Following a stunning season for Dortmund and the culmination of a two-year loan spell in Germany, Achraf Hakimi is ready for the next chapter of his career.
But it's not going to be at Real Madrid; instead the Moroccan has chosen to join Antonio Conte's revolution at Inter as they attempt to end Juventus' dominance of Italian football, and in Conte's 3-5-2, the full-back turned wide-midfielder has helped to redefine the attacking requirements of the position.
Football has come a long way since Jamie Carragher’s quip about no one wanting to grow up to be Gary Neville, but when it became apparent just how pivotal Trent Alexander-Arnold was to Liverpool’s chance creation, there immediately arose a clamour for him to be used in midfield.
Ironically, it was that man Carragher again making the assertion that TAA had “more quality than Liverpool’s midfield players” and touting him for a similar sort of role as Kevin De Bruyne plays for Manchester City.
Thankfully, Jurgen Klopp has to this point resisted the temptation, understanding just how much more beneficial it is to have an epochal talent at full-back pushing the boundaries of what is possible than just another midfield player.
While Alexander-Arnold wins plaudits in England, over in Germany Hakimi has been one of Borussia Dortmund’s standout performers over the last two seasons. The Morocco International has, in the two and half years since he made his competitive first-team debut for Zinedine Zidane’s side, established himself as one of football’s finest young full-backs, culminating in his €40m transfer to Inter.
In 2018/19 he was integral to a Dortmund side that mounted a title challenge while progressing to the Champions League Round of 16. Until a metatarsal injury in March effectively put an end to his season, he made close to 30 appearances, scoring three times and assisting seven times.
In his absence, Lucien Favre’s side faltered in their title tilt, immediately capitulating to Bayern Munich in a 5-0 humbling and doubling their tally of league defeats in the final seven matches to lose ground and ultimately fall short in the Bundesliga race.
In 2019/20, he missed just a single league game, with five goals and 10 assists in the league surpassing his totals for last campaign.
So what is it that makes Hakimi such an Interesting player to watch?
Hakimi style of play
Perhaps the game that best sums up what makes the Real Madrid loanee special came in 2018/19 Champions League Group Stage meeting with Atletico Madrid at Westfalenstadion. Dortmund crushed Diego Simeone’s side 4-0 with Hakimi gleefully leading the charge, earning a hat-trick of assists and cutting through the visiting side’s usually tight lines.
That night, fielded at left-back, Hakimi constantly made diagonal runs infield, breaking Atletico’s trademark compactness with his willingness to roam all the way to the other flank in order to provide overloads. He often found himself as the farthest forward player, completely unplugged from the grid and unfettered in a way that was impossible to stop.
That really is his own unique thing: whereas Alexander-Arnold is innovating technically, Hakimi is tactically. Whether played on the right or 'wrong' side of the back four or as the wide man in a midfield five, he continually pops up in unexpected zones – in the stirring comeback against Inter last November he scored twice, the first a proper poacher’s finish from the edge of the six-yard box in open play. His second came from a more orthodox movement, but his hunger to get into the area was evident in his run to round off a brilliant one-two.
Against Slavia Prague, he also scored twice, leading Czech manager Jindrich Trpisovsky to extol his potential. “I think that, within a few years, he will be among three or four of the best full-backs in the world,” he said.
In order to get there, however, there remains a glaring weakness that needs to be addressed. Defensively, question marks linger over the Moroccan, who can lack awareness in certain situations. To his credit, he is not unaware of this, and has stated it is an area in which manager Favre demands improvement. In the meantime, however, the wInter shift to a 3-4-3 system emphasises his strengths and goes some way toward mitigating his shortcomings. Conte's preference for three at the back will also protect him, too.
I think that, within a few years, he will be among three or four of the best full-backs in the worldSlavia Prague head coach, Jindrich Trpisovsky
It is a concession that Dortmund made willingly, rightly judging Hakimi’s offensive output justified the change. They have been rewarded with continued excellence, although Inter will now be the beneficiaries of his talent after the big money move to San Siro this week.
It was unlikely that Real Madrid would be willing to make the tweaks needed to unleash him in the same way. Under Zidane, the focus is very much on technical security in possession, and the penchant for playing it safe and sensible could have been jarring for the 21-year-old to return to.
That childhood dream – to play for his home club – is the price he has paid in order to reach his full potential.