There are many reasons for the decline of Marcel Schmelzer.
Dortmund’s diminutive left-back has been a fixture in Westfalen ever since Jurgen Klopp strode through the door in 2008.
But the German is finally showing signs of age. His demise might be natural, but it has been encouraged by the coruscating form of Manuel Akanji.
The enterprising Swiss defender has enjoyed a breakout season in the Bundesliga, even as his employers flailed hopelessly under the twin disasters of Peters Bosz and Stoger.
A centre-back by trade, the former Basel man has filled in commendably at left-back since his arrival in the January transfer window.
Not exactly cheap at €20 million, Akanji has proven something of a bargain ever since, adapting instantly to the rigors of the German league. Dortmund’s last-gap finish in the Champions League places is due at least in part to his cool displays at the back.
Born to a Nigerian father and a Swiss mother, Akanji finally made his international debut last summer. He has been a permanent fixture in Vladimir Petkovic’s side ever since.
This writer observed him personally in the white-hot atmosphere of Windsor Park last winter. In front of a braying Northern Irish crowd in a World Cup playoff, Akanji was the most assured presence on the pitch, giving Kyle Lafferty a miserable evening.
Akanji’s defensive partner Fabian Schar used to be the biggest thing in Swiss football. Despite the hype of his early career though, the 26-year-old was relegated with Deportivo just weeks ago after an anonymous two seasons at Hoffenheim.
Akanji is supremely talented but he cannot allow a similar complacency to set in. A solid World Cup will only intensify the interest that has seen clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United circle.
At this point, however, it seems like only a matter of time before he arrives at one of the continents’ biggest sides.
Akanji might be tall at 1.87 metres but he boasts a decent amount of pace. He also has excellent composure, and is comfortable recycling possession with either foot.
Despite his relatively young age, the Swiss is also an adroit reader of the game, preferring to nip in front of strikers rather than lunge into needless tackles. He is refined and is as likely to slip a simple ball to a defensive teammate as he is to play a progressive forward pass.
A tattoo on his body, emblazoned with the words ‘Prove them wrong’ typifies the easy assurance Akanji has in his own ability. Accomplished at centre-back, he has proven his versatility by usurping the aforementioned Schmelzer when called upon over the past few months.
In essence, he is the ultimate modern defender, husbanded from a family that is naturally athletic. His sister is a footballer in the Nationalliga A, whilst his mother is a former tennis player.
Akanji is not the finished article but he isn’t far away from it either. A serious injury to his anterior cruciate ligament, occurring whilst still at Basel, might hint at a fragile body.
Thankfully, however, the 22-year-old appears to have put his troubled injury history behind him.
How important do you think Akanji will be in Russia? Let us know by commenting below.