Now that the ink is dry on Borussia Dortmund’s newest signing and Manuel Akanji’s 21.5 million move from Basel to BVB is complete, let’s take a longer look at just who this 22-year-old, 6ft 1, 188 lb, Swiss central defender is. We will start by giving a brief profile of Akanji, then do a skills analysis based on the video available from Switzerland’s WC qualifiers and UEFA Champions League. Finally, we’ll examine his fit at Dortmund. Let’s begin:
So, Akanji comes from the Winterthur area in Switzerland and has Nigerian roots, as his father was a footballer on the amateur level himself. Interestingly, Manuel didn’t start out as a footballer, he was more focused on track and field and at age 11 even won a national competition.According to Akanji himself, he began focusing on football at age 13, moving to FC Winterthur in 2007. Still, in a Credit Suisse interview Akanji himself admits that ” as a junior, I was an average player. I never thought I would have a big career; I played just for the fun of it. When I hit 17, I had a growth spurt, and that boosted my performance. It was only then that I realized my potential.”
He would play the 2012\12 season for Winterthur’s U18 side and by 2013\14 move to the U21 side in the third division the next year, featuring in 18 games, half of them at right back! In the spring of 2014, Akanji would even make two appearances for the senior team in the Challenge League and by the start of 14\15 he would be a regular on that team with 33 appearances! Yet, a pivotal moment in his career was the Swiss Cup match against Basel (coached by former BVB midfielder Paulo Sousa), where his U21 national team partner Breel Embolo would score a hat trick against Akanji. Akanji has named Embolo the toughest opponent of his career and the two are actually great friends, with Embolo even pleading with Schalke to sign his buddy. While that might not have been the high point of his career, he definitely impressed Basel enough to sign him that summer for 700k Euros at just 19 years of age. Basel were very much retooling after losing the trio of Yann Sommer, Serey Die and Valentin Stocker to the Bundesliga the season before and the summer of 2015 also saw them lose Fabian Frei to Mainz and Fabian Schar to Hoffenheim. With the likes of the 37-year-old Walter Samuel (he of Inter\Argentina “fame”) still on the books alongside Marek Suchy (27, came the previous season for 2.5 mil from Spartak Moscow) and Daniel Hoegh who came from Odense for 1.5 million Euros, Akanji was definitely thought of as the future. When would he get playing time? Could he prove himself in the top flight int Switzerland?
“The future derailed?”
The answers to those questions came sooner than everyone expected and by October Akanji, who started the season at the U21s, was already coming in to replace Samuel in a couple of key Swiss Super League matches. (By the way, it’s probably a sign to hang those boots up, if you’re having to be subbed 4 times in 10 games at age 37, Walter…. ) So far so good….Akanji’s career looked to be chugging right along, but a muscle injury in November would end his 2015 calendar year and after a short return in February, Akanji suffered a devastating knee injury (cruciate ligament) in training on March 5th of 2016. It would be almost an entire year until he made his return on February 11th of 2017 and the club brought in River Plate’s Eder Balanta to play alongside Suchy in the center of Basel’s defense. While Basel probably missed him, it would not stop the club from winning its seventh and eighth consecutive titles in the 15\16 and 16\17 seasons. As for Akanji, whose tattoo on his left arm says “PROVE THEM WRONG” personal disappointment and injury setback only seemed to be just obstacles to overcome.
2017, the year of Akanji
Remarkably, Akanji was able to be a part of that last title, as he started 14 of 16 games in the spring and was impressive. In fact, in August, he was voted Rookie of the Year in Switzerland, an honor that has historically been a great omen for the past winners in Yann Sommer, Breel Embolo and Nico Elvedi and also for others like Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri, etc.
By June he would make his national team debut vs the Faroe Islands and then suit up vs Andorra. There was an intense debate in Switzerland on whether the youngsters like Akanji and Nico Elvedi were ready to displace the veteran Djourou who has been part of the national team since 2006. Those performances impressed Vladimir Petkovic, though he still opted for former HSV player Johan Djourou to start the important group matches vs Latvia, Hungary and Portugal, the latter of which proved to be a costly loss. In the 2-0 loss in Lisbon, Switzerland who led the group from start to finish squandered not just the match, but thanks to a couple of Djorou mistakes (stop if you’ve heard that one before!!!) they were forced to play in WC playoffs. Petkovic would learn from his mistake and that meant that in november, Akanji started in the WC qualification playoffs vs Northern Ireland alongside Fabian Schar. He put in a wonderful performance and was arguably the best player over the two legs. As Aargauer Zeitung put it: “nobody missed Djourou”.
Since there’s very little video available on Swiss League games, I chose that WC qualifier against Northern Ireland to analyze Akanji’s performance:
Manuel Akanji vs. Northern Ireland (H).
In a do-or-die qualifier, Akanji stepped up with an impenetrable performance to take Switzerland to the World Cup. pic.twitter.com/gMW2hLH36O
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) December 28, 2017
There are several discernable skills that a modern central defender needs to have and Akanji exhibits these:
- willingness to try to play the ball even out of difficult situations, not just looking for the easy pass (sorry Sokratis)
- able to pass with both feet, and often these are difficult, forward passes into tight spots. No current BVB defender comes close here
- play multiple positions RB, CB, RCB in all defensive formations
- excellent decision-making: 1. Akanji is not just getting rid of the ball, he’s actively searching for the best option 2. He has the speed to assess the quality of those options 3. He often picks not the safest option, but tries to progress the ball
- ability to break the lines with his precision passing – Sokratis almost never does this, Toprak can do this at times, but usually needs time to release\think about the pass. This is of course Bartra’s best skill set.
- very comfortable doing little dribble moves and cutbacks to open up the field and reconsider secondary options, when his first option is taken away. He never seems like he’s under pressure on the ball…
- very good anticipation and tackling, it’s rare to see Akanji mistime a tackle (the Dortmund CBs all have good stats in this department, but if you’ve watched a BVB game this year, you could easily come up with 5-10 examples of mistimed tackels and poor anticipation resulting in goals conceded)
- solid in the air
- excellent athleticism allows him to recover even when beaten in 1 v 1 situations (couple examples in the latter parts of the video)
Also in the fall, Akanji made his debut in the Champions League, and played all 540 minutes, with several outstanding games against Benfica and Manchester United.I did a breakdown of his match vs Benfica in a Twitter thread, where he played as the middle CB in a three CB system for coach Raphael Wicky (of HSV and Werder fame), so I encourage you to read that here:
— BundesPL (@BundesPL) December 7, 2017
In the 3-0 loss to United in September, Akanji (wearing white #36) was probably culpable for the first goal, in which he and his CB partner Marek Suchy miscommunicated and allowed Suchy’s man Fellaini to sneak in behind while Lukaku set a nice pick on Akanji. It seemed like Suchy was once again at fault for letting Lukaku get in ahead of him and onto a cross, while Akanji was tangled up with Fellaini, for the second United goal.
His biggest mistake was probably on the third United goal, where his indecisiveness and loose marking cost his team. Let’s take a look:
He finished the game with 88% passing on 29 attempts, with one key pass, but won just 8 of 15 challenges, including 2 of 5 in the air and lost 5 balls while recovering 8.
He did have a couple nice passes that broke the lines and was unafraid to penetrate with the ball into MU’s half when occasionally given the chance. He showed excellent anticipation once or twice, notably in the 57th minute when he stepped in front of former BVB player Henrik Mkhitaryan to win the ball cleanly:
A couple fortunate goalline clearances – one where he was on the floor, as his GK tripped him and Mkhitaryan was unable to finish and his body getting in the way of a goal-bound Lukaku shot. In the last 15 minutes of the game, Akanji was the left-sided CB in the four chain, as Based tried to get something back out of the 2-0 goal deficit. While this must have been a disappointing game for Akanji and Basel, he
His next match of note came against Mourinho’s MU where he lined up at RCB (with #36) in the 1-0 win in late November. Here are some of his notable moments with pictures and stats, thanks to Instat!:
- winning the ball and the duel vs Anthony Martial, who terrorizes EPL defenders:
- breaking up a surefire assist from Jesse Lingard to Martial by moving over to help out after a defensive breakdown:
- dribbling past Fellaini and Pogba in the MU half with ease:
- goalline clearance after a Fellaini header:
- beating Fellaini in a key aerial duel:
- beating Lukaku to the ball, then showing superb strength to hold him off and win the ball:
That’s not to say that Akanji was flawless: He had a couple of easy turnovers, Lukaku muscled him once to get into a great chance, Martial outpaced him and Rashford was also a handful. There was very little buildup play from him and Basel and his involvement dropped on in the second half. However, he definitely held his own against high quality EPL superstars. His stats for the game were: 27 of 34 passes completed, 15 of 21 challenges won, 2 dribbles, 3 of 5 successful tackles, 3 lost and 8 recovered balls. But, the improvement even from the September match was notable, as Akanji showed much more strength in duels and in defense while still retaining the passing\dribbling elements of his game when allowed to do so.
By December, there were all kinds of suitors lining up, with Liverpool being the most notable one, as they continued to struggle in the center of defense with the trio of former Augsburg CB Ragnar Klavan, Schalke’s Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren all more or less failing to impress Jürgen Klopp. RB Leipzig were also interested, but Dortmund were more or less always the favorites, because Michael Zorc has scouted him several times, including the MU games. Moreover, as Spox reported, Akanji’s agent Wolfgang Vöge, a BVB player of the late 1970s, is not only the agent for Roman Bürki and Kuba Blaszczykowski, but even organized this year’s Dortmund training camp. Dortmund always seemed to have the inside track and sealed the deal for 21.5 million.
What does Akanji bring to BVB and what does his signing mean for other defenders?
As discussed in the performance analysis above, Akanji is the prototypical modern CB who is athletic, solid in the air and has excellent anticipation, but can also make the key tackle when called upon. Moreover, he’s comfortable on the ball, likes and wants to get forward and has an eye for progressing it via solid decision-making. He is a quick and willing passer who can easily complete passes at a high rate with both feet. In addition, he is comfortable at either CB positions in the 4 in the back, but can also play either one of the three central defender spots!
Currently, Dortmund do not have this type of player – Mats Hummels says hi – because Bartra (lacks the decision-making and the defense\athleticism), Toprak (not athletic enough, very slow in decision-making), Sokratis (takes forever to pass, often goes for simple passes, has no passing vision, etc), Zagadou (flashes of promise in all of these areas, but is 18 and has had a steep learning curve from PSG youth teams to the Bundesliga) and Neven Subotic (athleticism is gone) all lack one or two of those skills.
Akanji certainly looks like a complete defender and has in the last few months shown that he can on occasion deliver at Champions League and WC qualifiers level, but there are questions: can he get used to the faster pace of the Bundesliga, with better attacking talent, more games, etc ? How will he fit into a pressing system that requires more of him than in Basel? What will he be like when he has to make 80-100 passes in a game? Cruciate ligament injuries are always pretty scary and tend to hinder athleticism (think of basketball, football). But, at 21,5 million, which in light of what young ball-playing CBs from non-top leagues – Davinson Sanchez who at age 21 Tottenham signed for 40m after one season at Ajax comes to mind – is not a massive amount, especially considering what Dortmund had spent on CBs in the past who had not worked out…..