Manuel Akanji: How Haaland helped Man City make a second bargain buy from Borussia Dortmund
He arrived from Borussia Dortmund for a bargain fee, has made a huge impression since stepping straight into the Manchester City side and is already looking like one of the best signings of the summer.
Manuel Akanji was a late arrival at the Etihad Stadium but the £15 million ($17m) signing from Signal Iduna Park is already proving one of the shrewdest deals of the last transfer window.
Indeed, Pep Guardiola has described as a "gift for a manager" and says he and his coaching staff have been wowed by how quickly Akanji picks up complicated tactical instructions.
Some players take more than a year to get to grips with the Catalan's system. Akanji has settled in seamlessly so far.
Of course, superstar striker Erling Haaland is hogging all the headlines – and deservedly so, given the Norwegian has already racked up 20 goals just two months into the 2022-23 campaign.
But Haaland is the final, if highly effective, cog of a sublime football machine that’s working perfectly because of the efficacy of all of its parts.
It starts right at the back, where Akanji has become the fifth of five centre-backs that are tasked with defending high up the pitch, as well as being comfortable enough on the ball to start and dictate attacks.
Guardiola wanted increased protection after resources were severely stretched at the end of the previous season, when his side were chasing a Premier League and Champions League double.
Ruben Dias, John Stones and Nathan Ake all suffered injuries at the back end of the campaign, as did Aymeric Laporte, who played through the pain with a knee injury that has seen him miss the first two months of this season following an operation in the summer.
A makeshift partnership of Laporte alongside the veteran Fernandinho almost buckled in the final two Premier League matches and the club wanted to avoid being in the same situation again.
The extra body, then, gives Guardiola more opportunity to avoid a crisis.
"I would love to have the same back four but they cannot handle it," he said ahead of Tuesday night’s Champions League clash with Copenhagen. "The players we have cannot handle every three days of being fit. Other teams might be able to, but we can’t.
"Nathan can’t, Ruben last season, Aymeric came back from a big injury so it’s important for us everyone can play and everyone can perform well.
"If you want to be in there with all the titles we are fighting for, and then with the World Cup coming, we need everyone to be ready to fight until the end. Otherwise, it will be so difficult."
Still, the arrival of Akanji was a surprise as City had spent the best part of the summer chasing another full-back to replace Oleksandr Zinchenko, who was allowed to leave for Arsenal.
Then, after missing out on top target Marc Cucurella, the Premier League champions brought in Sergio Gomez from Belgium club Anderlecht, but the Spanish under-21 remains relatively unproven after failing to break into the starting line-up at either Barcelona or Dortmund.
Joao Cancelo is obviously comfortable on both sides of the defence but when Kyle Walker picked up an injury that could rule the England international out of the World Cup, City were left with just one fit senior full-back.
Consequently, Akanji was asked to play at right-back in Saturday's 4-0 victory over Southampton.
He's no stranger to the position but it was impressive how he took on the role without any fuss and he could now start in Sunday's showdown with Liverpool at Anfield.
"I think at every club there have been some games at right-back," the 27-year-old told reporters. "My best position is still at centre-back but when the team needs me on the right, I am there.
"It depends on who we play. We built up with three at the back for most of the time against Southampton, so I didn’t stay wide. It was basically what I do as a centre-back, so it made it pretty normal for me.
"When the ball was up high, you obviously have to run a little bit more – more intensive runs than I am used to – but it was okay."
Being able to offer alternatives in the back four is another reason why it is so baffling that Akanji hadn't been snapped up long before City made a late move for his services during the summer.
A reported former target of Liverpool, he had decided he wanted to move on from Dortmund but, after turning down contract extensions, he was set to be on the fringes of the squad until a former team-mate got in touch.
"Erling texted me, then my agents talked with the club," Akanji revealed. "Erling said that they had asked him about me.
"I think they had already made their plans but just wanted some more information so asked Erling. I don’t know what he said – hopefully just good words!"
City fans are already hugely grateful for the arrival of Haaland, mainly for his goals and his intimidating presence.
But recommending Akanji is yet another reason why the Norwegian has made a big difference to Guardiola's squad this season.