Borussia Dortmund’s superb season so far has made for some great storylines, from Paco Alcacer - the supersub who can’t stop scoring - to Jadon Sancho - the 18-year-old who can do no wrong. But have you heard the one about the invincible Achraf Hakimi?
Many Dortmund fans would have been hopeful but uncertain when they heard the news that Hakimi was joining the club on a two-year loan deal. Sure, they had had success in the past with youngsters like Christian Pulisic, Ousmane Dembele and Sancho. Yes, he was joining from Real Madrid, and had started all three games for Morocco at the World Cup. But was he any good?
The 20-year-old had played only nine league games for Real in 2017/18, and it remained to be seen how the full-back would adapt to both Germany and the Bundesliga. Over halfway through the season, though, Hakimi has yet to taste defeat in the German top flight.
Dortmund have included the player in their starting line-up in 14 league matches this term, and Lucien Favre’s men have won 13 of them and drawn just one. In five matches without him, they’ve won two, drawn two and suffered their only loss of the campaign.
“It’s a different step, to go to another country where there’s another language and another culture,” Hakimi told Reviersport earlier in January.
“But I had to make that decision, and it was the right step for me… as a young player, it was of course important to get more game time and to be able to play every weekend. And in Dortmund I have the chance to do that.”
To a man, the league leaders have had an exceptional season. Alcacer is in the running to be the league’s topscorer – breaking plenty of records along the way. Sancho has earned an England cap and an improved contract thanks to some dazzling displays. Captain Marco Reus has been fantastic since being reunited with former Borussia Mönchengladbach boss Favre. Brilliant Belgian Axel Witsel has come up with some big goals and big performances, while fellow summer arrivals Abdou Diallo and Thomas Delaney have also played their part.
Hakimi, too, has been a vital cog in the well-oiled Dortmund machine. He scored on his Bundesliga debut during a 7-0 demolition of Nuremberg on Matchday 5, and his relentless running in that game was a sign of things to come. He would even have had a perfect record of 13 wins in 13 league games had Salomon Kalou not popped up with an injury-time equaliser for Hertha Berlin in a 2-2 draw on Matchday 9.
The Dortmund defender has chalked up three assists for the league’s leading scorers, and also made three goals in one game when he tore Atletico Madrid apart in October during a crushing four-goal success in the UEFA Champions League.
“I have a lot of fun,” Hakimi told Reviersport, when asked to describe his style of play. “Even though I’m a defensive player, I like getting forward and troubling the opposition. And I’m fast.”
Watch: See what makes Lucien Favre's Dortmund tick
Hakimi played further up the pitch when he was younger, and he has not lost those attacking instincts. The devastating performances they helped him deliver have not gone without recognition either. The man from Madrid was awarded the Bundesliga Rookie of the Month prize for both September and November, and he was also named the African Youth Player of the Year for 2018.
As much as his determination, energy and pace, though, Hakimi’s versatility is a major asset to Dortmund. He seems equally effective at right- or left-back, giving Favre further flexibility in his team selections.
Hakimi said Favre played “a big role” in his decision to move to the club, having heard good things about the Swiss tactician before enjoying a fruitful telephone conversation with him ahead of his move. He believes he has learned a lot from Favre since last summer, and is continuing to do so.
“He knows me well,” Hakimi said. “He knows that I’m very strong in attack, but that I can still improve my defensive game. We’re working on that.”
Based on Dortmund’s crucial win over RB Leipzig on Matchday 18, the Real Madrid academy graduate is not planning to ease off in 2019. He covered 6.8 miles (11 kilometres) of ground, had 86 intensive runs (second only to Mario Götze), got through 34 sprints (second only to Sancho), won 13 tackles, and had 82 touches of the ball (more than any other player).
“I’m getting the continuity that I needed,” Hakimi told Spanish radio station Onde Cero in January. “I feel more grown up, more important to the team, and a better player.”
It’s no wonder that Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said the club will try to make Hakimi’s loan move a permanent one – something they already managed with Alcacer. If the Morocco flyer continues to improve on Favre’s watch, then both men could be celebrating a title win come the end of the season. Especially if the unbeaten Hakimi continues to be Dortmund’s lucky charm.