Why Manuel Akanji is perfect for Chelsea

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The 2021 January Transfer Window is officially one week in! And with that, we’re continuing to take a look at clubs with a bit of a blackhole in their team, that desperately needs to be covered before the end of next summer. We’re going to match that blackhole up with one player who could potentially fill that void if a move were to be made in January, by assessing and analyzing a player that is a perfect match for the team’s style of play. Today, it’s all about Borussia Dortmund’s Manuel Akanji, and why he’d be a perfect fit for Chelsea.

CHELSEA’S CENTRE-BACK DILEMMA

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Since his arrival this time last year, Thomas Tuchel’s success at Stamford Bridge has been built around solidity at the back, with two ball-winning central midfielders screening a robust back-three and an immaculate goalkeeper. In order to deploy any kind of back-three formation and achieve success to the point of conceding fewer than a goal per game, you need to have top quality centre-halves. Luckily for Chelsea, they have some of the very best in the world. Cesar Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger all featured in our Top 100 Footballers of 2021 Edition, and Andreas Christensen provides another great option to enter the frame for any of the three. Tuchel has also eased Trevoh Chalobah into the team, with the 22-year-old achieving relative success in his first season.

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On the basis of this information, you’d be scratching your head wondering why Chelsea would even need to have “centre-back” in their scouting vocabulary. But the dilemma isn’t about the quality of those currently at the club, rather the fact that four out of those five are set to be out of contract this summer. Azpilicueta’s been one of the most loyal servants and greatest signings to ever grace the club, and would be expected to sign another short-term deal. Thiago Silva could also be expected to sign another 1-year-deal to achieve his dream of winning the Premier League before he retires. But for whatever reason, contract talks with both Christensen and Rudiger seem to be lacking genuine progress, and those two are the closest to their peak age for the position. The likes of Malang Sarr and Trevoh Chalobah could flourish if given greater minutes, but they are not yet ready to command the back-line in the same way that Rudiger, Thiago Silva and Azpilicueta accomplish.

As a result, Chelsea are in desperate need of a new centre-back. And not just another young gun. But one who is either already at their peak, or just approaching it. A man who fits exactly that billing is Dortmund’s stellar stud Manuel Akanji. At 26 years of age, Akanji still has several more years to go in his peak level, and perhaps most importantly, he perfectly fits Chelsea’s current style of play.

MANUEL AKANJI’S KEY CHARACTERISTICS

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Manuel Akanji’s first few years at Borussia Dortmund did not go as immaculately as he would have hoped. He often struggled to hit top gear, stay away from injury, and perhaps most devastatingly, he would make crucial mistakes that cost Dortmund key points in their title endeavors. Mats Hummels’ re-arrival at the club did not do much for his development, as both players initially possessed the same set of strengths and weaknesses. But then a funny thing started to happen. At the beginning of 2020, Lucien Favre switched to a back-three, utilizing Akanji as the outside left-centre-back. He excelled in the role with his defensive duties diminished, growing in confidence on the ball and making himself a more confident 1v1 defender, knowing he had greater support in behind. By the time Lucien Favre left, Akanji had developed a host of new skills, including greater speed, exceptional timing of decision making, and supreme defensive positioning. Under Edin Terzic, Akanji became a defensive beast – a warrior on and off the ball, and started to emerge as a leader for the team. Since the arrival of Marco Rose, Akanji’s now become more of a vocal presence in Dortmund’s back-line, and a key cog to the way they attack and defend. We’ve gone so far as to even suggest him to be Dortmund’s only real defender when Mats Hummels has been out of the team this season. Dortmund miss him dearly when he’s not around, and the stats back that up. They concede far more when he’s not in the team, and their possession from back to front is nowhere near as fluid.

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While younger Bundesliga defenders like Josko Gvardiol or Nico Schlotterbeck may grow into better players, Manuel Akanji is a rare centre-back who excels in virtually all aspects of the game. At 6’1, he has a tall and strong enough frame to excel in aerial duels (59% won), and he reads the game exceptionally well, even when deployed alongside the absolute brainlessness that can occur at Dortmund both tactics and personnel. Importantly for a Chelsea centre-half, he’s incredible on the ball, with both long and short range ability out from the back. He’s completed 82% of his long passes this season, knocking 6.6 from range per game. Tack that on with a 96% success rate from “medium-length” passes and 93% from short passes, and you get a player who is incredibly confident and comfortable on the ball. He’s also completely comfortable carrying the ball out from the back (100% dribble success rate), and astutely recognizes moments where he can do so safely to the benefit of his team.

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When it comes to the defensive side of the game, the Swiss international is an absolute beast at the back. His team win back possession over 51% of the time that he applies pressure, which is the highest ratio of any player in Europe’s top five leagues. His tackle percentage this season also sits at 81.3%, the second highest in Europe’s top five leagues. He doesn’t need to dive in all that often, but when he does, he’s incredibly effective at timing his challenges to perfection. This helps a team like Dortmund maintain the control they desire, knowing even when they lose the ball that they have one of the best defenders around to help them win it back. Tuchel’s Chelsea want to establish and maintain control in the same vein, and Akanji would fit that to a tee both in and out of possession.

Finally, with experience playing in both the middle and left of a back-three for both club and country (where we believe he’s now firmly Switzerland’s best player), Akanji would be an excellent option for Tuchel’s back-three system.

PLAYER COMPARISONS

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When looking at the strengths of Manuel Akanji in comparison to Tuchel’s Chelsea, it’s a match made in heaven. But Chelsea need to identify a centre-back who can not only fit their style, but who can realistically achieve the same high level that their current options have attained under Tuchel. So let’s take a look at how the Swiss defender compares to Chelsea’s most similar comparisons – Antonio Rudiger, Thiago Silva and Andreas Christensen.

DEFENDING

When looking at Akanji’s defensive statistics, he compares extraordinarily well to Chelsea’s current options. In fact, he outperforms Antonio Rudiger in all categories except aerial duels won, which interestingly was the only category the German excelled in. Akanji meanwhile bests his fellow competitors in both tackle and pressure percentage, but to be fair, no one else in Europe has a higher combined success rate. In stats alone, he compares most closely to Andreas Christensen, which suggests he would perform most similarly in style to the Dane from a defensive perspective.

POSSESSION & ATTACK

Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund are two of the best possession-based sides in Europe, so these numbers can all be expected to be high. But encouragingly, Akanji compares well to some of Europe’s elite in this regard, and again, beats Rudiger in all areas except one. While Thiago Silva and Christensen both narrowly edge him out on long passing percentage, he’s completed and attempted a higher volume than both per 90. He ranks the highest among those studied in total carrying distance per 90 and receiving percentage – putting his foot to nearly 100% of the passes that come his way. Impressively, he’s also completed 100% of his dribbles this season, which we didn’t think to include because of the low volume for each individual player. Further, his progressive passing numbers vastly outdo Rudiger and Christensen, and he only underperforms when it comes to shot-creating actions – the least important of the items listed above for a centre-back to possess.

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When looking at the stats, Akanji would not only perform to a similar level of an Antonio Rudiger, but do even better. Stats are different from actual performance and we all know the German’s been brilliant under Thomas Tuchel, but there’s no reason to suggest that Akanji – a younger centre back than Rudiger, couldn’t attain the same high levels for an even longer period of time.

TRANSFER LOGISTICS

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Chelsea are not in desperate need of a centre-back right now, but they will be if players continue to stall contract talks. A move in January for the Swiss international would be difficult, but the Black & Yellows might go for it if Chelsea offered the right price. According to Transfermarkt, Akanji is valued at around €30 million right now, which would be an absolute steal for a top quality centre-back still to reach his best. Unlike other Dortmund men who have moved to bigger clubs only to falter in form, expectations of the Swiss to perform would not be through the roof, and he’d challenge the pressure.

Dortmund would undoubtedly be more willing to do business in the summer, and for our purposes, that is completely okay. The important thing is that the Blues begin to consider their options, and not exclude centre-backs over the age of 23 from their search. In fact, losing even one of the four out of contract players would require a leader to enter the fold instead of someone still learning their trade. That’s exactly why the 26-year old Manuel Akanji continues to be the perfect fit for the role, all ends up.

CONCLUSION

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When it comes to top quality centre-backs in Europe, there are few that could be snatched up for a better deal than Borussia Dortmund’s Manuel Akanji. The Swiss international has a higher pressure success rate than any other player in Europe, the second highest tackle success rate, and excels in all areas of the game. Even when compared against some of Europe’s elite defenders that Chelsea possess, Akanji’s statistics shine. So to fill the gaping hole that could soon be created by contract talks, we suggest Chelsea go all in on Manuel Akanji as soon as possible. If they don’t, someone else just might.


So there it is! Why Manuel Akanji is a perfect fit for Chelsea. Be sure to check out more of our Player Analyses, and stay tuned for more in this January Transfer Window series. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

More in this series…
-> Why Jonathan David is perfect for Arsenal
-> Why Nathaniel Phillips is perfect for West Ham United
-> Why Raphinha is perfect for Manchester City

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