Manuel Akanji heard transfer rumors about himself all summer. The 27-year-old was entering his last year of contract at Borussia Dortmund and multiple offers came up. Leicester City were reportedly one of the clubs interested in the centre-back, who was not too sure about agreeing to a move away from the Bundesliga until Manchester City got involved.
“The transfer window was long. I had a lot of talks with my agent and there were some offers but nothing felt right until the point where City came to me and then it was clear that I wanted to do this,” Akanji tells The Athletic. “I was thinking that I had one more year in Dortmund so if nothing else would have come up I probably would have stayed.”
“The process to move to City started the weekend before the transfer deadline. In a couple of days, it all went through — that’s why none of the media knew, because it happened all of a sudden. I’m happy it happened and I’m here now with this team.”
Welcome, Akanji 💙 pic.twitter.com/tAYrpnyPVt
— Manchester City (@ManCity) September 1, 2022
Akanji is speaking two days after his debut. He is 15 minutes late on his way home from the training ground. “Excuse me for the delay! I was stuck in traffic,” he apologizes. He is staying in the city center, at City Suites Apartments — the same building where teammate Ilkay Gundogan and manager Pep Guardiola live — as a temporary home. He’s been on his own in Manchester, spending his free time watching the US Open and the start of the NFL season while he is waiting for his family to arrive. They landed over the weekend, his wife and children — the second of whom was born just days after he signed his contract at City — and Akanji is searching for a permanent place to stay.
The Swiss’ first week in England has been hectic but he can’t hide his smile at the challenge ahead. Being the fifth first-team centre-back to join the squad is not a concern.
“I knew the situation at Man City. I watched a lot of their games over the last few years and I knew they already had world-class players all around the team. I’m ready for the challenge. It might not be easy and I can’t expect to play every game, but we have so many games coming up and we have injuries, suspensions, whatever.
“The club told me that we don’t have a No 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — we’re all players in that position and the guys who train best and play the best are going to play. Guardiola will make changes because if he plays the same team every game there will be problems — your body just can’t do it.”
Akanji made his debut in the Champions League against Sevilla. He had trained for less than a week under Guardiola, but his performance at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium earned some praise from his manager: “He showed what a good central defender Manchester City just bought”.
PEP 💬 [On Akanji] He trained one day and a half with us, but he showed what experience he has at Dortmund and what a good central defender Manchester City brought to us. He has similar quality like Aymeric – he can break the lines with the pass. He reads the spaces really well. pic.twitter.com/IcRCWWxGjS
— Manchester City (@ManCity) September 6, 2022
“I had less time (training) than the others but I can cope with that,” Akanji explains. “I’m not at the level they are, but I try to learn every day and the coaches are telling me if I can improve on things. I’m here to learn and some things are new to me with the system, but I haven’t had problems before with (that)”, he adds.
“Before the game, I was a little bit nervous but I felt comfortable on the pitch, it just felt normal. I did what I always do and the guys around gave me an option to always play to.”
Akanji is used to being branded a ball-playing centre-back. Dortmund paid £20million ($23.2m) in 2018 when he was tipped to be one of the most promising defenders in Europe. However, the position under Guardiola is different.
“Centre-backs are the first guys to get it from the keeper and even at City I am having to get used to how good Ederson is with his feet because I’m not used to the keeper building up with the team as well.
“I see a lot of details in training that I haven’t learned before — how you stand with the ball, how you block a shot and stuff like that.”
Connections between Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund have been constant in recent years. After Akanji’s arrival, there are four players in the squad with a spell at the German club in their careers — Gündogan, Sergio Gomez and Erling Haaland. In 2017, City sold 17-year-old Jadon Sancho to Dortmund as well. Sancho and Haaland were two of the closest friends Akanji had in Germany, and they have also been important in recent weeks.
“I am in touch with Jadon a lot. With Erling, I spoke before I came here obviously, we also stayed in touch when he left the club.
“They told me here I will learn a lot in training because the intensity is so high that it makes it a lot harder. It’s not like we are doing different exercises from Dortmund, but the quality and intensity makes it so much higher. It’s hard and that shows you can get used to it Premier League. I think that it is a lot faster than in Germany.”
Haaland has been a key figure in Akanji’s first days at the club, although all the players are “relaxed” and “easy to talk to”. “I start getting more into the conversations, says the Swiss, “not just the typical, ‘Hi, how are you?’ or ‘congratulations on your new baby’. The talks are getting funnier and deeper. That’s a signal you’re getting more used to the team.”
He has been impressed by the high standards too. “In my first session I trained with the guys who didn’t play against Nottingham Forest and there were some young players from the academy and the second team who are already good and bringing so much quality. Julian Alvarez is really good and is still young — he needs to adapt a little bit as well to the football we play here, but you can also see things in him that are good. Cole Palmertoo.”
Akanji is also picking up details on each of his new teammates, those things that you can’t learn about from afar.
“When I watched any City games, I didn’t particularly realize for instance how Ruben Dias leads from the back. He communicates a lot to everyone. I feel like those are things you don’t see on TV, also because you can’t hear it. He (Dias) talks a lot and made it easier for me in my first game.”
Before he can get used to life in Manchester, the Champions League will allow Akanji to reunite with his former teammates for the last four seasons. City will host Dortmund in the second round of fixtures in the group stage, a challenge the Swiss can’t wait to take on.
“It won’t be weird for me,” he says. “I’m looking forward to the game. I’m trying to do everything to win. I didn’t come here to lose games, so I hope we can get the three points on Wednesday.”
He is aware of the speculation surrounding his move, and potentially his ambition. There might be some skeptics about Akanji’s decision to join a club with four elite center-backs, and potentially limited game time. Even before being asked about that, he recognized the critics, and how they will motivate him to prove a point.
“I want to show that I didn’t come here to be just a random player. I want to be on this team and play as much as possible. Some people might still have doubts about it and I need to prove to them that I can do it, and that’s why I’m here.
“Some people might think I came here just as another defender to play some time. I don’t know what everyone thinks as I don’t read all the newspapers but there are always some doubts about everyone. Even Erling, when he came, there were questions about if he could do here the same as he did in the Bundesliga! Of course, he’s proving them wrong.”
Few people in that squad can know Haaland as Akanji does after sharing more than two years at Dortmund. Last week, sporting director Sebastian Kehl stated Haaland’s transfer saga became a “burden” on his final months at the club, “both in the dressing room and in the club”. Yet Akanji is only positive about the Norwegian.
“He (Haaland) speaks up if he thinks it’s the time to do it. I like players who operate like that,” he declares.
“Obviously, it depends on how you say things, but it helps if you can have a conversation about anything that happened. Not only about football issues because I think in daily life works like this as well. I feel it’s important to tell your teammates how you are feeling”.
Being a vocal figure in the squad is something to which Akanji aspires as well.
“I can be like this too. Maybe not right now, because I’m still getting used to the team! But yeah, that’s how I am.
“If one of my teammates makes a mistake on the pitch I wouldn’t kill him, because most of the time they will feel bad enough already. I might try to give him a solution, or tell him how I can try to help him,” concludes a player who, days before playing against his past at Dortmund, is already picturing his future at the elite of European football — right where he aspired to be.
(Top photo: David S Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)