Ghana has always been able to produce quality central midfielders. From the likes of Charles Gyamfi in the 1950’s to the more modern day Michael Essien, the Black Stars have a habit of churning out top class midfield maestros. At Brugge’s so called second club, there is another Ghanaian midfielder beginning to emerge.
In the summer of 2022 Cercle Brugge brought in Abu Francis from Danish side FC Nordsjælland. As with many who go through the northern Danish town of Farum, Francis began his career at the Right to Dream Academy. He left Ghana for Denmark in the summer of 2019, going on to make 60 appearances for the first team, grabbing seven goals and five assists in the process. Cercle Brugge scouting team were clearly impressed with what they saw and decided to invest around €500,000 in the youngster according to Transfermarkt.
What was so intriguing about Francis is his versatility. He has played almost everywhere but in goal during his short professional career. At Cercle, they appear to see him as a central midfielder, however that area had strong competition to start the season. Leonardo Da Silva Lopez, Charles Vanhoutte and Hannes van der Bruggen were also competing for the two central spots, with Francis appearing to be in competition with Lopez. The former Hull City player is one of Cercle’s top performers, and so Francis had to be patient for his chances.
When Lopez suffered an injury, Francis got his chance for an extended run of games. It has not been a coincidence that since the World Cup break the side have not lost a game in which Francis has started. Technically, the 21-year-old can certainly hold his own. Prior to this run of games, seeing him in action live against Charleroi before the break it was clear that he would be comfortable under pressure and had a decent passing range. He has a dribble success rate of 75% and a pass success rate of 67% according to FotMob, while according to Fbref he has been fouled 14 times.
However, its his ability to do the job that Lopez was tasked with that has been most impressive. His defensive numbers are already better than they were previously in Denmark. During the full 2021-2022 season for Nordsjælland, Francis managed 11 interceptions in his 16 appearances. In 17 appearances for Cercle, with not all of those being starts, he is up at 17. This is just two behind his total for the entire four seasons in Denmark, and clearly shows how his ability to read the game has improved year on year. He has won 21 tackles this season, just one less than last year, with a success rate over 50%.
What makes this ability to intercept and win tackles so vital for Cercle is that the side are currently the second lowest in terms of possession per 90. Hence, winning the ball back is a crucial part of their style of play, with the forwards expected to press the opposition defenders. When the midfield is able to then take advantage of poor passing out from an opposition defence, it gives Cercle the chance to capitalise on winning the ball further up the field. Cercle lead the league in possession won in the final third per match with 6.2 turnovers per 90. Of all the sides averaging below 50% of the ball, Cercle have the most goals with 33.
The recent performances of Francis will certainly give Miron Muslic a selection headache when Lopez returns. The Ghanaian deserves to keep his place, so perhaps we could see him pushed further forward with Lopez covering. Having both Lopez and Francis in the midfield would certainly give Muslic two players who can read the game well and take advantage of mistakes caused by the pressing of the strikers. Francis has picked up two assists since the World Cup break, which is also two more than he managed last season.
If Francis can continue on this trajectory, Cercle will have unearthed a gem and will be able to make a tidy profit on a player that in hindsight cost far less than his current performances reflect. At just 21-years-old, there is plenty more to expect from Abu Francis.