In the case of Manuel Akanji, self-confidence does not equate to arrogance. His manner is abrupt, but there is nothing fake about him. "I know what I can do," says the defender, who is quick to add: "But I try not to overestimate myself." One thing is for sure: he fought for the love of his life with the same tenacity he shows against opposition strikers. With a positive outcome, too: Akanji is getting married in the summer.
There are a great many tests out there that try to determine the level of self-confidence a person possesses. It only takes a few clicks and a lot of information can quickly be established about the subject's personality. Does he feel uncomfortable in situations that are unfamiliar to him? Does he make up excuses in order to avoid social interactions? Is he nervous and unsure when he speaks with persons of authority? Does he come across as tense and self-conscious in the presence of strangers? And last but not least: is he usually the first to cave when there are differences of opinion? A website online claims to offer "108 secrets for more self-confidence" – for "absolutely no cost" whatsoever.
But even if measures to combat insecurity, inhibitions and self-doubt were only available at a price, Manuel Akanji could certainly save himself the investment. The Dortmund centre-back is brimming with self-confidence, so much so that Süddeutsche Zeitung even cautiously asked whether it could at some stage breed "cockiness or arrogance"? Akanji shakes his head with a smile, but obviously he knows that the line he is walking can be fine. His manner is abrupt, but nothing about him is fake, boastful or overconfident. "It's just how I am," he explains. "I'm very self-confident, I know what I can do." The centre-back believes in what he does and behaves accordingly. However, it is very important for him that "I try not to overestimate myself", he adds.
It is unlikely that robust and seasoned professionals on the pitch will be in any danger of caving in at the first opportunity off it, as Manuel Akanji demonstrated on the evening of 31 August 2018. He was among the players who fielded questions from journalists in the mixed zone in the HDI Arena after Dortmund had been held to a 0-0 draw in Hanover. The visitors' chances were easily countable on one hand. That led to the following conversation initiated by a reporter who has been following the club for a long time. "Was that not a bit lacking tonight?" "What were you expecting? For us to come here and create 10 chances?" "Perhaps not 10. But perhaps a few more than what you did." "It doesn't always go exactly to plan. Besides, do you only have good days in your job?" The journalist certainly did not. The exchange showed Akanji to be a mature professional with a mind of his own. Though still only 23, he is direct, straight-talking and always has enough people in his private life to rein him back in if required. "I try to keep it all in balance," assures Akanji. "Whether it's family, friends or my fiancée, I have the right people around me."
Engaged to Melanie since September
He got to know his fiancée Melanie Windler in Winterthur four years ago. The pair hit it off straightaway and Akanji was keen to see the attractive woman again, but was initially turned down. For organisational reasons. Three days after their first meeting, Melanie Windler was flying to the USA for an exchange semester. For four long months. "I waited for her," explained the footballer, laughing. The pair got engaged in September 2018 and are set to tie the knot this summer. Akanji will not reveal where. "Nobody knows that," he says. Nobody aside from his nearest and dearest. The BVB first-teamer will obviously share his special day with his Nigerian father Abimbola, his mother Isabel and his sisters Michelle and Sarah. Sarah plays football herself – for FC Winterthur in the top flight. The passion she showed in founding the team is matched by her commitment to politics. On 31 March, she is running in the canton council elections in Switzerland. Her brother couldn't be prouder. "Sarah fights for what she believes is right."
Weighing in, playing an active part and above all making an impact – these are the guiding principles adopted by Akanji, and because "age is only a number", as his team-mate Jadon Sancho shows, the defender has been quick to take responsibility. When Marco Reus was rested for the final 30 minutes in the 7-0 victory over Nuremberg back on 26 September, it was Akanji who was handed the captain's armband. He had actually worn it for the first time seven weeks earlier in the 4-3 win over FC Zürich during the pre-season training camp in Bad Ragaz, but the friendly took place behind closed doors and it went unnoticed. "It's nice to get this recognition from the coach, from my team-mates and from the board," said a delighted Akanji, adding: "I've only been here for a year. It makes me very proud. But it also shows that I've done well in this year."
Math genius and a member of the Team Council
It was therefore a logical choice – though it still came as "slightly surprising" to him – to name the central defender as the representative of the younger generation in the BVB Team Council. Akanji possesses remarkable communication skills, with his fluency in English, French and German ensuring he has a line of communication to almost all his international team-mates. By his own admission, "only Spanish is missing". One might readily assume languages were his forte in his schooldays, but Akanji has an enviable talent for mathematics too. He can do sums in his head quicker than a pocket calculator and he has been regarded as a maths genius ever since appearing on a Swiss TV show. "I used to enjoy doing sums in my head," revealed Akanji, adding: "I could do it well." Were you to ask him to name two numbers between 11 and 99 and then multiply them, you would get an answer quicker than a flash of light. 24 x 75? It's 1,800, obviously! Before the age-old ZDF entertainment show "Wetten, dass...?" went off air, his friends had joked with him that he should apply to appear on the show. Akanji declined, believing the maths prodigies "who work with numbers in the millions" to be in a different league to himself. "I prefer to stay at this level."
In sporting terms, he has earned high recognition in his 14 months in the Bundesliga to date. Michael Zorc has labelled Akanji as a "generally complete" centre-back who "possesses good stature, is strong in the air and very quick". What instantly struck the sporting director is the Swiss international's organisational abilities: he can marshal a defence, adapting and shifting the defensive line according to the situation. "That's what makes him so valuable," said Zorc. When the transfer was entering its decisive phase, the defensive lynchpin was put through one final test. It was Wednesday 22 November 2017, St. Jakob Park, a Champions League group game. FC Basel played host to heavy favourites Manchester United – and beat them 1-0. What impressed Zorc even more than the last-minute winner scored by Michael Lang, now of Borussia Mönchengladbach, was the performance of the man he had travelled 500 kilometres to see. "A top striker like Romelu Lukaku," said the BVB official, "offered absolutely nothing against Manuel Akanji that evening. That made a real impression on me back then."
During those drab autumn days of 2017, a bitter battle for the services of the highly-promising defender began to unfold. There were reports Juventus were interested, as were both Milan clubs, while there was rumoured interest from Schalke too. Zorc attributes Akanji's decision to join Borussia Dortmund to the fact there had already been detailed discussions as to how the player, then 22, could be integrated. "We had a plan with him directly," revealed the sporting director. "We showed him that he would have a clear path. Perhaps that might not have been the same elsewhere." Akanji penned a deal until 2022. In an era when contracts are often not worth the paper on which they are printed, that was a comforting assurance for Zorc, who said: "I see him with us long-term."
Akanji faced a long spell on the sidelines before returning to post-winter break action in the 3-2 comeback victory over Bayer Leverkusen. The muscle fibre tear that he sustained on 18 December in Düsseldorf was a blessing in disguise, as it gave him the time he needed to sort out the puzzling hip complaints that he has been suffering from for some time. His pubic bone problems disappeared again last May and Akanji was able to play unimpeded at the World Cup in Russia before embarking upon a pain-free pre-season. "Six or seven games into the season I felt something in my hip flexor," he recalled. Because the pain had been appearing "sometimes there, sometimes in the adductor region and sometimes behind", he decided to consult a specialist in January. Akanji was hoping for a convincing answer as to whether conservative treatment would be the right course or whether an operation would be required. The medics advised him against it and issued him with targeted training. The BVB physios were given the instructions to prepare Akanji – or rather, his less than optimally flexible hip – before every training session for the subsequent programme.
Almost 10 weeks out
The 13-time Switzerland international ultimately spent almost 10 weeks on the sidelines. It might sound like a long time, but it was nothing in comparison to the 11-month stint he spent out of action between March 2016 and February 2017 due to a torn cruciate ligament. Akanji, who wants to "enjoy every moment" and "play every game" in his professional career, got to know the downside of his job back then. "I wanted to block a shot," he explained to TagesWoche in a no-holds-barred interview. "The ball hit me in the face and as a result I was a little dazed; not entirely out of it but I was mentally confused. After that I gathered myself and then competed in a sprint. We both reached the ball at the same time and I was a little too sure I would get the ball. For that reason, I didn't commit to the tackle 100 percent. And that's how the knee got injured. I knew that something bad had happened."
Since his own vulnerability was thrown into sharp relief that day, Akanji has "thought more". About his own body, about care and prophylaxis, about nutrition. In Dortmund, he regularly consults a nutritionist; now he eats more vegetables and makes sure he drinks enough water. "You know already but you don't always do it," he explained. When he was given medical advice in January to preserve himself, he consumed fewer carbohydrates so as to avoid putting on any weight. However, Akanji has not sought the help of a psychologist to date, even during his career setbacks. He declared: "I have enough confidence in my body and in my qualities that I will manage it. And I have no doubts about my career."
Akanji actually began his footballing odyssey as a central midfielder and a winger. It was there that he learned the skills that now render him a prototype of the modern central defender. Akanji can open up a game from the back; shape and accelerate it with a sharp forward pass. "You do need to have a certain technique to interpret the role this way," he underlined. "Nowadays it's important to help the team during build-up play. That suits my inclinations. I really like to have the ball and I try not to hit long balls but to play forward in a controlled manner." Georg Heitz, the sporting director who brought him to FC Basel in 2015, says: "Manuel has a special dynamism. He doesn't simply hoof the balls away, but he plays it out carefully. He looks like a player who already has 100 caps."
At the beginning, his qualities as a pace-setter and a passer from the back were not as in demand as they are today. In the 2017/18 season, Borussia Dortmund looked as though they were shaken to the core and eighth position after 15 matches had the alarm bells sounding. Peter Bosz was dismissed as coach and his appointed successor was Peter Stöger, who was not there to win prizes for beautiful football but to save the season and secure direct Champions League qualification. The Austrian coach introduced a more pragmatic style that left Akanji, who was signed over the winter break, in unfamiliar territory. "I had the feeling that we were mostly fighting and resisting," he revealed in an interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) newspaper. "Now we're playing more like before and trying to play a sophisticated possession-based football." Under Lucien Favre, he senses "that my role as a centre-back is to be part of the offence too." Favre gives him freedom and explicitly encourages him to carry out his role constructively. Central defenders perform a fundamentally important role in the philosophy and system of the coach. Centre-halves of the old kind, whose fundamental remit consisted of following their opponents as far as the toilets if necessary, have become outdated. "Nowadays it's important for clubs that their central defenders are good with the ball," said Akanji, whose breakneck speed – he's one of the fastest runners in the Borussia Dortmund camp – is another important quality. The fact that his fastest pace is still slightly below that of his team-mate Achraf Hakimi, whose top speed was clocked at 35.1 km/h, only serves to motivate Akanji. "That means I need to get faster," he says.
Bet with US sports fan Pulisic
He is currently competing on a different front with another one of his team-mates, the US international Christian Pulisic. Both love basketball, with Akanji supporting Oklahoma City Thunder and Pulisic cheering on the Los Angeles Lakers. The final placement of the two clubs before the play-offs will decide the outcome of an attractive bet. If Oklahoma finish above the Lakers at the end of the Western Conference, Pulisic will have to dig out his credit card and book Akanji flights and accommodation to attend the matches of the NFL International Series in London. Only in April will the National Football League release the exact fixture dates for the autumn. The Carolina Panthers will play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while the Chicago Bears will face the Oakland Raiders, the Cincinatti Bengals will take on the Los Angeles Rams and the Houston Texans will square off against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Should Akanji lose the bet, he'll get off lightly. He won't have to pay for Pulisic to fly to London. Because the US international will be living in the British capital starting 1 July, when he is set to join Premier League club Chelsea.
Author: Alexander Neuhaus, photos: Alexandre Simoes