One of the famous cornerstones of Florentino Pérez’s transfer strategy was the policy of ‘Zidanes y Pavones’. He wanted to supplement the Galácticos, one of whom was Zidane, with Castilla-produced squad members like Paco Pavón. He has a player of that mould in Nacho Fernández, who is slowly coming into his own, but in Achraf Hakimi, the latest academy graduate off the turnstiles, there are definite signs that he is no Pavón.
First-team chances are rare at a club of Real Madrid’s magnitude; a club who can purchase most players across the world if needs be. That casts into question the progression of youth graduates from the Castilla side to the first team. And while the entirety of Madrid’s first-team are star-studded, Dani Carvajal at right-back has established himself as one of the best in his position, in typical understated manner. His durability had to halt at some point, and but even when he was ruled out for weeks with a heart problem, there was no panic. Enter Achraf, an 18-year old who Zidane trusted enough not to go after a more experienced back-up right-back.
Born in Getafe, Achraf joined Real at the age of eight in 2006, and was a stand-out performer at every age level as he progressed through the years. Scoring two goals in 864 minutes in the 2015-16 UEFA Youth League, he topped it up with a solid season last year. He was a shining light in an otherwise struggling Castilla side, floundering in the third tier. 2304
minutes in the league produced one goal and eight assists, while he did well in the UEFA Youth League, again, with one goal and two assists in 540 minutes. It was clear that he was too good for the youth teams, and needed progression in the following season, either in the form of a loan or more first-team action.
The latter option, once seen as the more improbable one, is what Achraf is living right now. It must seem like a mirage to him, to be sending crosses in to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. But it is an indictment of his talent and his immense potential, as he’s become the first Arab player to play for Real Madrid. That fact speaks for itself. No manager would have trusted a player from the cantera a couple of years ago, but as with fellow graduate Marcos Llorente, and other youngsters such as Theo Hernández, Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos, there is a change of outlook.
There was a blip in his swift rise though. He was one of the so-called illegal underage foreign kids, and as a result he was unable to play in the autumn of 2016 for any Madrid side until he turned 18 in November. It was a contentious decision, for Achraf, despite his Moroccan parents, was actually born in Getafe, a municipality of the greater Madrid region. It was a mistake from FIFA, taking his lineage as a sign without investigating further. It was a difficult time for Achraf, but he has come through it with vigour.
On deadline day, Zidane decided not to purchase a replacement for the departed Danilo. But the fee they paid for him was proof that money doesn’t always help, and Achraf was the better, if inexperienced, option. The manager vetoed a late loan bid from Alavés (where Theo Hernández and Llorente spent the last season). He would not have expected to utilise Achraf this early into the season, but everything happens for the best. In this case, he has found a capable understudy to Carvajal, capable of handling pressure at the higher stage.
Achraf made his debut against Espanyol on 1 st October, and has since then played versus Getafe and Girona in the league, in addition to the Copa del Rey clash vs Fuenlabrada and the Champions League game versus Tottenham. He acquitted himself well enough in all five games, to the point where he was one of the better players on the pitch. That it was Marcelo who made glaring mistakes in the Girona loss was testament to Achraf’s steadiness on the right flank.
One of his main assets is his pace. In the two-way road of a full-back Achraf can either break forward to join the asset or recover his ground by sprinting towards the defensive third or tracking back. It is that pace that would provide a cushion in his formative years as a player, allowing other facets of his game to develop. He has shown remarkable composure and confidence for a player of his age, taking to the daunting task of replacing Carvajal like a duck would to water. That will hold him in good stead. He prefers to take on defenders, and possesses a fine cross on him, able to mix it up with either high or low balls. That is an attribute that will serve him well.
It has to be remembered though, that given the small sample size on offer, a full judgement can only be made after some time. As with all young players, there comes a blip after a strong start. The environment Achraf is in should benefit him, as will training with world-class players. The education he receives from Carvajal and Marcelo should benefit him as well. While there are areas in Achraf on which he can work, such as his passing, time will iron out those chinks. As with the Girona game, where he failed to impose himself on his opponents, the ups and downs will come, but his level-headed personality should keep him on the straight and narrow.
Though he’s born in Spain, he’s chosen to turn out for Morocco. That is the smarter choice, even if he was always destined to turn out for them, given he will play more internationally, and be a first-choice through the entirety of his career at a solid level. It is rare that a player has more international caps than club caps, but Achraf belongs to that select group. With an international goal already to his belt, his career has now launched. The presence of a still-young Dani Carvajal may hinder his long-term future at Madrid, but the world is at his feet. It is up to him to carve a career he can be proud of, regardless of who he plays for.
By: Rahul Warrier/@rahulw_