While breakout attacking stars grab the headlines, defensive breakout stars are just as important for ensuring there’s a balance in the soccer force for future years. On this count, the World Cup delivered a breakout defender: Swiss centre-back Manuel Akanji.
The 22 year old, 6’1” centre-back debuted for the Swiss national team only a year ago, and, prior to the World Cup, had made only seven appearances for Switzerland. At club level, Akanji was touted as a big starlet defender during his 42 appearances for FC Basel, and during the 2017-18 winter break, he transferred “upstream” to Borussia Dortmund. There, he made 11 appearances in die Rückrunde, but looked raw adjusting to the Bundesliga’s speed – not to mention the chaos swirling around BVB with interim head coach Peter Stöger.
So then, the fact that Akanji started – and starred! – for the Swiss during the World Cup is a surprise, given that he looked underdeveloped at Dortmund. He defines ‘breakout star’.
Akanji’s background story is fascinating. Basically, he’s a late bloomer, who focused on track and field as a teenager. He came to football relatively late (17 years old), but quickly excelled, thanks to his speed and emerging passing skills.
Think of Akanji as a shorter Mats Hummels; that is, a modern ball-playing centre-back who’s absolutely essential for build-up play and ball distribution. Akanji’s chief skill is his passing game, allowing him either to make difficult passes from the back or from deep in the midfield and into the final third.
In terms of transitional defending and 1-v-1 scenarios, Akanji is still growing and is prone to positional errors. Moreover, because of his relative lack of height (remember, he’s 6’1”) and slight build, he’s neither an imposing aerial presence nor a physical stopper.
The stand-out performance:
My favorite performance came in Switzerland’s emotional 1-2 win against Serbia in the group stage. This match showcased precisely what this player brings to the pitch.
Manuel Akanji's game by numbers vs. Serbia:
91% pass accuracy
7 aerial duels won
5 tackles completed
2 dribbles completed
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) June 22, 2018
As you’d expect for a ball-playing centre-back, he was very involved in Switzerland’s build-up play, completing 72 passes; however, it’s not the volume that matters as much as where these passes occurred. Against Serbia, Akanji completed two-thirds of passes in the midfield zone or higher up the pitch. As the Swiss chased Serbia’s lead, he seamlessly shifted higher up the pitch in ball distribution (his heatmap from this match is lovely!).
Significantly, Akanji played well as a defender, smartly winning every tackle and aerial challenge, as well as chipping in occasional blocks and interceptions, or shifting over toward his centerback partner, Fabian Schär, to block openings or double-team.
The ideal player for:
Akanji fits in very well where he’s already at with Borussia Dortmund (Sorry, Premier League!). Because his transfer to Dortmund is still so recent (last winter), and given that BVB’s current philosophy is success-via-grooming-starlets, Akanji is already at the perfect club for transforming into a star centre-back. He’ll be getting loads of playing time, more Champions League experience, plus big matches against the likes of Bayern and Schalke.
Expect him to stay at Dortmund through this season at least. And you can bet BVB will press him hard to stay longer – after all, he was brought in as the long-term replacement for Hummels. Once Akanji eventually departs, he would fit best at a ball possession-heavy club, like Manchester City, PSG, or Bayern (naturally, the Bavarians would love to poach away another BVB star!). For now, just keep Akanji away from a “hard man” backline.
8/10. Akanji was invaluable in Switzerland’s build-up play, and contributed effective (and smart!) work on the defensive end. Most importantly, Akanji played well enough to grab attention, earning him a well-deserved spot in football’s transfer rumor mill.