In the 2019-20 season, Marco Rose and his Borussia Monchengladbach team were one of the powerhouses of the Bundesliga. Finishing fourth in the table with an impressive win over Bayern Munich among others, Gladbach midfielder, Denis Zakaria, was a name on the lips of most Bundesliga fans.
In a critical match against Borussia Dortmund though, Zakaria sustained an injury to his knee that kept him out of the squad for the rest of the season and even bled into the 2020-21 season, where he missed a further eight matches. Since then, Zakaria’s stock has plummeted among fans, and within his own squad.
Now, only four points off relegation, Gladbach seem willing to sell now, in January, before he leaves on a free transfer in the summer. This begs the question, is Zakaria a worthwhile addition to any squad, particularly the current Manchester United one?
Before getting into the more quality-driven aspects of Zakaria’s play, it’s important to acknowledge some of his more tangible assets. While it’s probably true that Zakaria is mostly a defensive midfielder, or a 6, he has also played successfully as a box to box midfielder and has played exceptionally as a centre back on more than one occasion. This versatility may be one of the most tantalizing aspects to Zakaria, because, for a low fee, you have a quality player who can fill in a variety of roles and positions depending on the circumstances.
Physical attributes is one of the places that Zakaria shines as well. The Bundesliga also helpfully makes their tracking data very accessible, and in the first nine games of the 2019/20 season, Zakaria had covered more distance (99.6 km) than anyone in the league. On top of this, he’s far from a slacker in sprint speed. Even post-injury, Zakaria has clocked the seventh-highest top speed in the Bundesliga at 35.62 km/h.
The combination of these two things is a coaches dream, a demonstrated ability to not only cover loads of ground but cover that ground at pace, is a fantastic foundation for any midfielder. That speed also shows how well he seems to have rehabbed his injury and suggests a near-complete recovery. His stature is another one of his glowing physical attributes, standing at a tall 6’3 (191 cm) and almost 180 pounds (81.6 kg) Zakaria generally towers over a lot of players on the pitch, and it aids his ability to play defence. That sprint speed doesn’t go amiss back there either.
On the ball ability
These physical attributes are great and aid in the Swiss’ skillset, but it’s important to talk about his ability on the ball, especially given the misnomer that players of his stature and style tend to naturally struggle when in possession. To get the important question out of the way: Zakaria is far from a high volume progressive passer, and looking at his data is a bit difficult without filtering his different positions. Generally speaking, he’s the type of player who will progress play through carries rather than passes due to his pace and strength on the ball.
Across the past four seasons, he’s averaged roughly four progressive passes per 90, which is roughly the same quantity as Scott McTominay. Comparatively though, Zakaria attempts an extra dribble per match and passes an extra 0.5 players per match with his carries. These are honestly very negligible differences, but taking team style into account is important.
Manchester United post-Solskjaer has been a very vertical side, and McTominay has smashed his previous progression numbers out of the water since Ralf Rangnick has joined. If we look at Rose’s other midfielders, like Axel Witsel this season, we see that his deepest midfielder tends not to be a progressive powerhouse (3.04 progressive passes/90). Zakaria has seemingly demonstrated the capabilities in matches, but it would come as a shock to see him become a passing powerhouse in the Premier League. His strengths really lie in his ability to carry the ball forward.
Looking more tactically, Zakaria fills a myriad of roles and is somewhat of an anomaly. One of the praises that Jude Bellingham received on Friday in Dortmund’s match against Freiburg is that it “seems like there’s two of him” because of his omnipresence on both sides of the pitch. Zakaria is eerily similar. One moment you might find him dropping between the CB’s to aid in the build-up as an extra man, while the next moment he’s making a run through the opposition midfield and into the box. His ability to recognize moments when to go forward and when to drop back deeper is where he best leverages his physical attributes mentioned before. One of the places we can see this is in the first few minutes at Hoffenheim:
In the clip above, Zakaria makes a slight movement to drop into the defensive line which opens the pass up for Bensebaini to draw in the pressing striker. By doing this, he opens up the subsequent passes that result in an excellently worked box entry off of Breel Embolo’s touch.
These subtle movements are a signature piece of his game as he relies on his speed and endurance to keep him in position regardless of the previous action, another great example of this can be seen in the clip below against Wolfsburg where he drifts wide to fill in the space vacated by Scally, thereafter opening space in the centre for an excellent diagonal ball.
On the defensive end, Zakaria is one of my personal favourite players in the Bundesliga. Overlapping with the last section, his brain is one of his best characteristics, as seen in his interceptions statistic, where he scores in the 85th percentile according to FBref. His pressures though are interesting, where many might expect him to have exceptionally high numbers here due to his speed and size, he only actually averages 12.99 per 90.
That said, this is where tactical context is important. Only two seasons previously, in 2019/20, Zakaria averaged over 17 pressures per 90. While neither of those numbers are statistically mind-blowing, it can be assumed based on his physical attributes that these things can be altered quite easily.
In terms of tackling ability, he’s actually far from what you’d anticipate. Far from the violent tackler, you’d anticipate from a 6’3 midfielder, Zakaria can be a bit shy. Despite that, he’s willing to put his body on the line in blocking shots (90th percentile for blocks) and relies on the aforementioned intelligence to help him negate the negative effects of this. This intelligence helps him aerially too, where he isn’t exactly the strongest (despite his size) so his ability to win second balls is highly valued. He positions his body well in 1v1’s but has a tendency to jump in and get caught flat-footed at times. Overall he defensively isn’t the strongest player on the pitch, but his ability to use his brain gives him the edge over those around him.
Finally the most important question: what would a Zakaria transfer to Manchester United look like for all parties involved? Due to his expiring contract, the transfer fee would be lower than £10 million, and Bundesliga salaries are pretty low compared to the Premier League.
Tactically though, Zakaria fits the side like a glove. Pulling his qualities out of a struggling Gladbach side suggests that he would likely thrive for a United side who are highly vertical, and crying out for someone to properly shield the defensive line. Besides Nemanja Matic, whose age hasn’t exactly helped him in the movement department, United are seriously lacking a player who is truly a ‘6.’
McTominay and Fred are both drastically better at playing a box to box role and a majority of the players coming up through the academies probably fall under the same heading (Looking at you James Garner). Spending a majority of his main developmental years in the Bundesliga has helped Zakaria adapt to the highly vertical and high pressing style that Rangnick demands of his side and has helped him become relatively press resistant even when being far from a technical wizard.
A move to United for Zakaria would be a big step up, but at a bare minimum, he offers a profile that the side severely lacks and would help remove nonsensical player selection like Donny van de Beek in the pivot. There’s a lot to like about his player profile and a lot of upsides, but we are still yet to see the pre-injury Zakaria who was one of the best midfielders in the league just two years ago. Plagued by unfortunate things such as COVID-19 twice and general knee-related issues, he’s struggled to get a rhythm, just like Adi Hütter and the rest of the Gladbach side. There is few, if any, qualms with a Zakaria transfer, and I would view it with extreme optimism as a player who at only 25 could still become one of the stronger defensive midfielders in the league and will contribute to the squad if signed.