The Impact of AFCON on the Premier League

Updated: 68 Football

Discover how the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) potentially affects Premier League clubs' season aspirations, with insights into player management.

The Impact of AFCON on the Premier League
In this article: Introduction
Dan Tracey Data Scientist and Football Editor

Writer, analyst, podcaster, Spurs fan. Three out of four is not bad. If there is a data angle, I will find it.

Dive deep into the contentious overlap of AFCON and the Premier League. This article examines the critical effect on league leaders and the balancing act between national pride and club performance. Unearth the implications for top-tier English clubs – indispensable reading for football enthusiasts keen on understanding this complex dynamic.

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Does The AFCON Hamper Your Premier League Hopes?

The club versus country row in football is as old as time itself. The club pays astronomical wages, the country demands the best talents available to try and win major international prizes.

Within the sphere of European football, the friction points can be found during qualifiers for either the World Cup or the European Championships. If a key name for a title-chasing side gets injured while representing their country, it is not going to go down well with their paymasters.

While within the same sphere, the signing of a high-profile South American or Asian player can lead to further headaches. Not only is there the same risk of injury as mentioned above but also the likelihood of additional fatigue being thrown into the mix.

The Strain of International Duties on Premier League Stars ✈️⚽️

Clocking miles from Brazil or South Korea to the UK midweek only to hit the Premier League pitch by weekend? Hamstring woes await. 😓 A balancing act for big clubs during the season's sprint. 🏥🔄

If you are jetting in from Brazil or South Korea in midweek and have a Premier League outing that same weekend, chances are that your hamstrings are either going to feel the pinch at best or pop altogether at worst.

A pertinent issue for the big clubs to deal with but at least they can call upon their players when fit. The international breaks dovetail the club season, the frustration may be there but the two entities do not overlap.

That is unless you are an African star who is called up for AFCON duty and with the 2023 edition soon to get underway (staged in 2024) the temporary loan of Premier League stars at the start of the year is set to get away once again.

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The one international tournament that Premier League managers fear the most and although the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham have depth within their squads, the last thing they want is to be saying goodbye to their biggest or most important names.

None more so than current league leaders Liverpool and with Mohamed Salah set to be away from Anfield for at least a month, one wonders what dent if any will it put in their bid to win this season’s title. 

Liverpool will be without Egyptian Mo Salah for as long as they remain in the tournament

The same can be said for Tottenham and their hopes of earning a Champions League berth for themselves at the end of the season. Ange Postecoglou must say goodbye to both Yves Bissouma and Pape Sarr, his midfield is now going to look severely depleted for at least a couple of weeks.

However, life will go on for these two and the other 18 clubs that compete in the English top tier and we will only know the true fallout for them once the 2023 AFCON completed. We may not be able to predict the future before this year’s tournament, but we can take a look at the past.

Which is where the previous edition of the competition comes into focus and by looking at the Premier League players that were called up in 2021, we can measure how their absence impacted the clubs that pay their wages. 

The Last AFCON and it's Effects

32 players took temporary leave to the 2021 AFCON in Cameroon (even if it was held in early 2022) and here is the data table that we have constructed: 

Club Player Nationality Nationality Progress Tournament Start Last Game Overall AFCON Available Overall AFCON Earned Overall AFCON Dropped Player Spell Dropped
Arsenal Thomas Partey Ghana Group Stage 9th January 18th January 2022 3 1 2 0
Arsenal Nicolas Pepe Ivory Coast Round of 16 9th January 26th January 2022 3 1 2 2
Arsenal Omar Rekik Tunisia Quarter Final 9th January 29th January 2022 3 1 2 2
Arsenal Mohamed Elneny Egypt Final 9th January 6th February 2022 3 1 2 2
Aston Villa Bertrand Traore Burkina Faso 3rd/4th Playoff 9th January 5th February 2022 6 4 2 2
Aston Villa Mahmoud Trezeguet Egypt Final 9th January 6th February 2022 6 4 2 2
Brentford Frank Onyeka Nigeria Round of 16 9th January 23rd January 2022 12 0 12 12
Brighton Ulrick Eneme Ella Gabon Round of 16 9th January 23rd January 2022 9 3 6 6
Brighton Yves Bissouma Mali Round of 16 9th January 26th January 2022 9 3 6 6
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To explain this data table, we need to look at the data points themselves. The first three columns should be self-explanatory and therefore, we can move on to column four. This column describes the eventual progress of each nation that the player in question represented.

From here, columns five and six denote the tournament window in which that player would be involved. The tournament got underway on January 9th and this is our starting point for all the 32 names involved.

The end date is dependent on when a respective nation exited the 2021 AFCON or in the case of Egyptian or Senegalese players, made their way through to the final. With each players tournament window of representation in place we move on the final four columns.

  • Column Six – The number of total points a club could earn during the spell where all the players are away on AFCON duty (not necessarily the whole tournament duration)

  • Column Seven – The number of total points a club earned while their players were on AFCON duty.

  • Column Eight – The number of total points dropped while any of their players were on AFCON duty.

  • Column Nine – The number of total points dropped while that particular player was on AFCON duty.

Arsenal

While the reason the figures may differ from Column Eight to Column Nine is because of how far a nation progressed in the AFCON tournament. Take Arsenal for example, the club collectively dropped two points during this window.

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The AFCON tournament effect? 🌍⚽ Arsenal felt the heat, dropping 2 crucial points during the key window! Gunners' star Thomas Partey was back, but his teammates' extended stay at AFCON took a toll. Will clubs adapt strategies for international spells? 🤔🛠️

The Gunners played one fixture between January 9th, 2022 and 6th February, 2022 – that being the 0-0 draw with Burnley. This means three points were up for grabs, two in total were dropped but Ghanian Thomas Partey was responsible for any of them.

The reason being that Partey’s stint at the 2021 AFCON was rather short and although three of his club teammates were still absent by the time Arsenal and Burnley played out a bore draw, the former Atletico Madrid midfielder was back home and available.

Therefore, Partey’s own AFCON experience is not responsible for two points being dropped but arguably the same cannot not be said for the trio of Nicholas Pepe, Omar Rekik and Mohamed Elneny. They were all still on international duty and therefore have two points dropped attributed.

Watford

The only other variation of points dropped is at Watford. The Hornets had four players out on AFCON duty. William Troost-Ekong missed one defeat and was back in time to only drop three points personally, teammates Adam Masina and Imran Louza would miss a subsequent draw, Ismalia Sarr would miss one more.

Brentford

While the biggest headline from this is the fact that Brentford played four Premier League fixtures during the AFCON window. The Bees lost all four and Nigeria’s Frank Onyeka was absent for the quartet.

Brentford's Struggle Without Onyeka 🐝⚽️

Brentford's form took a hit during AFCON, as they faced 4 defeats without Nigeria's midfield maestro Frank Onyeka. 🇳🇬🐝 A clear reminder of his importance to the Bees' squad.

Whether four successive defeats were all because of Onyeka’s unavailability can be argued but the numbers do not lie and when he was representing Nigeria, the form of Thomas Frank’s men had quickly disappeared.

No such concerns for Liverpool and Manchester City though. The two title challengers of the 2021/22 season played two fixtures each during their respective AFCON windows and both clubs recorded a maximum six points.

No difference in either total and that would eventually play a part in Manchester City securing the Premier League crown on the final day of the 2021/22 campaign. Had Riyad Mahrez’ two-game absence not delivered a maximum; the story would have been far different.

A story that saw Pep Guardiola’s men reign supreme by just a single point in the end, as the final 2021/22 Premier League table looked like this: 

Pos Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
1 Manchester City 38 29 6 3 99 26 73 93
2 Liverpool 38 28 8 2 94 26 68 92
3 Chelsea 38 21 11 6 76 33 43 74
4 Tottenham Hotspur 38 22 5 11 69 40 29 71
5 Arsenal 38 22 3 13 61 48 13 69
6 Manchester United 38 16 10 12 57 57 0 58
7 West Ham United 38 16 8 14 60 51 9 56
8 Leicester 38 14 10 14 62 59 3 52
9 Brighton 38 12 15 11 42 44 −2 51
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Burnley, Watford and Norwich all relegated to the EFL Championship but would AFCON exploits for the first two of these three clubs have made any difference? That question and many others we can now begin to answer.

The way to do so is by adding on all the dropped points by each team during their respective AFCON windows and then we can recalibrate the 2021/22 final table. Before we do though, there are a couple of points to note.

  • Only potential points will be added to the table. 

  • New values will be the maximum possible tallies they could have earned once AFCON points added back on.

  • No provision for goals for or against to be added as we can only add points back not recreate new results.

With this criteria stipulated, here is what the 2021/22 Premier League table would look like when it is recalculated: 

Pos Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts AFCON Pts Dropped Recalculated Points
1 Manchester City 38 29 6 3 99 26 73 93 0 93
2 Liverpool 38 28 8 2 94 26 68 92 0 92
3 Chelsea 38 21 11 6 76 33 43 74 5 79
4 Tottenham Hotspur 38 22 5 11 69 40 29 71 0 71
5 Arsenal 38 22 3 13 61 48 13 69 2 71
6 Manchester United 38 16 10 12 57 57 0 58 2 60
7 Brentford 38 13 7 18 48 56 −8 46 12 58
8 Brighton 38 12 15 11 42 44 −2 51 6 57
9 Leicester 38 14 10 14 62 59 3 52 5 57
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The big story is that Brentford would have squeezed into Europe if they had a maximum return during the 2021 AFCON. The 12 points that they dropped during that spell was the difference between finishing 13th in real life and seventh in the table above. 

That boost up the table would have come at the expense of West Ham and they would have also been pushed further down the table as both Brighton and Leicester would have gained extra points – six to the Seagulls and five to the Foxes. 

Not enough to gatecrash the European party and two additional points were not enough for Arsenal to surpass Tottenham in the race for fourth place. The absence of three Gunners squad members was at the same time as that goalless draw with Burnley.

Those two additional points would see the two North London rivals level pegging on 71 but goal difference would still be enough for Spurs to get over the line and book a return to Europe’s premier club competition.

While fellow London rivals Chelsea would only move further into the distance, as the Blues lost five points while Eduoard Mendy was at the AFCON. 74 points in real life would see their third place finished solidified with 79.

The other team in top seven to also see a points addition were Manchester United. Another two points to their tally of 58 would further secure a sixth place finish and only slightly improve a rather unremarkable campaign.

No change at the very top of the table but an element of change in the bottom half. Crystal Palace would have gained a position as five additional points take them from 12th to 11th. Wolves subsequently dropped from 10th to 12th. 

Two places further down for them, the same can be said for Newcastle as the Magpies had nothing in the way of AFCON representation. The Molineux men on the other hand won both their games even with Romain Saiss playing for Morocco instead.

The trio of Aston Villa, Southampton and Everton would have seen two, five and six points added respectively. However, this would do nothing in terms of their real life finishes of 14th place through to 16th.

Leeds survived relegation on the final day of the 2021/22 season and even with Burnley’s two additional points being added from Maxwell Cornet’s absence, it would not have changed the fortunes of the Clarets.

While Watford’s seven points would have been immaterial in terms of boosting their own survival hopes. In real life, the Hornets finished 15 points from safety, with the AFCON points added it would have been just eight.

Which brings an end to our analysis. As you can see there was not fundamental change in terms of the Premier League trophy’s destination in 2021/22. Will the AFCON be a non-factor at the end of 2023/24 or will it impact who becomes this season’s champions? Only time will tell.


Methodology and Source Data

Methodology is explained with the first table on this article

Source data:

AFCON Players - https://inews.co.uk/sport/football/africa-cup-of-nations-2021-premier-league-players-full-list-miss-fixtures-afcon-1268803

Premier League Results - https://www.whoscored.com/Regions/252/Tournaments/2/Seasons/8618/England-Premier-League

Data correct as of 8th January 2024

Meet The Author

Dan Tracey is our main man for stats and data and spend hours collecting and collating the information for his article before analysis and adding the words.

Dan Tracey

Dan Tracey

Data scientist and football editor

Dan Tracey is a multi-talented writer, data analyst and podcaster whose six-year career in the sports data sphere has seen incredible successes. From helping UEFA create their annual technical reports to writing articles for Sports Betting Websites including sites like TheLinesUS and Goal - there's no shortage of areas where his expertise shines through! In addition, he can be heard on podcasts lending an insightful voice as well as providing weekly betting angles - all culminating with him teaming up OLBG.com in the present day. Simply put: wherever you find angled data being crunched? You'll also likely find Dan not far behind!

👨‍🏫 Specialist Subjects🔬📚

Dan's specialist area is data; and lots of it! Wherever we need numbers to create our unique deep dive articles, Dan is our go-to. Dan is also a Tottenham Fan and a football commentator for Newcastle Blue Star

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