There are bound to be conflicting opinions regarding Achraf Hakimi’s debut season in Ligue 1, depending on what side of the divide you lean towards.
While some observers may believe the Morocco international had a decent-to-good season as Paris Saint-Germain reclaimed the title they contrived to lose a year earlier, others may have felt underwhelmed by the big-money acquisition from Inter Milan.
Indeed, much was expected from the Moroccan who was signed for €60 million potentially rising to €71 million with add-ons, especially after a succession of prolific campaigns at Borussia Dortmund and Inter.
However, there was a drop-off in Hakimi’s raw numbers — 10 goal involvements, down from 15 in the two preceding seasons — and the wide defender was involved in significantly fewer offensive actions.
Admittedly, while the 23-year-old was never the primary attacking weapon at Dortmund or the Nerazzurri, he still ranked among the busiest players in the final third, particularly from open play.
Having said that, Hakimi’s dip in involvement needs the necessary context. The presence of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Angel Di Maria and Marco Verratti meant the former Real Madrid man was not as pivotal to his team’s success in the attacking third as he had been in Germany or Italy.
In the preceding years, Hakimi was equally given carte blanche to carry the ball aggressively through the thirds and into the opposition’s penalty area. At PSG, he was not as pivotal, falling to seventh for progressive carries per 90 having ranked highest under Antonio Conte and only behind Jadon Sancho in 2019-20.
Thus, maybe 10 goals plus assists were to his credit despite having to interpret different roles in a changed formation under Mauricio Pochettino last season. The erstwhile Tottenham Hotspur tactician mostly utilised a 4-3-3 in his only full season in Paris, employing a back three on just three occasions.
This, no doubt, failed to get the best out of Hakimi who had more defensive responsibilities in a four-man defence.
So, it was probably music to the wide defender's ears when new PSG boss Christophe Galtier confirmed a new approach was in the offing for the 2022-23 campaign. The Parisians have hitherto ditched the usual 4-3-3 for several variations of a back three under the former Lille trainer.
“Since it's a new system, we started working on it long before. We chose this system because of the characteristics of the squad,” Galtier told the press before Sunday’s 4-0 Trophee des Champions success over Nantes.
“There will be a few more weeks to fine-tune certain passages. Above all, we must let our talent express itself without restrictions.”
As early as the fifth minute in the curtain-raiser, Hakimi should have opened the scoring for PSG but was thwarted by Alban Lafont in the Nantes goal.
Particularly striking in the build-up to that chance was the right wing-back’s movement preceding the effort. He stayed wide and high, at times in line with the most advanced forward and even threatened to run offside before holding his run.
The demolition of Nantes demonstrated a greater inclination to make out-to-in runs into the penalty area from wide positions, analogous somewhat to how he was utilised by Conte at Inter.
Indeed, this was not an anomaly for the Morocco international, as his interpretation of the role under Galtier was evident in the off-season.
Another case in point came in PSG’s pre-season friendly clash with Kawasaki Frontale in late July. With the game still level after 32 minutes, Lionel Messi opened the scoring after Hakimi’s pull-back.
As the attack developed on the left flank with Mbappe, the Moroccan was interestingly out of the picture but made a late dart into the penalty area at the far post to set up the legendary attacker.
That movement bore similarities to Inter’s version of Hakimi and PSG fans’ mouths ought to water at the prospect of seeing the wing-back reproduce the willingness to surge into the penalty area and aid the team’s execution of moves like he did in Serie A.
Galtier has accepted the challenge of coaching this expensively-assembled group, promising to put them in the right environment — read tactics and roles — to thrive. That assertion ought to be satisfying to hear for the turbo-charged Hakimi who strives to show the best version of himself in year two in Paris.