By Achraf Hakimi’s recent standards, too long had passed since the rampaging wideman was last involved in a Borussia Dortmund goal, so Saturday’s strike to seal a 2-0 win over Wolfsburg was timely.
The wing-back was on the receiving end of a Jadon Sancho pass in the 78th-minute to complete a sweeping 11-second counter-attack that saw Lucien Favre’s side transition from back to front in typical fashion.
It was normal service being resumed for the English teenager just as much as it was for his North African teammate: Sancho’s last goal contribution, incidentally, came against Borussia Monchengladbach in early March, when he again played in Hakimi, which represented the Moroccan’s last involvement as well.
In that Borussen Derby, Sancho had come off the bench as he did in Saturday afternoon’s encounter, and the pair’s continued understanding has been one of the many positives in Dortmund’s season.
Hakimi’s goal, his fourth of the campaign, and 10 assists take his total Bundesliga contribution for 2019/20 to 14, which is the highest of any full-back in the German top flight.
Indeed, his overall contribution beats every full-back or wing-back in Europe’s top five leagues, except one…Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, who’s scored twice and assisted 12 in the Premier League.
To many observers, this realisation wouldn’t come as a surprise given the pair are regarded as the leading full-backs of their generation and are widely tipped to dominate for years to come.
Trent, 21, has risen exponentially under Jurgen Klopp’s management to become the Reds’ primary creator, as evidenced by his assist numbers and big chances created. The England defender has set up a staggering 16 clear-cut chances in the Prem, only bettered by Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne who has created 23.
This number trumps many on the continent, too, with only Angel Di Maria (32), Thomas Muller (25), Serge Gnabry (21) and Lionel Messi (22) comfortably ahead of the youngster across Europe.
Hakimi’s tally of nine big chances created pales in comparison with the Liverpool full-back, seven fewer than 2019 Champions League winner, so it’s slightly unusual that both have similar assist figures.
The disparity, though, could be because Alexander-Arnold acts as the European champions’ primary creative source, while the Dortmund loanee plays a secondary role to Sancho, who has 16 assists and 15 clear-cut chances, in Lucien Favre’s system.
Fascinatingly, a deeper dive into both full-backs’ chance creation numbers presents an even more glaring difference: the Moroccan’s Expected Assists reads 5.28, which is far lower than his assist haul of 10. By contrast, TAA’s xA of 9.83 is close to 12, his actual assist figure this season.
Given Hakimi’s relatively low numbers for big chances created and the gulf between Expected Assists and real haul, the African’s return may be unsustainable going forward.
Be that as it may, the fact all of his 10 assists have come from open play, as opposed to his English counterpart who’s on set-piece duty for Liverpool, is commendable.
The Dortmund man’s versatility may well trump Trent’s, as he’s featured in a plethora of wide roles at the back and in attack this season. In fairness, there’s been no reason to play the PFA Young Player of the Year contender away from his primary right-back slot, but his technique and ability on the ball suggest he could thrive in a wide-right role or even in midfield if necessary.
Furthermore, the repeated criticism of Alexander-Arnold, besides his defensive weakness, sees him reprimanded for losing possession inordinately in nearly every game. However, this notion by observers fails to consider how ambitious the 21-year-old is in possession.
Critics admonished the Liverpool full-back for giving the ball away 31 times in the Reds’ 3-0 defeat by Watford, a game that brought a halt to the Merseyside club’s unbeaten league run, but this statistic was even higher in the champions-elect’s 4-0 win at Leicester City and hard-fought 3-2 success at home to West Ham United.
Against the Foxes, his best performance of the season, he gave the ball away 37 times while this number was 35 when the Reds played the Hammers. Still, he provided two goals and scored one against Brendan Rodgers’ troops and set up two at home to David Moyes’ side. Indeed, given the risky nature of his passing, it’s expected to have many attempts go awry.
As regards the Englishman’s defensive weakness, and Hakimi’s superiority in that aspect, it is, in fact, believed by observers and indeed opponents due to how Trent’s flank is often targeted.
This was the case in Klopp’s team’s defeat by the Hornets in February, while Manchester City, albeit unsuccessfully, attacked down his flank in their 3-1 loss against the Reds in November.
Pep Guardiola’s team did eventually score from one of those attacks as left-back Angelino assisted Bernardo Silva on one of his numerous forward forays, but it didn’t change the course of the match. Still, the fact 43 percent of the outgoing champions’ attacks came down that flank was telling.
Hakimi is less exposed, partly down to having more protection in Dortmund’s 3-4-3 and also possessing the recovery pace to get back in position when caught in no man’s land. This was aptly explained by Morocco teammate and Wolverhampton Wanderers centre-back Romain Saiss earlier this season.
“[Hakimi] is still young, at 21, and still has huge scope to progress, above all defensively. When he plays for the national side in particular, he needs to be better at anticipating what to do when we lose possession,” Morocco’s captain pointed out. “He makes up for it all with his speed. When he’s in full flight, he’s difficult to stop even if, sometimes, I tell him, ‘It is great that you run upfield, but think about tracking back now and again.’”
“He’s still a very good defender and hard to get past. He’s tough, too. In the years ahead, he has all the qualities to become the best in the world.”
Saiss believes his countryman has what it takes to become the best in his position, an expectation many have for Alexander-Arnold as well. One is a turbo full-back blessed with incredible pace, while his counterpart’s technique and crossing ability are arguably second to none.
Both are exciting, and the prospect of seeing them compete for the outright best of their generation is certainly a tussle worth looking forward to.