Manuel Akanji revelling in role as Manchester City’s ‘Mr Versatile’

Swiss international can operate across defence and as a holding midfielder and has become integral to Pep Guardiola's side

Manuel Akanji says he is happy to play any position as Manchester City fight on three trophy fronts. AP
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Manuel Akanji says he is happy to be Manchester City's 'Mr Versatile' and will play any position manager Pep Guardiola asks him to.

The fixtures are coming thick and fast as City aim for a repeat of last season's treble. They are currently in a three-way battle with Liverpool and Arsenal to retain their Premier League crown, face Chelsea for a place in the FA Cup final and are all-square with Real Madrid as they go head-to-head in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final next week.

City are well used to playing every three to four days at the business end of the season and have used the 28-year-old Swiss international Akanji in central defence, left and right-back, and even as a holding midfielder.

But you won’t hear any complaints from the player.

“Now I don’t have a real position,” he told the official Manchester City podcast. “When I came here I was a centre-back who had played full-back a couple of times. I knew I could do it but it wasn’t my best position.

“Here it is so different. The way you play full-back is different. Sometimes you are a third centre-back or in some games you are more in midfield so a lot of things come with this position, it’s never the same. I’m just trying to learn the roles.

“I enjoy the adaptability. I have never played three games in a row in the same position. Maximum two. Normally I change every game. In the beginning it was a little bit difficult because you need confidence about what you are doing, especially in midfield where I had never played before.

“Suddenly opponents are behind your back when normally they are in front of you. So the more I played the more confident I got and now it doesn’t really matter where I play. I’m happy being on the pitch and helping the team.

“Everyone is trying to be in the starting XI. There’s lots of competition. I’m no different.”

City signed Akanji from Borussia Dortmund in 2022 for around £15 million just before the summer transfer window closed.

He had played more than 100 times for the Bundesliga club and had in excess of 50 caps for his country, yet wasn’t considered a high-profile signing, arriving as he did in the wake of Norwegian striker Erling Haaland, a teammate of Akanji's at Dortmund.

Akanji went on to play more minutes in the 2022/23 Premier League campaign than any other City defender and became a staple in all the big European games including the Champions League final win over Inter Milan in Istanbul last June.

Whilst others drew the attention and individual awards, Akanji continued to catch the eye of his coach.

Guardiola is usually reluctant to talk about individuals at length and much prefers to espouse the virtues of the collective.

However, the City boss was happy to extol the merits of a player he has come to rely on for the big occasion.

“What a signing, we are so lucky to have him,” Guardiola said. “He is a lovely guy, open minded, well educated and so intelligent. He listens and learns very quickly and is so adaptable he can play in several positions.

“He can play full-back, central defender and now holding midfielder and when arriving in the final third he has the ability to make the pass.”

That final point was never more evident than in the 2023 Champions League final in Turkey with Akanji heavily involved in the build up for Rodri’s winning goal.

Fast forward to the present day and Guardiola knows Akanji's versatility could again play a vital role if they are to repeat last season's treble success.

Akanji, who supplemented his burgeoning medal collection by helping City win the Uefa Super Cup and Fifa Club World Cup in 2023, is ready for battle on all three fronts.

“We are in a good spot. We all have difficult games ahead but we want to play these games and fight for more titles,” he added.

“The main focus is just one game at a time. There are some big weeks ahead. We get used to handling the schedule. You cannot think ahead or your head will not be in the present.

“It really is just one game at a time. Then you have to show your best performance so you are picked for the next game. You don’t want to let your teammates down. It is the only mindset you can have.

“Winning the treble last season could be an advantage or a disadvantage at the end of this season’s competitions. Other teams might have hunger but we have the experience and know how to do it.

“When I joined this club I hadn’t won a lot of trophies but I came here and always had the feeling we would win the league. We have a winning mentality and now the new players here want a taste of it so we are trying to make this another historical season.”

City’s run-in promises a variety of opponents which mean a host of different skill sets are required. Akanji will take them all in his stride but admits some are more difficult than others.

“As a defender the toughest players to face are those who are good at dribbling allied with a good football IQ because you have to cover those players all over the pitch. If you lose sight of them they might do something good,” he said.

“The Premier League is definitely more physical than the Bundesliga and there are more individuals who are better. In the Bundesliga there are a lot of good teams but I feel here it doesn’t matter if you play against the third in the table or the 16th – all of them have good individual players and you can really feel it as a defender. You can’t switch off for a second. That’s the difference.

“Here we are constantly playing in the latter stages of the Champions League against the best teams in Europe too and that’s where you can learn the most.

“City was a very easy changing room to come into and to get adapted. It helped that I played right away from the beginning and this cannot happen if the changing room is not good. I feel really comfortable here.

“When you play for Manchester City you are normally in possession a lot. I like playing further forward, the offensive side of the game. Pep demands a lot from defenders in the build up play. If I see openings and passes I try to take them.”

Updated: April 11, 2024, 5:39 PM