Wonderkids

Europe’s Rising Stars: Achraf Hakimi

 • by James Nalton
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It’s not very often a player has more caps for his country than he has league appearances for his club, but that’s the case with Real Madrid’s Spanish-born Moroccan full back, Achraf Hakimi.

The 19-year-old is a product of Real’s La Fábrica youth academy, or cantera, and was born and raised in Madrid. He is known by his team-mates as “Arra”, as it’s easier for the Spaniards to pronounce, but is more widely referred to by the name he wears on the back of his shirt: Achraf.

He progressed to Real Madrid Castilla, the club’s B team, for the 2016/17 season where he caught the eye of Zinedine Zidane. When the first-team were going through an injury crisis in a couple of areas of the pitch this time last year, the club’s reserve team coach at the time, Luis Miguel Ramis, assured Zidane that the solutions to his problems were already at the club, and new players didn’t need to be brought in.

“Problems at full-back? Achraf. Problems in midfield? Aleix Febas. Would’ve burst if I hadn’t said it. Hala Madrid!” Ramis enthused, convincing the first-team boss that there was enough quality in the youth ranks.

Febas would have to wait, but due to a number of problems on both sides of the pitch in the full back positions, with Marcelo, Dani Carvajal, Danilo, and Fábio Coentrão and struggling for fitness, Achraf was noticed, if not used straight away.

He appeared on the bench in a Copa del Rey tie with Celta Vigo in late January, 2017, and again a few days later when Real met Real Sociedad in La Liga. Though he only emerged from his seat to warm up, and didn’t make it onto the pitch, it was a sign that Zidane was willing to use him if necessary.

A further sign came at the start of the 2017/18 season. The club sent Coentrão out on loan, signing Theo Hernández as backup to Marcelo, but they didn’t enter the transfer market to replace Danilo, who departed for Manchester City.

Instead, they promoted Achraf from Castilla as Carvajal’s backup, and he made his debut against Espanyol on October 1, 2017 before going on to appear in the Copa del Rey, Champions League, and Club World Cup.

Path to the World Cup

It has been a similar story for him at international level, where the country of his parents’ birth has experienced a lack of depth at left-back and called upon Achraf to solve it.

Lille’s Hamza Mendyl, another Moroccan full-back hope, picked up an injury last year which left an opening on that side of the defence, and the right-footer from Real was the chosen one.

Morocco manager Hervé Renard will assemble a team of technically gifted players and drill them defensively. This means there is room for any number of attacking players, as long as they stick to the game plan when they don’t have the ball.

Achraf fits this mould, and having made his debut in a friendly against Canada in October 2016 as the African nation looked to secure his services ahead of Spain, he was given his first appearances in competitive games towards the end of 2017.

By the end of that year he had scored his first senior goals for both club and country within the space of a few months. He netted for Real in their 5-0 win at home to Sevilla in December, having scored for Morocco in their World Cup Qualification fixture with Mali in September on his first competitive start.

The Forceful Full-Back

The goals came as no surprise to those who had monitored his progress during his youth career, as his game is built on an attacking mentality from his full back station. Both senior goals were assured finishes which came after cutting inside from wide positions.

The strike for Morocco saw him wander infield to make an impact after taking part in the build-up play down the left with Hakim Ziyech. He drifted inside before making the run into the area to get on the end of his team-mate’s cross, which he despatched assuredly first time.

There was something reminiscent of the great Brazilian right-back, Carlos Alberto, about his first Real goal. He sprinted forward from the back line into the space which had emerged ahead of him on the right flank, before latching on to Karim Benzema’s well-timed pass and finishing with aplomb past Sergio Rico.

Both incidents were a demonstration of his dynamism down the flanks, where he has the ability to switch from defence to attack, or vice versa, in an instant thanks to his athleticism. He’s slightly taller than Carvajal, but possesses similar speed and is of a similar style to the current incumbent. 

There are also similarities with the recently departed Danilo, especially when it comes to versatility, being able to play on right but also do a job on the left if needed despite being right footed. One could also imagine him plugging a hole on the wing late in a game if needed.

Defensively he can keep up with the quickest forwards, and he looks taller than many opponents in the Spanish league suggesting he’s grown further since his height was last officially measured, which can help him aerially.

He averages 3.4 tackles per 90 minutes from his 426 minutes played in La Liga, and his passing is also on point with success rates just below the 90 percent mark in both the league and in Europe. 

He showed good signs in the two outings against Tottenham, averaging 2.5 key passes per game, but was unfortunate that the rest of his side weren’t up to scratch in these fixtures.

Big chances will come for Achraf during 2018, not least in the World Cup for Morocco, but he’ll also need to be on hand as Real look to the Champions League to save their disappointing season. Though Madridistas are upset with the way the season has gone domestically, they will be pleased to see a local youth product coming through their ranks and into the first team.

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