The Africa Cup of Nations 2021 runs from January 9 to February 6 and 16 Premier League clubs have players away in Cameroon.
It may be particularly tough for Premier League teams to cope this year, given Covid-19 has already severely depleted many squads and postponed games from December are being rearranged for this month.
The most high profile is of course Liverpool, who lose Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Naby Keita at the worst possible moment considering the club’s faltering title challenge. Their absence has been noted throughout the campaign, but less has been made of how absentees will impact the rest of the division.
Liverpool aside, here’s a look at which teams will be hit hardest:
Arsenal and Brighton lose their midfield linchpins
In the top half of the table, the problems are at the base of midfield. Arsenal‘s form has improved markedly in recent weeks and Mikel Arteta’s side are now among the favourites to finish in the top four, but probably the most important player in his system – Thomas Partey – is away with Ghana for the month.
His ability to sweep up behind the Arsenal attackers, using his anticipation to stamp out counter-attacks at source, is vital to the Gunners’ ability to attack in waves and play their Guardiola-inspired football. Partey’s brilliant performance against Manchester City, coupled with Granit Xhaka‘s typical error, was proof Arsenal need Partey and have little in reserve (Mohamed Elneny will also be at AFCON).
And Arsenal have a tough month. After facing Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup they play Liverpool twice in the EFL Cup and have the North London Derby against Tottenham Hotspur in between, before a home game against Burnley.
That might set them back, but not as much as it will Brighton. Mali international Yves Bissouma is away, and playing a similar role to Partey his absence could see Graham Potter’s hopes of European football diminish. Brighton have won 21 points from the 14 Premier League games Bissouma has started this season and just six from the five in which he was absent.
That’s worrying given they have a derby game against Crystal Palace followed by Chelsea and Leicester City in the league this month. Three defeats would send them spiralling, so soon after a mini-resurgence.
Burnley and Watford without their best goal threat
At the bottom of the table, Burnley and Watford are scrabbling around for points and need all the attacking help they can get. Unfortunately Sean Dyche loses 37.5% of his league goals as star player Maxwel Cornet joins Ivory Coast and Claudio Ranieri, though controversially holding onto Emmanuel Dennis, sees 23% o f his league goals gone as Ismaila Sarr plays for Senegal.
Cornet has been the creative spark, the flair player, in an otherwise uninspiring season for a Burnley side that look likely to go down. They have only managed 16 Premier League goals this season, and without Cornet may well lose all three games against Leicester City (h), Watford (h), and Arsenal (a).
It is no wonder Watford used a technicality to get Dennis to stay at Vicarage Road. Had they lost him and Sarr, their counter-attacking threat would disappear at the most crucial juncture of their campaign to date. There is still a slither of hope for matches against Newcastle, Burnley, and Norwich this month.
On balance, Watford can expect to scrape some points against such poor opposition even without one of their best players, but Burnley could collapse.
Leicester and Palace lose the most players
Although Leicester and Crystal Palace arguably don’t have much to play for, both residing comfortably in mid-table but too far off the European places, they have the most first-choice players absent this month.
Palace are missing Jordan Ayew, Wilfried Zaha, and Cheikhou Kouyate, weakening Patrick Vieira’s team in a month they face Brighton (a), Liverpool (h), and Norwich (a) in the Premier League. They should be capable of picking up points without Ayew and Zaha at Carrow Road and the Amex, however.
Leicester’s outside chance of making the top seven takes a further hit this month when Daniel Amartey, Wilfried Ndidi, and Kelechi Iheanacho all go to AFCON. Brendan Rodgers already faced a selection crisis due to a number of injuries and Covid absences, so losing two of his best players – and a player often covering in defence this season – is a major blow.
It’s a packed month, too, with four Premier League games including Everton (a), Burnley (a), Tottenham (h), and Brighton (h). There is a genuine chance things really fall apart for Rodgers here. Leicester have won just four points from the five games Ndidi has missed this season. Falling out of the top ten altogether is on the cards.