As Pep Guardiola explains, Manuel Akanji has been better than even Manchester City expected and solves a big problem for the champions; analysing the impact of the other summer signing from Borussia Dortmund after starring against Southampton
Man City signed centre-back Manuel Akanji from Borussia Dortmund
Pep Guardiola spent much of his press conference after Manchester City’s straightforward 4-0 win over Southampton on Saturday discussing the impact of his summer signing from Borussia Dortmund. But this time it was the other one.
Erling Haaland did score the fourth goal against Saints but it was the performance of Manuel Akanji, a £15m signing from Dortmund on deadline day, that was the focus. Akanji had been asked to play out of position at right-back and made it look very easy indeed.
The 27-year-old Switzerland international had already shown his value to City by doing a very good impression of Ruben Dias in the centre of defence against Manchester United. Here he was slipping in seamlessly to replace the injured Kyle Walker instead.
Everyone is beginning to notice just how good Akanji is – not that he will welcome the attention. “He is very pleased all the [spotlight] is on Erling,” said Guardiola. “It is perfect. He is at home with the family. Studying mathematics and these kind of things.”
Those maths skills were showcased in a recent interview with Sky Sports in which Akanji’s multiplication ability was challenged. His intelligence is proving more than a quirk. It is helping him to adapt quicker than even Guardiola had anticipated.
“When you are intelligent, obviously I did not know him, but you realise immediately. Carlos [Vicens, the set-pieces coach], he said to me, ‘You just tell him once and he knows it’. The movement, defensively and offensively, he trains it and he executes it perfectly.
“This is a gift for a manager. There are players you have to explain things to 10 times and there are players you have to train 10 times what you are thinking or what you want to do. With this guy, we need just one training session just to say things and he has got it.”
The injury to Walker left many assuming that Joao Cancelo would switch to right-back, just as he did against FC Copenhagen in midweek when Sergio Gomez played at left-back. With John Stones also out, Guardiola looked out of options on the right.
Akanji showed against Southampton that this was not the case.
“We are very pleased because now I discovered when we need three at the back, playing right, wow. With the absence of Kyle for a long time and John, I don’t know when he will be back, he had this chance at right-back. That he can play there is so important for us.”
Although Guardiola’s system is usually described as four at the back, he prefers to build with three. That allows one of the full-backs to push forward. Against Southampton, that was Cancelo with Nathan Ake sliding across to cover. It helped Cancelo score the first goal.
That demands a lot of the right-back because there is still an obligation to provide width on that flank. There was a point during the first half when Akanji found himself with only Haaland ahead of him as he raced away. But the primary task is to cover.
“We thought he could do it,” said Guardiola. “It was a little bit scary that we did not play it before. We knew he had to go up the pitch to press and come back, defend the crosses at the far post. He did not miss one. He was absolutely perfect.”
Akanji’s composure on the ball has been a feature of his game
There had been little time for him to prepare. “The movement that he has to do, the full-back, in our high pressing, he did not train it once and he did it perfectly. That proves again, intelligent person. These people always pay off. So yeah, really, really good.”
Akanji made more tackles than any Manchester City player against Southampton and is averaging more tackles per 90 minutes than anyone else at the club. His one-on-one defending is solid, reflected by the fact that he is yet to be dribbled past in a City shirt.
There are other qualities. “With the ball, he is a magnificent player. We have another weapon on the set pieces, on the long balls, how aggressive he is. With the ball he has composure. A lot of the package, it is perfect. Apart from being an excellent person.”
It is astonishing that City were able to pick up a player of this calibre so late in the transfer window. How did other clubs manage to miss him? “Listen, in terms of signing players or not signing players, all of us make good things and bad, bad things. You never know.”
The consequences could be significant in the title race. A potential issue has been addressed. “Nathan and John, unfortunately, sometimes they are not consistent to play every three days. I said for this season we need a striker and a central defender.”
Nobody doubted they had found the striker. Now they know City found both. “Manu has had a huge impact since he arrived. Again, the club made an incredible signing with him. A real, real, real one and we are very pleased, all of us,” added Guardiola.
“We are lucky to have him.”