It is one of the quirks of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26-year reign as Manchester United manager that he only ever signed four African players.
While it could be argued that Quinton Fortune, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Mame Biram Diouf or Manucho’s failure to set Old Trafford alight could be to blame, it’s widely recognised that Ferguson avoided players from that continent due to the potential disruption from losing them to the Africa Cup of Nations every other January and February could cause.
New United boss Jose Mourinho has already shown that’s a risk he’s willing to take, making Ivory Coast’s Eric Bailly his first signing as Red Devils boss.
With Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel playing key parts in his two reigns as Chelsea gaffer, Mourinho clearly isn’t concerned by absences of African players to the three-week tournament every two years.
However, our research shows that he should be.
In the past five iterations of the Africa Cup of Nations, Premier League teams with players at the tournament have only picked up an average of 1.22 points/game, and drop 0.28 places in the table.
Having already missed cup victories over Reading and Hull in the build-up to the tournament, Bailly could be unavailable for another six United fixtures should his side make the final on February 5.
Liverpool, averaging 2.2 points/game this season, face United this weekend, with Senegal’s Sadio Mane missing from their side.
After picking up points at a rate of just 1.38 per match when without AFCON players since 2008, the omens aren’t good for Jurgen Klopp over the next month.
Interestingly, their city rivals Everton have the most success in the adversity of players being out.
Missing six players to AFCON since 2008, the Toffees have picked up 2.2 points per match on average, and gained 1.67 places in the table.
With Idrissa Gueye, who has played 1665 out of 1800 available Premier League minutes for Everton this year, also away with Senegal, Ronald Koeman will hope his replacements can rally and provide a similar rate of success this time around.
While Gueye will be a big miss, Everton aren’t the club worst hit by call-ups this season.
Champions Leicester will be missing three key men, at a cost of nine goals, four assists, and a combined 3,792 minutes played – with Islam Slimani, Daniel Amartey, and PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez due to miss a number of fixtures over the next month.
The current tournament, due to start on Saturday, will affect the bottom half of the Premier League far more than the top.
18 players from the lower half of the table will be in Gabon, compared to just six from the clubs higher than 10th.
18th placed Sunderland (three players and 3,238 minutes) and 20th placed Hull (two players and 2,327 minutes) will be struggling for replacements, with the tournament sure to have an impact on the battle to avoid relegation.
While Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal are all affected by this year’s competition, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City are not – which could prove key in one of most competitive title races in memory.
Chelsea’s lack of involvement this year is surprising given they are the side who have been hit by the most AFCON call-ups since the start of the Premier League.
They lead the way with 18 players picked for tournaments since '92, with Drogba, Mikel (both four occasions), Celestine Babayaro and Salomon Kalou (both three) all representing their nations while Blues players.
The current Premier League leaders also top this table ahead of London rivals Arsenal, on 16, and Newcastle and Portsmouth, who both had to contend with 14 players missing to AFCONs while they were in the Premier League.
While seeing Premier League stars in action at Africa Cup of Nations is a regular occurrence nowadays, it wasn’t so commonplace during the early 90s.
The 1994 edition of the tournament saw just one English based player, Norwich’s Efan Ekoku (for Nigeria) take part – compared to a high of 34 in 2008.
While the numbers have dipped slightly since, the 23 players involved in this year’s competition makes it the third highest Premier League representation of all time.
The first Premier League player to take to the pitch in this year’s tournament is Sunderland’s Didier Ibrahim Ndong, as his home nation of Gabon faces tournament newcomers Guinea Bissau in the opening match. Right as that match kicks off, Sunderland will be starting the second half of their fixture against Stoke City. It’ll be exciting to see how Sunderland fares—especially since they’ve lost 3 players to AFCON.
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