The Africa Cup of Nations kicks off next month, with it heavily affecting some clubs, whilst not having any effect whatsoever on others. We rank each Premier League side – from positively to negatively – on the impact AFCON will have on them…
Antonio Conte is one of four Premier League bosses without any first-team players off to Cameroon for the biennial continental competition. Spurs find themselves all alone in 20th as they have 19-year-old midfielder Pape Matar Sarr out on loan at Metz, who will likely be included in Senegal’s AFCON squad. His game time might be more restricted for his country than his temporary club, but the experience can only be a good thing for the north Londoners.
T19) Leeds, Newcastle and Norwich
These sides join Spurs in a group of clubs that will not feel the effect of losing a player due to AFCON. All three are hoping to avoid the drop, with Leeds looking the most likely out of the struggling trio.
The Toffees could potentially be without two first-team stars in Alex Iwobi of Nigeria and Ivorian midfielder Jean-Philippe Gbamin. But considering the pair’s form on Merseyside, it would not be inconceivable to see either, or both, players fail to earn a call-up for next month’s competition. Gbamin has suffered injury after injury at Goodison Park and has not featured for his country since 2019 while Iwobi’s exclusion would be pretty surprising, though he has not hit any sort of form since joining Everton from Arsenal for around £30million. For a bit more context, he has not managed more than one goal in a Premier League season for the Toffees; that’s three goals in 67 appearances.
15) Manchester United
Eric Bailly and Amad Diallo are United’s only first-team players who can leave for AFCON, with both coming from the Ivory Coast. Bailly is an important player for his country, not his club, and Diallo is a very promising winger who has only featured once this season, starting in Wednesday’s Champions League match against Young Boys. The Ivorian squad is stacked in some positions, whilst it is lacking in others. Unfortunately for Amad, one of the positions with a plethora of talent is his own. Nicolas Pepe, Maxwel Cornet, Wilfried Zaha and Jeremie Boga, amongst others, are all competing for a starting berth on the flanks of Patrice Beaumelle’s side.
AFCON will be good for Bailly, who can get a consistent run of games, whilst Amad’s inclusion remains uncertain. As he holds the potential to be a key player for the Ivorians in the future, the 19-year-old winger could probably do with a loan move in January, instead of being limited to Premier League 2 matches and a meaningless European appearance.
14) Manchester City
Any other Premier League side would be a lot further up this list if they were missing Riyad Mahrez, but due to Man City’s ridiculous depth, his absence doesn’t have too much of an effect on their title ambitions.
Mahrez is a world-class footballer, but Pep Guardiola will have Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and Cole Palmer at his disposal in the Algerian’s absence. I’m sure the champions of England will be fine.
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13) West Ham
The Hammers will be without Said Benrahma, who has been very good this season after a shaky debut campaign at the London Stadium. He has undoubtedly slowed down since his electric start to 21/22 – he scored two and assisted two in his first two matches – but the Hammers are hardly blessed for strength in depth. That said, Benrahma doesn’t often see out matches for West Ham and definitely isn’t the best option up front should Michail Antonio pick up an injury. Despite Benrahma’s wonderful ability, West Ham should be just fine while he mounts a push for the AFCON title with Algeria.
Thomas Frank’s only notable African star is Frank Onyeka, who will be off to represent Nigeria at AFCON. The 23-year-old midfielder joined the Bees in the summer from FC Midtjylland and has featured plenty already this term, but has been brought off the bench or substituted in all of his appearances so far, except last month’s 1-0 win over Everton.
As well as Onyeka, Tariqe Fosu and Julian Jeanvier could be absent due to January’s “little tournament”, but they don’t have a Premier League minute between them, so Onyeka is the only significant absentee for Brentford.
Mohammed Salisu has emerged as a commanding centre-half for Southampton this season, but Ralph Hasenhuttl will lose him as he goes to play for Ghana. The Austrian will also be without Malian winger Moussa Djenepo, who hasn’t played in the Premier League since a 1-0 win over Leeds in October.
Both players will be missed for different reasons, but this season’s version of Djenepo isn’t a massive loss, though he does have the potential to spark a match to life, much like former Saint Sofiane Boufal. Jack Stephens will likely come in for Salisu, which is a downgrade but not the end of the world for Hasenhuttl.
10) Aston Villa
Villa are missing a trio of squad members thanks to AFCON. If this article was written a month ago I would have been talking about three players struggling for consistent game time. But since then, Zimbabwean midfielder Marvelous Nakamba has emerged as a big player under new head coach Steven Gerrard. Nakamba has played in all four games under Stevie G, completing the full 90 minutes on three occasions while being hauled off after 77 minutes as the Villans searched for an equaliser against Man City.
As well as the revitalised Nakamba, Gerrard will likely be without Mahmoud Trezeguet and Bertrand Traore. Trezeguet has been injured this season and only recently returned, scoring in an Under-23 match against Birmingham earlier this month. Traore has also been injured with Gerrard aiming for the Burkina Faso winger to be back in training pre-Christmas. Despite his lack of match sharpness, it would be surprising if he is not in Kamou Malo’s squad.
Wolves are (potentially) missing two players thanks to AFCON; the hugely unfortunate thing is that they are both central defenders. Romain Saiss will be off to captain Morocco, and Willy Boly should partner Bailly in the heart of the Ivory Coast defence if he beats his most recent injury setback. Boly has struggled for game time this season under Bruno Lage, with his only minutes in 2021/22 coming in the Carabao Cup. He has the emergence of the excellently consistent Max Kilman to thank for that.
Kilman won’t be thanking either Saiss or Boly, however, as they will leave Wolves pretty short defensively if they are in Cameroon next month. The most likely scenario is that Leander Dendoncker will move back into Lage’s back three, which isn’t ideal, but he has plenty of experience playing there during Nuno Espirito Santo’s time at Molineux.
Perhaps his performance at the weekend has knocked Chelsea down a couple of places in this list, but the Blues will be without No 1 goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, who has been immense under Thomas Tuchel – and Frank Lampard for a bit – since coming to the Premier League. Their other AFCON absentee is Hakim Ziyech (Morocco), who is constantly in and out of the starting XI under the German head coach.
Thankfully for Tuchel, he has the world’s most expensive goalkeeper in Kepa Arrizabalaga ready to step in when Mendy leaves to serve his country. The ex-PSG boss will be hoping Kepa doesn’t channel his inner, well, Kepa, whilst he is back between the sticks.
Mali will steal Yves Bissouma from Brighton next month, which is a huge loss for Graham Potter. The 25-year-old midfielder has arguably been the Seagulls’ best player for the last two years, attracting interest from a host of top clubs in the summer. His influence in breaking up play and stopping opposition attacks whilst initiating them for his team will be sorely missed.
Brighton started the season very well but have fallen away in recent weeks. Losing Bissouma will do nothing to allay fears that they could keep on dropping down the table into mid-table mediocrity.
Another side only missing one player, Sean Dyche will be without his star man this season because of AFCON, with Maxwel Cornet off to represent Ivory Coast. Fortunately for the Clarets, they have consistently survived without the 25-year-old, so I have faith in their ability to string together some plucky performances without their talisman. So far this season, Cornet has scored five goals in nine Premier League appearances since breaking the club’s transfer record in the summer.
The fact that fellow strugglers Leeds, Newcastle and Norwich are missing zero first-team players is a particular body blow to the Clarets.
The Gunners are missing four players next month. Thomas Partey (Ghana), Mohamed Elneny (Egypt), Nicolas Pepe (Ivory Coast) and club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon) will all be at AFCON, which could yet benefit manager Mikel Arteta.
Having said that, Partey and Aubameyang are crucial players, whereas Elneny’s absence leaves Arsenal short in midfield and Pepe is the club’s record signing. Some may argue that their absence could be a positive thing because said ‘crucial players’ are out of form so perhaps playing different players could revitalise Arteta’s side. But we are talking about nearly £200m of talent…
Another side that will be left short in midfield, Leicester are missing Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria) and Nampalys Mendy (Senegal), with Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall and Hamza Choudhury likely to be called upon a lot more after the New Year.
The two combative midfielders are not alone, with last season’s top scorer in all competitions Kelechi Iheanacho and Daniel Amartey also likely to be called up by their countries. Iheanacho enjoyed his best season at Leicester last season, but the summer signing of Patson Daka has limited his game time. As for Amartey, he has been playing a lot more than expected due to injuries, most recently to Wesley Fofana, who broke his leg in a pre-season friendly. That defensive depth – that is already lacking – will be even more of a burden for Brendan Rodgers in January, and Iheanacho’s attacking prowess will be missed off the bench.
3) Crystal Palace
Star man Wilfried Zaha will be on national team duty next month, alongside (probably) three other Palace stars. Losing four players at once is pretty horrible, and the personnel missing is less than ideal. As well as Zaha, Jordan Ayew (Ghana), Jeffrey Schlupp (Ghana) and Cheikhou Kouyate (Senegal) are Palace’s AFCON representatives. All four started in their last two Premier League matches against Man Utd and Leeds. To lose four starting players because of a mid-season tournament is very detrimental, and with Palace’s form slipping, their AFCON absentees could come back to a London club in a much more precarious position than the one they left.
Zaha is their best player, make no doubt about that, and is one of their greatest players of all time. With Eberechi Eze still easing his way back in, Michael Olise will need to step up, and Patrick Vieira will be a lot more reliant on Odsonne Edouard and Christian Benteke finding the back of the net.
A close decision, this time between first and second, with Watford just missing out on top (or bottom) spot. Claudio Ranieri could be without five first-team players next month. Emmanuel Dennis and William Troost-Ekong should be away with Nigeria (Peter Etebo is injured), Imran Louza and Adam Masina could be with Morocco, and Ismaila Sarr will represent Senegal if he is fit enough to go to Cameroon with his international teammates. If he isn’t healthy, he will probably not feature for the Hornets in January due to a knee injury anyway, which is a massive blow. If Sarr is absent solely due to AFCON, you can shift them up to first place.
Watford’s Premier League survival chances will take a huge hit next month. Dennis has been their best player this term and has contributed to 11 goals in 14 league matches so far. Masina and Troost-Ekong have featured a great deal in 21/22, with Louza’s game time also on the up just as AFCON approaches.
With three of the four teams lacking an AFCON participant being down the bottom alongside Watford, next month is looking bleak. They could miss home matches against West Ham, Tottenham and Norwich, as well as trips to Newcastle and West Ham (if one of their players reaches the final of the tournament).
Joel Matip will be available having retired from international football; Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita will not. Salah already has 20 goals this season, with Mane in joint-second with Diogo Jota on nine goals. It’s pretty hard to emphasise how much Salah will be missed; he is the best player in the world right now and is showing no signs of slowing down whatsoever.
Keita won’t be a huge miss for Liverpool, but Guinea will hope the injury-prone midfielder can stay fit for AFCON. But as you already know, Salah and Mane are monumental misses for Jurgen Klopp. Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino will need to step up in their absence, and even if they play the best football of their careers, they won’t match the output of the Egyptian and Senegalese. Salah is winning Liverpool matches by himself, and his absence is the equivalent of Real Madrid missing Cristiano Ronaldo in 2013; that is how influential he has been for the Reds this season. An AFCON win will do Salah’s 2022 Ballon d’Or bid no harm whatsoever, not that he cares…