Dan-Axel Zagadou needed a year for his Dortmund career to really get going. After that, the 1.96m giant was awoken. Opposing strikers now bounce off him. The club's management team have been impressed by the ''sense of calm that he maintains in tough situations.'' The young defender responds to this praise with the same laid-back attitude that defines him out on the pitch: ''There's no point getting too worked up about things. Keeping it cool is the best approach.''
Zagadou was born in 1999 in the Parisian suburb of Créteil. He made his first steps in the game of football playing for local clubs before being scouted by the Paris Saint-Germain youth set-up in 2011. He worked his way up through the age groups before breaking into the reserve team, making nine appearances in the French fourth-tier in the 2016/17 season. In the summer of 2017, the 18-year-old moved to Dortmund, reportedly turning down the advances of both Manchester City and RB Leipzig in favour of BVB. ''Signing for Dortmund was unquestionably the best decision for me,'' says Zagadou, going on to add: ''Everything I had hoped for has come true. I consciously chose to sign for BVB because they have a strong track record of bringing young players into the first team and helping them develop at the highest level.''
In his first season at Borussia, Zagadou was often deployed at left-back to cover for injuries to the regular starting personnel. In the 2018/19 season, he was able to secure a starting berth in his favoured role at the heart of defence. However, a series of injuries led to him missing large chunks of the second half of the season. The youngster had certainly made a good impression before being struck by this ill-fortune.
In total, Zagadou won 70 percent of his duels (75 percent in the air) across the season – the second best record in the entire league! BVB kept a clean sheet in six of the 17 league matches in which Zagadou played – something they only managed to do four times in the 17 matches without him. In November 2017, the broadsheet Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper singled out Zagadou as a ''key figure for BVB's success.'' Head coach Lucien Favre was equally effusive in his praise: ''Dan is able to read the game very well. He's made so much progress. It's incredible.''
Zagadou has no doubt been helped by the fact that he can communicate with his coach in his native language. Whenever Favre wants to share some detailed information on technique or tactics with the centre-back, he doesn't have to turn to an interpreter. ''That makes training easier for me, matches too, everything really. I have a clear idea of what the coach wants from me,'' says the Frenchman. Zagadou is able to find out first-hand, without the risk of imprecise communication, which foot he should play the ball with or how best to anticipate where the ball will go. Should he play it long or opt for the short pass? ''Favre,'' says the player, ''always goes over these details in small groups with us.''
In addition to his imposing physique (he weighs in at 90kg), what stands out most about Zagadou is his incredible sense of calm on the pitch. In many ways, he's not too dissimilar to former Brazil goalkeeper Júlio César, whose pulse reportedly never surpassed its resting level in even the most high-pressure situations. When Sebastian Kehl, director of professional football at BVB, pours forth with praise for Zagadou, one might expect that it would be because of his physical presence or his strength in the tackle. However, Kehl is every bit as impressed with his ''ability to remain calm in difficult situations.'' Sporting director Michael Zorc, for his part, considers this quality to be a ''special gift.''
As Zagadou has made the move into an unfamiliar part of the world, his family have been there to help him every step of the way. His parents accompanied him on the journey to Dortmund, while his siblings have done all they can to make sure that he feels at home in his new city. Dressy, the eldest of his four brothers, has gone as far as to move in with him in Dortmund. For Zagadou, this arrangement clearly gives him an important sense of security: ''My elder siblings have always kept a close eye on me. They've always made sure I don't end up in trouble.'' Despite this close sibling supervision, Zagadou is nonetheless allowed to go out with friends in Düsseldorf from time to time.
The capacity to remain so well-balanced at such a young age is undoubtedly one of the most striking features of the young defender whose teammates call him Daxo. The Frenchman believes it all stems from the environment in which he grew up. ''Back there, there's no point getting too worked up about things. Keeping it cool is the best approach.'' That being said, Zagadou confesses, that in certain exceptional circumstances – and only then – he sometimes loses his cool: ''But only when the opposition show no respect or sense of fair play. Fortunately I have Axel Witsel to hold me back in those situations,'' says Zagadou with a laugh. On the subject of Witsel: the young Frenchman feels particularly connected to the Belgian midfielder 11 years his senior. In fact, he even calls him ''tonton'' – French for uncle.