of the other absentees see a goal scored with such regularity, but it’s unlikely either team will see goals dry up completely.
Going in the other direction, Everton can expect to be worse off and more vulnerable defensively without Idrissa Gueye, who has played more minutes than any of the African contingent heading to the tournament from the Premier League. In his 1668 minutes played this season, Everton are conceding at an average of one goal every 111 minutes, highlighting his importance to the team. While they have taken steps to replace him with the signing of Morgan Schneiderlin, and while they also managed to see off Man City so emphatically in the first weekend without him, his will certainly be an absence that is felt over time. He’s missed just one game in total this season but has been brought off on a couple of occasions, but what is notable is how big the shift is in the average time goals are conceded, with the side shipping a goal every 16.5 minutes without him. Admittedly five of those eight goals conceded when his absence came against a rampant Chelsea, but that game only went to further showcase his importance and could make Everton a bit more volatile in the Total Goals market. On top of his defensive significance, Gueye also stands out as the leading “Secondary Assist” maker of the 21 players absent, suggesting he has a far greater role in the build up to goals than he receives credit for (much like the superb N’Golo Kante last season).
Overall it would be fair to suggest that only a handful of clubs will be significantly hampered by the Africa Cup of Nations, but by and large the majority of those losing players won’t be harmed too much. Liverpool, Leicester and Crystal Palace stand out from the crowd as those who could suffer the most, particularly the former pair in terms of going forward, but it would be remiss to undervalue and discount the absence of Gueye at Everton, particularly from a defensive perspective and when considering trading over the coming weeks.
Alec Payne (@Payney3)