Hail Hakimi: PSG's real X-Factor keeping their stuttering season on track
Achraf Hakimi's strike had just enough bend. The Paris Saint-Germain full-back had just cut inside onto his left foot, 20 yards from goal. And as the passing options dissipated around him, he hit the ball with his weaker foot, his shot at first appearing to be going wide, before a hint of late swerve saw it fly into the bottom corner.
Hakimi's equalising strike was crucial in PSG's 2-1 win over Toulouse on Saturday. Not only did it draw the Ligue 1 leaders level with a lowly opponent, but it also resurrected what had been a previously forgettable showing, serving as the turning point in what became yet another Ligue 1 win for the defending champions.
It's not the only time Hakimi has been called upon for such moments this year, either. The Morocco star has become an unlikely source of attacking thrust for PSG, his steady contributions ensuring it is not just the team's fabled front three who are relied upon to provide all the moments of attacking brilliance.
And with PSG yet to find their best form after the World Cup, Hakimi's performances have been vital in keeping the Ligue 1 leaders fighting on three fronts.
He has scored four goals and provided three assists for the Parisians this season, making him the fourth-highest scorer on the team. He has more Ligue 1 assists than Kylian Mbappe, and has created more chances, 29, than anyone outside of the front three.
Since the World Cup, he's been superb. Hakimi has three goal contributions in his last two games, having a hand in both goals against Toulouse. Although it was a fixture that will inevitably be remembered for Messi's stunning strike to win it, Hakimi's involvement throughout propelled the Ligue 1 leaders to three points.
Achraf Hakimi lifted Lionel Messi off the ground 😅 pic.twitter.com/CwaQH36CpQ— GOAL (@goal) February 4, 2023
It was a similar situation in PSG's previous game, away at Montpellier. While Mbappe's injury grabbed the headlines and Fabian Ruiz was deemed the match-winner after his best performance in a PSG shirt, it was Hakimi's relentless running up the ring wing, and, more importantly, the three chances he created that propelled Christophe Galtier's side to a 3-1 win.
"I did my job by helping the team. I hope I can carry on like this," Hakimi said after the Toulouse victory.
This level of contribution is hardly a novel concept. Hakimi is one of the few PSG players to show marked improvement under new manager Galtier. The former Lille head coach prefers a three-man defence, allowing Hakimi to play as a right-wing-back with plenty of license to get forward.
Often, with Messi and Neymar opting to drop deep, and Mbappe static on the shoulder of an opposing right-back, Hakimi is PSG's most advanced player. His improvement, then, has been facilitated by a system that gets the best out of his attacking traits, a setup that lets the Moroccan scamper down the right wing as he wishes.
That does little to take away from Hakimi's work at the other end, though. While he has found himself in more impactful attacking areas, his defensive statistics have improved. Hakimi is winning a higher percentage of his tackles, and has also been more effective in the air, per FBRef.
And then there's the pace. For all of Hakimi's reading of the game, attacking quality, and penchant for a dramatic goal, it's his running ability that stands out. He possesses a sustained, effortless acceleration, and is by some distance the quickest defender in Ligue 1, without ever looking like he's hitting top speed.
Morocco have a special player in Achraf Hakimi 🇲🇦pic.twitter.com/cTdNOnbYFb— GOAL (@goal) May 19, 2021
It seems to happen every game. PSG will commit one player too many forward, and with their front three famously unwilling to track back and midfield protection lacking, the opponents will counter-attack. But there's always a surging Hakimi to apply pressure, or make a crucial block, that signature stride eating turf to prevent a chance.
How Real Madrid must regret letting Hakimi leave in 2020. After impressing on loan at Borussia Dortmund, he has gone onto be the best right-back in Europe as Inter won Serie A, and is now becoming a key piece in PSG's jigsaw.
PSG, ideally, do not need their right-back to be an integral attacking player. Indeed, they threw enough cash at Mbappe on the assumption that he, along with Messi and Neymar, would take care of the work in the final third.
Still, Hakimi has become the fourth option, the guarantee when one, or more, of the big three aren't at their best.