Denis Zakaria Borussia Monchengladbach 2019-20Getty Images

Pogba mixed with Kroos? Man Utd and Arsenal target Zakaria fuelling Gladbach's title tilt

It was supposed to be Borussia Dortmund challenging for the Bundesliga title this season – not Borussia Monchengladbach.

Where Dortmund added Nico Schulz, Mats Hummels and Julian Brandt to a team which fell an agonising two points short of Bayern Munich last term, Gladbach lost arguably their best player over the summer in Thorgan Hazard.

His destination? Dortmund, as if they needed another golden boy to add to their collection.

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Having finished fifth and narrowly missed out on their primary target of Champions League qualification, Gladbach parted ways with Dieter Hecking at the end of last season and brought in Marco Rose as their new head coach.

Rose had his own Dortmund connection, albeit with one degree of separation, having briefly been a team-mate of Jurgen Klopp at Mainz before working under the future BVB boss in his early days as a coach. 

Klopp has been credited as a major influence on Rose and there are certainly glimmers of gegenpressing in his game.

Having won back-to-back Austrian league titles with Red Bull Salzburg in his two seasons in charge as well as reaching the semi-finals of the Europa League – brushing aside Dortmund along the way, perhaps in an omen of things to come – Rose’s high-tempo, quick-transition football now has Gladbach four points clear at the top of the Bundesliga.

Several players have stood out during the Foals’ fast start to the season.

Marcus Thuram, son of World Cup winner Lilian, has five league goals and five assists since joining from Guingamp in the summer and is developing into an all-round striker.

Laszlo Benes, who spent last season on loan at Holstein Kiel in the 2.Bundesliga, has come back a different player and established a reputation as something of a set-piece specialist.

Then, there is Denis Zakaria, possibly the most important player of all. Only just 23 – it was his birthday earlier this week – he is the one who has been entrusted with stoking the fire in the Gladbach engine room.

Denis Zakaria Vieira Pogba PSGetty/Goal

“I’ve been compared to [Patrick] Vieira and [Paul] Pogba – two players I really respect and, in a way, see as role models,” Zakaria said not long after joining from Young Boys in 2017.

Germany legend and former Gladbach man Lothar Matthaus, meanwhile, has compared the Swiss to Toni Kroos, which is more instructive than the chronically overused 'new Vieira' and 'new Pogba' tags.

“I’m glad that Gladbach have found another pearl,” Matthaus has said of Zakaria. “At his age, I was still earning my first stripes for Borussia.”

While Zakaria has a way to go before he can claim to be on the same level as Pogba or Kroos, let alone Vieira or Matthaus, he is dynamic enough to bridge the gulf in their respective styles.

Equally confident in a defensive midfield role or slightly further forward, he is an excellent interceptor and recycler of the ball who is able to pivot with a deceptive burst of pace between defence and attack.

He can also draw on deep reserves of strength and stamina, which gives him the air of a genuine all-action midfielder.

Throw in his considerable experience – he’s already made 82 appearances for Gladbach and is a regular in the Switzerland national team – and it’s not hard to see why people are excited.

His skills as an interceptor make him an invaluable part of Rose’s midfield as the man who orchestrates Gladbach’s transitions, winning the ball in front of the defence before ferrying it forward with long, loping strides.

If there is a comparison to be made with Vieira, it is in his foal-like running style, 6’2’’ frame and the bafflingly long feet-on-stalks with which he dispossesses his opponents.

Denis Zakaria Rose PSGetty/Goal

He is also an industrious tackler and the fact that he has six yellow cards for the season already hints at a Vieira-esque attitude to discipline.

Where the Kroos comparison starts to make sense, though, is in Zakaria’s passing game. As well as being a disruptor and orchestrator from deep, Zakaria is also an intelligent distributor who keeps Gladbach ticking over with the ball as well as without it.

Though he only has two goals and one assist in the Bundesliga so far, he defies his billing as a defensive midfielder. Just ask Werder Bremen, against whom he provided a neat assist at the weekend for Patrick Herrmann’s third goal in a 3-1 win.

Along with the inevitable scrutiny which comes with Gladbach’s surprise surge to the top of the table, Zakaria will have to deal with greater external pressure this season.

When a player is being compared to Vieira at 23 years of age, it goes without saying that the hype train is chugging full-steam ahead.

He has been widely linked to Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham, and there’s well over a month to go until the January window opens.

However, even his agent has ruled out the possibility of a mid-season move.

"Denis is in very good shape in Gladbach and has been playing really well for weeks," Mathieu Beda told Sport Bild. "But he still has more potential and he wants to show that in Gladbach now instead of dealing with a change."

There will be plenty of time to consider the offers on the table next summer – particularly if Zakaria and Gladbach continue to upstage Dortmund and Bayern by maintaining this surprise title challenge.