In the 66th minute of Borussia Dortmund’s January 3rd matchup against VFL Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, as the clock wound down with the score still 0-0, with BVB approaching another disappointing performance, a routine corner resulted in one of my favorite moments of the season. Jadon Sancho’s outswinging cross looped into the box, where both center backs, Mats Hummels and Manuel Akanji, attacked it. Normally, it would be Hummels who’s the threat off corners, his abilities so potent that they tend to propel him well up his team’s rankings in goals. This time, however, it was his partner Akanji whose head connected with the ball, driving it past the outstretched glove of Koen Casteels. As Akanji jogged to the corner for a modest celebration with his teammates, I was probably more excited than he was, jumping for joy around my apartment.
Manuel Akanji has been one of my favorite BVB players for a few years now, partly because he seems like a genuinely funny and interesting dude, but also because I feel that his abilities on the pitch don’t get the recognition they deserve. He was the subject of a tidal wave of criticism in the 2018-19 season, when he legitimately struggled upon recovering from a hip injury, which seemed to nag at him long after he returned to play. At the time I thought this criticism was unfair, and it makes me very happy that he’s since re-found his form.
This season, Akanji not only recovered to his pre-injury form, but he has taken several steps towards becoming capable of leading Dortmund’s back line. With Mats Hummels approaching the end of his prime, BVB will need a new defensive captain, and Akanji looks primed to take over this role. He’s more comfortable on the ball and more authoritative off the ball, and has both the pace and the smarts to cover large areas of the pitch. I was particularly impressed by his passing. He has an uncanny ability to time and time again pick apart opposition pressing with long passes. He was second on the team in progressive pass distance/90, behind only Raphael Guerreiro, and he had the highest completion percentage of any defender on the team.
Akanji’s performances down the stretch were vital to BVB’s efforts in qualifying for the Champions League and winning the DFB Pokal. I especially liked his performance against Mainz, when he did a fantastic job marking Mainz’s forwards, and put in a few perfectly-timed tackles (I scoured the internet for clips, but I couldn’t find any good ones. If you pull up the replay on ESPN+ and go to about 11:45, you’ll see Akanji put in one of the coolest and perfectly timed tackles you’ll ever see). That’s what I appreciate the most about Akanji defensively; while he doesn’t rack up huge numbers of tackles, he’s a smart enough player to know exactly when he has to step forward off the back line and intervene.
Borussia Dortmund’s center back situation is quite spotty. Mats Hummels is aging and can’t be counted on forever. Dan-Axel Zagadou is perpetually injured. Emre Can can fill in on the back line, but he shouldn’t be considered a full time CB. That leaves Akanji, who’s still only 25, but has made such considerable strides in his development that I’d feel comfortable having him take over from Mats Hummels. If BVB can sign another young center back like Maxence Lacroix, then Dortmund could be set at the back for years to come.