Manuel Akanji: Liverpool’s Ideal Van Dijk Partner?

 • by Sam McGuire
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Liverpool may have just sealed a deal for Virgil van Dijk, but they already have a new centre-back in their crosshairs. According to reports in The Independent, the Reds are interested in FC Basel centre-back Manuel Akanji but are willing to wait until the summer to bring him to the club.

Jürgen Klopp is battling former club Borussia Dortmund for the 22-year-old’s signature, but the report suggests Liverpool have the advantage due to the fact they’re prepared to hold off on any potential deal until after the season has come to an end.

The Swiss club are determined to keep hold of Akanji for the rest of the campaign having been drawn against Manchester City in the second round of the Champions League in February.

However, the Bundesliga side have an ace up their sleeve. A former player of theirs, Wolfgang Vöge, is Akanji’s agent. And Michael Zorc, the sports manager at Dortmund, has scouted the defender in person alongside his agent on a number of occasions.

Who is Manuel Akanji?

The 22-year-old’s rise to the top has been rapid. He signed for FC Basel in 2015, putting pen to paper on a deal until 2021, and he made his Swiss Super League debut on September 26, 2015, coming off the bench against FC Lugano.

However, he suffered a torn cruciate ligament at the beginning of 2016 – an injury that could’ve derailed his career before it had even began but, fortunately for him, he recovered and has been a mainstay in the Basel defence ever since.

The 6ft 1ins centre-back has already made his international debut for Switzerland and looks a safe bet to be on the plane to Russia for the World Cup.

Akanji was named the Rookie of the Year at the Swiss Football Awards in August, following in the footsteps of his highly-rated former team-mate Breel Embolo – now at Schalke.

When asked about his ambitions for the future after winning the gong, Akanji told award sponsors Credit Suisse: “I want to stay healthy, go with Switzerland to the World Cup, and someday play for Manchester United.”

Not everybody is perfect.

What are Akanji’s strengths?

Oliver Zesiger, the Swiss Super League head researcher for Football Manager, was complimentary of Akanji when asked: “Akanji plays in the middle of a back three or as the left sided centre-back in a normal back four. The fact he’s almost two-footed means he’s able to comfortably cover for either centre-back when playing as the middle-man,

“He’s a good man-marker and he’s exceptionally quick meaning he can cover a large amount of ground in a short space of time. In fact, when Basel did sprints in the summer he came in third place. One of his biggest strengths, though, is his timing of the tackle which is impeccable.

“He is ideal for any team looking to build from the back. He can play long balls but he excels when he can take one or two defensive lines out with a single pass.”

All of which makes it sound like he fits Liverpool’s profile. Unlike most teams, a centre-back at Anfield isn’t primarily judged on what he does defensively but more on how he can assist the team going forward.

The above picture may seem like a defensive action, and it is, but it’s also an offensive one and perhaps a reason Liverpool are interested in the 22-year-old. The system Klopp deploys can sometimes leave his centre-backs a little exposed with large areas to cover.

Granted, it’s become a rarity after the tweak to the formation but it can still happen. Here you see Akanji isolated. He’s got a large area to cover and it’s a situation Liverpool fans have seen their centre-backs fail in over the past 12 months.

Yet the Basel centre-back initially stays on his feet and shows him down the outside. He doesn’t dive in or give the space to wriggle past him. He then times his slide tackle to perfection, keeps the ball in play and gets his side onto the attack.

He helps shore the defence up but it also means Liverpool don’t have to keep as many players back to cover space. If the centre-backs are comfortable in one-on-one situations more players can be committed forward, and perhaps the Reds could even start to use a midfield two on a regular basis.

In the above picture you see Akanji’s use of the ball. He picks up possession and drives into the opposition’s half before pinging a left-footed pass to the wide area. That looks fairly straightforward and it could be labelled a Hollywood pass. But it’s not done for the cameras. It’s necessary with the away side looking to cut the passing lanes and gets Basel in behind the Sion backline.

It’s by no means an easy pass, either.

But here you see exactly what Oliver was talking about. Akanji’s ability to take defensive lines out of the game which incisive passes. He picks the ball up in his own half and feints to pass backwards. The striker reads it and adjusts accordingly but this frees up space which allows the centre-back to drive forward into a midfield area.

He has easier passes on but none of them are as progressive as the one he opts to play, highlighted by the red arrow, into the feet of the attacker. Not many centre-backs are brave enough to try it and even fewer have the ability to actually execute it. It’s something the Reds have lacked since Mamadou Sakho was exiled from the squad.

Though Joël Matip is comfortable in possession he’s much better at carrying the ball forward than he is picking a pass, and Dejan Lovren‘s passing can be erratic at best.

It’s hard to find stats on the Swiss League and this makes it difficult to compare the amount of aerial duels he wins and the tackles and interceptions he makes to those Klopp already has at his disposal. But you can tell just by watching him that he’s the progressive, front-footed defender that the Liverpool manager seemingly wants.

At just 22 he’s still nowhere near his peak and would be another project, and, with time, he could be the perfect partner for van Dijk.

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