96 passes attempted, 96 completed, 1 goal and 2 yellow cards. In other words, more goals than misplaced passes, but also more yellow cards than goals. Denis Zakaria’s remarkable statistics after his first 153 minutes in the Bundesliga tell us a lot about his immense qualities. They also give us a glimpse of the few flaws of this 20-year-old Swiss midfielder, who has been nicknamed “Xhakaria” by some Borussia Mönchengladbach fans.
One year after Granit Xhaka’s departure from the ‘Fohlen’ to Arsenal, the former Young Boys player looks to have a future just as bright as his Switzerland team-mate. 20 years is an age at which talented players elicit comparisons. Those with Xhaka are clearly obvious, starting with their nationality and the club in which they chose to start their career abroad. But there are more: before they left, both were so dominant in the Swiss Super League that nobody would have deemed their departure premature.
Like Xhaka, Zakaria is a midfielder who plays at the heart of the game, who rarely loses possession, and who knows how to not only score but defend as well. The similarities go up to the point that Zakaria’s tackles are sometimes too reckless and cost him unnecessary yellow cards. Others, such as FC Basel coach Raphael Wicky, see in Zakaria a new Patrick Vieira, because of their physical similarities and their relentlessness in midfield battles.
The French-speaking Denis Zakaria was born in Geneva in 1996 to a Congolese father and a Sudanese mother. The player he’s inspired by the most is Paul Pogba, and this tells us a lot about what kind of player he wants to become. As a youngster, Zakaria started out as a striker. As he grew taller (today: 6′ 3″), youth coaches at Servette FC saw him as a center back until he was 18 years old. Few, including the Englishman Kevin Cooper, the manager of the Geneva club in second division back then, envisioned a professional future for him.
As late as spring of 2015, this young Barcelona fan was playing fifth-division football in Switzerland. Heinz Moser played a major role in Zakaria’s career. A former professional footballer himself, he has been working for nearly 10 years as a youth coach for the Swiss federation. He is currently coaching the U21 national team and has, over the last six years, overseen the best Swiss players born between 1994 and 1998. Few, if any, have impressed him as much as Denis Zakaria has.
“I can still remember the Servette-Grasshopper U18 match when I discovered him,” said Moser. “He was playing as a center back and winning all of his duels, tackling and dispossessing opponents confidently and effortlessly. There was no doubt in my mind that I had a future brilliant midfield player in front of me.”
In September 2014, Moser called Zakaria up to Switzerland’s U19 team. Eight caps and a few months later, Young Boys, one of the top 3 teams in Switzerland, whose network in the French-speaking part of Switzerland is excellent, decided to sign him. At that point, Servette and their manager Kevin Cooper understood their mistake. Zakaria played the last four games of the 2014/15 in the Challenge League (second division), scoring 2 goals. It was too little, too late, and the future international player left the club for 200.000 Swiss francs (€175.000).
The two following two seasons saw him, at last, rise to his potential. His start to life in the capital was rather difficult, but the quick replacement of coach Uli Forte by Adi Hütter played in his favor. With the Austrian, Zakaria instantly became a regular starter in the heart of Young Boys’ 4-4-2 system, in a box-to-box style that quickly came to define him. In a team that aims to be at the top of the league and that likes to have possession, he wins duels, recovers balls, distributes them wisely and does not hesitate to make runs for the opposite box, delivering key passes and shooting on goal. Jordan Pickford, England U21’s goalkeeper back in March 2016 for a Switzerland-England in Thun, may still remember the noise the crossbar made after a powerful Zakaria shot following an impressive run through midfield.
At the end of the season, the coach of Switzerland’s first team, Vladimir Petkovic, did not hesitate to give him his first minutes in two friendly games against Belgium and Moldova. In one year, Zakaria had moved from the Servette reserve team to the Swiss national team. The story went on with him proving his qualities again and again, both with Young Boys and the national team, where he is now a regular, and a transfer for 12 million euros to Germany saw him replace Mahmoud Dahoud.
Despite being the fourth most expensive transfer in the history of Borussia Mönchengladbach, there is little doubt that the investment will prove to be an insightful bargain, given the young age of Zakaria. His qualities (physical presence, speed, pass quality and accuracy) have been underlined by sporting director Max Eberl and make him the prototype of the modern midfielder who can play across several systems. Moreover, the young Swiss has quickly adapted to his new surroundings, having already learned to speak German at Young Boys. All his former managers praise him for his impeccable attitude and positive spirit. It’s now up to Zakaria to work on his aggressiveness when tackling, as he himself has acknowledged on the club’s website.
In Gladbach, where he can count on his compatriots Yann Sommer, Nico Elvedi and Josip Drmić, he seems to have found the ideal place to continue his development in order to reach his next big goal: to qualify for and play the 2018 World Cup with Switzerland. Having already been part of the squad called up for EURO 2016, the speed of his progress could make him a starter in midfield next summer, alongside Granit Xhaka.
By: David Lemos/@davidlemos
Translated by: @LeahVdc