Borussia Dortmund made an important signing on Monday, adding centre-back Manuel Akanji from FC Basel in a deal rumoured to cost the Black and Yellows north of €20 million when all is said and done. But who is the guy they just made the most expensive defender in club history? We asked Swiss football expert Oliver Zesiger for his input.
Manuel Akanji is a relative unknown to most Dortmund fans. Can you describe his development that has led to this move?
Akanji was born and raised in Wiesendangen, close to Zurich, to a Nigerian father and a Swiss mother. He started playing for the local football club until the age of 11 when he was picked up by Swiss second-tier side FC Winterthur. At the age 18 he made his debut for the under-21 side and eight months later he was given his first start for the senior team.
Only a short time later he was called up to the Swiss U20 national team.
His fortune changed for the better when Winterthur played Basel in a second-round cup game in 2014. Akanji’s direct opponent was Breel Embolo, who scored a hat-trick in that game. But the representants of Basel saw something and kept an eye on him.
In 2015 Akanji made the switch to Basel, despite interest from other Swiss clubs.
He started in Basel’s U21, but after only 3 games was called up into the senior side. He, unfortunately, tore his cruciate ligaments only a short time later and missed almost a whole year. But in that time he improved a lot, physically and in his understanding of the game.
In fact, Akanji is one of the rare breed of players who came back stronger from a
cruciate ligament injury. Since then he was a sure thing as a starter. There have been rumours going around about the interest from BVB after Michael Zorc was spotted at Sankt-Jakob Park when Basel played Manchester United. The successful UEFA Champions League group stage for Basel surely played a big part in the increased interest in Akanji.
He was able to almost nullify Romelu Lukaku in that particular game — something that certainly impressed Zorc.
Let’s tackle his profile from two angles. First, how does he do with the ball at his feet? Is he comfortable on either foot, does he sprinkle in long balls with short passes, does he like to move up into midfield spaces?
For a centre-back, Akanji has a fine technique. He prefers his right foot, but I would describe him as two-footed. At Basel, he was trusted with the majority of build-up play. He can switch sides with a long ball easily, but his speciality are low long balls onto the strikers, where he takes out two defensive lines at once. He can play those passes even under pressure.
At times, Akanji moves forward with the ball at his feet. He is able to dribble past an opponent with a combination of quickness and technique. Akanji is composed as well and rarely lets himself get under too much pressure.
On the other side, how is his defending? How physical is he one-on-one, will he make a foul if need be, is he good in the air?
Akanji is a reliable man-marker. If an opponent gets past him, he can catch up quickly due to his speed. For a centre-back, Akanji is exceptionally fast. Another thing that’s working in his favour is his timing when going into a tackle. He has a nose for when to tackle and how to tackle. Whether it’s on his feet or by going to the ground. This is also reflected in the number of bookings he received.
In 140 games on all levels, he only saw 13 yellow cards and was sent off once, at the beginning of his career.
Akanji does seem rather slim, but he has a good body and can muscle off opponents. Personally, I’d like to see him add a pound or two of muscle, but this might take a toll on his speed.
If you had to point out one glaring weakness, or one thing he needs to work on above else, what would that be?
There’s not one point that stands out, but a couple of minor ones.
His timing when going into a header could be improved. He does lose quite a few aerial duels despite his height of 1.87 meters. I accredit this to his timing being off sometimes when he jumps. Another slight weakness is his lack of concentration in certain situations.
Overall, he needs some more experience to become more concentrated and make better decisions. But those are minor points and are well outweighed by his strengths.
Who would be the ideal centre-back partner for Akanji?
At Basel, he was paired with Marek Suchy, an experienced centre-back and Eder Balanta, a good defender with good technique. If Dortmund can get someone who has both a good technique and experience, I can see it working well.
In terms of experience, Sokratis comes to mind and in terms of technique Bartra. If Akanji’s role will be that of a ball-playing defender, another player with a good passing ability might fit in well with him. Otherwise, their build-up could become too predictable.
What can you tell us about his personality? Does he have character traits to be (or become) a leader?
He is a few steps away from becoming a leader, but he has some traits that will help him morphing into a leadership role. He is highly professional and ambitious. Off the pitch he comes off as laid-back and easy-going. He is an avid fan of hip-hop and his best friend in the football world is Embolo [author’s note: who now plays at Schalke].
Akanji is well liked in Switzerland due to his down-to-earth personality and his
performances for Basel and the national team.
Oliver Zesiger is the Swiss Super League Head Researcher for Football Manager and a professional football scout. You can follow Oliver on Twitter.