A relative unknown outside Switzerland, big things are nevertheless expected of Borussia Dortmund signing Manuel Akanji. But one of Europe’s most sought-after center-backs hasn't had it easy on the path to the top.
At just 22 years of age, Manuel Akanji has dealt with rising expectations throughout his career. After going head-to-head with Breel Embolo in the Swiss Cup second round back in 2014, Akanji did enough to convince Basel of his talents despite his counterpart netting a hat-trick. A deal materialized at the end of the season.
Exceeding early expectations
Unfortunately, having played his way into Basel's first-team, disaster struck when he ruptured his cruciate ligament. It was the first real setback of his young career, but afforded the Neftenbach native an opportunity to broaden his knowledge of the game.
"There were those who said I changed clubs too early or that I wouldn't be able to return to my best. I was determined to show them,” Akanji said upon making his comeback.
After spending nearly a year on the sidelines, he returned stronger for the experience before helping Basel clinch a 20th Swiss Super League title. His ability to deal with adversity is to be admired in a player of his age, but perhaps not overly surprising given that the tattoo on his forearm reads: ‘Prove them wrong'.
"That has been my motto for a long time now,” Akanji told Credit Suisse after being named the 2017 Rookie of the Year. "I got the tattoo while I was on the injured list for almost a year. At the time, it was unclear whether I would ever completely recover and make it back on the team.”
Embolo plays pivotal role
With pace, technique and an eye for breaking defensive lines with a well-timed pass, the four-cap Swiss international is moulding himself into a modern-day centre-back and credits the encounter with his good friend Embolo as a turning point in his career.
"[Embolo] mercilessly showed me how much I still needed to work on myself,” admits the 22-year-old, who in the three years since has become one of the most well-rounded young defenders in world football, as evidenced by his performance against Romelu Lukaku earlier this season.
Akanji has won four caps for the Swiss national team and has high hopes of going to the World Cup in Russia in the summer.
Former Basel sporting director Georg Heitz once said "If Akanji stays healthy, then he has limitless potential”. In taking Lukaku out of the game as Basel picked up a stunning 1-0 win over Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League, that opinion was no longer of the niche variety.
Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc was in the stadium on that night and, while his ultimate dream is to play for the Red Devils, Akanji subsequently became BVB's sixth most expensive signing this winter, further stoking the expectation levels.
"I have faith in my own abilities”
In Sokratis, Ömer Toprak, Marc Bartra and Neven Subotic, Akanji not only faces stiff competition for regular first-team football, but also has a wealth of experience to learn from.
"The football that Dortmund like to play appeals to me a lot,” the two-time Swiss champion told FOCUS upon his arrival. "I want to show what I'm capable of and hope to get as many minutes as possible under my belt. I won't be hiding away, I have faith in my own abilities. They've had some successful Swiss players in the past and I hope I can continue that tradition.”
His Swiss predecessors include Stephane Chapuisat, who racked up 102 goals over the course of eight years with the club, Alexander Frei became a firm fan favourite between 2006, while defender Andy Egil will be fondly remembered for scoring six goals in a single Bundesliga season back in 1985.
Akanji is part of the new generation though, and comes in to a pressure cooker situation, at a club hoping to hone the sharpest young talents into world-beaters. Mats Hummels, Mario Götze and Christian Pulisic serve as proof of Dortmund's ability to take rising stars to the next level and Akanji has all the characteristics needed to be the next name on that star-studded list.