In January 2018, Borussia Dortmund coughed up more than $23 million for FC Basel’s center back, Manuel Akanji. He has since gone on to make 76 Bundesliga appearances for Die Schwarzgelben. It has been 3 years since the Swiss international joined BVB and during that time he has divided opinion among the fanbase. However, Akanji’s form has significantly improved since the break, enforced by COVID-19, earlier in the year. One area of particularly notable improvement has been with the ball at his feet.
The best clubs in Europe all have one thing in common: ball distributing center backs. Whether it is Sergio Ramos at Real Madrid, Aymeric Laporte at Manchester City, or Virgil Van Dijk at Liverpool, big clubs spend money not just on center backs who can defend, but on players who can help build up a team’s attack. For proof of the importance of ball-playing center backs, we should not look any further than Pep Guardiola’s desire to turn midfielders into central defenders, such as Javier Mascherano at Barcelona and Javi Martinez at Bayern Munich. Dictating the tempo of the attack and keeping control of the ball can be crucial to a club’s success but it’s not just about playing safe sideways passes. Ball progression is of equal, if not greater importance. Progressive passes (completed passes that move the ball towards the opponent’s goal at least 10 yards from its furthest point in the last 6 passes or completed passes into the penalty area) and passes into the final third are two valuable metrics for analyzing the strength of a team’s passing game.
How does this relate to Akanji?
After his first half season with the club Akanji increased both his short (passes between 5 and 15 yards) and medium (passes between 15 and 30 yards) passing percentages and has continued to maintain those same numbers since the 2018-2019 season. His long range passes (greater than 30 yards) have been up and down over the past few seasons peaking at nearly 86% success in the 2018-2019 season before dropping down below 77% last season. Progressive passes made by Akanji also dropped from 93 to 85. This shows how Mats Hummels’ arrival last summer played a large part in how the ball would be distributed from back to front, given that he is one of Europe’s finest passing big men. This season we have seen a shift in the passing dynamic in Dortmund where Akanji is now rivaling his defensive partner in all passing categories.
Manuel Akanji's Progression at BVB
Since joining Borussia Dortmund, Manuel Akanji's ball progression and passing numbers have significantly improved.
This season he is averaging his highest total progressive passes and progressive passing yards per 90, and he is
maintaining a pass completion percentage that is close to his best at BVB.
|Season||Attempted||Completed||Pass Completion||Progressive Passes||Progressive Distance (Yards)||Assists||xA||Key Passes||Passes into Final 1/3||Passes into Penalty Area|
All statistics measured per 90
A meteoric rise in Akanji’s ability to play the ball forward.
According to FBref.com, in only 11 appearances this season for the Ruhr giants, Manuel Akanji has already played 71 progressive passes and completed 129 long ball passes. To put that into perspective, Akanji played a total of 85 progressive passes last season, in 29 appearances, and an additional 249 completed long balls. At this rate Akanji will most likely top more than 200 progressive passes, which would more than double his best output from the 2018-2019 of 93 progressive passes, our heartbreaking maiden season under Lucien Favre where BVB fell two points short of the league title. But how does Akanji’s passing compare to the rest of the Bundesliga? Akanji ranks 5th in progressive passes behind Wataru Endo (Stuttgart), Raphael Guerrero (Dortmund), David Alaba (Bayern), and Mats Hummels (Dortmund). He also ranks 4th in final third passes, behind Bayern duo David Alaba and Jerome Boateng, and his own defensive partner, Mats Hummels (see table below). Additionally, you can see Akanji’s total pass completion percentage sits at 92.4% which is good for second in the Bundesliga, trailing another teammate, Axel Witsel. It is safe to say that Akanji has progressed in leaps and bounds as a passer and can compete with anyone in the league.
The Bundesliga's Top Progressive Passers (2020/21)
Manuel Akanji is among the Bundesliga's very best in terms of ball progression, totalling the second highest
progressive passing yards, third highest passes in to the final third, and fifth highest total progressive passes,
all while maintaining a high pass completion percentage
|Player||Position||Squad||90s||Attempted||Completed||Pass Completion||Progressive Passes||Progressive Distance (Yards)||Passes into Final 1/3||Passes into Penalty Area|
|David Alaba||DF/MF||Bayern Munich||11.1||845||699||12|
What does it all mean?
During a season of uncertainty, a fixture pileup, and most likely many injuries to come, its reassuring that we have plenty of options at the back for executing a strong attacking build-up play. This season is still in its infancy and with a managerial change having already taken place, we will continue to monitor this rapid rise in Akanji’s passing game as the season progresses. There are a lot of supporters who feel the club needs to go out and find an upgrade to Manuel Akanji, but I am not sure that it would be worth the growing pains of finding a top-quality center back at a price that Borussia Dortmund can afford. With losses of 75 million from the pandemic expected to be announced, splurging for a top-class defender may not be on the cards anytime soon. This stands to be a big season for Dortmund’s young defender as his contract runs out in 2022; the board will have to decide whether to offer him a new contract or find a buyer for him next summer. Whatever happens moving forward, I think we have found out that Akanji is getting better in more ways than one.