What has been a difficult season for Borussia Dortmund could end on a high with UEFA Champions League qualification, which is Manuel Akanji and his side's goal for the remainder of 2020/21.
The Switzerland international sits down with bundesliga.com to discuss the race for Europe against Wolfsburg and Eintracht Frankfurt, as well as life with Erling Haaland and Gio Reyna, and why it's almost impossible to defend against Robert Lewandowski...
bundesliga.com: The win against Wolfsburg was important, right?
Manuel Akanji: "I believe we started well and I had a good feeling at the beginning, then we took a 1-0 lead thanks to the mistake from Wolfsburg, which gave us an even better feeling. We had a good first half, Wolfsburg weren't bad but had no clear goal chances. We had more opportunities but didn't manage to convert them. At the beginning of the second half, we didn't start well, we made mistakes in our build-up play, which gave Wolfsburg a couple of chances, then there was the red card for Jude [Bellingham] which didn't make things easier for us. But I have to say, we defended well over the 90 minutes and barely gave Wolfsburg chances on goal, even with one man more. We then had the counter-attack with Mo Dahoud's great pass to Erling [Haaland], who ran half the pitch to finish brilliantly and we were also happy to keep a clean sheet."
Watch: Dortmund's 2-0 win over Wolfsburg
bundesliga.com: How would you describe the past few weeks in the Bundesliga?
Akanji: "Yeah, I think we all knew, above all in the game against Frankfurt to know what position we're in. We didn't lose our belief after this loss but we realised we let a big opportunity slip. People spoke about it as a decisive game and I don't know exactly which round it was but there were so many games left to play, there are three left for us and we're just one and two points behind Frankfurt and Wolfsburg and we know that if we win our remaining games that it'll be very tight and we believe if we win those games that we can qualify for the Champions League. The games against Manchester City helped because we realised that we can compete against one of the best teams at the moment. Of course, they were more dominant in possession but we competed well and had our chances, which gave us a lot of self-confidence."
bundesliga.com: Do you want to prove something to your critics?
Akanji: "I believe so, many thought it was over for us, particularly with being drawn against Man City, most probably thought we had no chance and we showed that we can keep up. Even with the loss to Frankfurt, we knew we were still in the running and it's not easy for Frankfurt and Wolfsburg, who have not played in Europe's top competition. Frankfurt were in the Europa League, but it's not so easy to defend third and fourth place when there is pressure from behind and that's what we're trying to do."
bundesliga.com: What do you think of the upcoming DFB cup semi-final against Kiel?
Akanji: "Yeah, of course, we all know two games are ahead of us if we want to win the cup and we know that against Holstein Kiel this weekend, particularly at home, we have to win. We'll try to be dominant in this game and take our chances. After all, it is a semi-final and we've seen what Holstein Kiel have done in this cup, it won't be easy but our goal is to reach the final."
bundesliga.com: The next game in the Bundesliga for Dortmund is against RB Leipzig. Will Julian Nagelsmann's upcoming move to Bayern Munich from Leipzig have any impact on the game?
Akanji: "I don't think it has a big influence on us. Also the other coaching switches like Marco Rose, who comes here, or [Adi] Hütter, who goes to Gladbach, cannot influence our performances because we're the ones who have to go on the pitch and perform and if there is a change in coach, it makes no difference. Next year, it'll have some impact but at the moment it makes no real difference. If a new coach comes here, every player will want to impress them to get a chance to play and you never know what will happen in football, so it cannot make too much of an impact."
bundesliga.com: You've previously said that 'substantial progress is done in the head'. What do you mean by that?
Akanji: "The technical abilities a player brings won't change that much from one season to the next. Of course, you can improve your headers when you work on it every day, or your shot, but I believe the biggest step forward a player can make is through experiences gathered in training or games, or mistakes that you want to learn from. I think it has to do with a person's outlook and whether they want to change or just stay at the same level and my personal approach is to be better every day and that's why I push myself and that's where I think the biggest change takes place. Physically, I think that over the next seven years, or however long I play, my body will stay more or less the same, besides injuries which I hope I won't have. My body does not need to change, so I think the biggest change will be in my mind."
bundesliga.com: You became a father last year. Has that changed you?
Akanji: "I think so, becoming a father, mother, parent, helps everyone get a different perspective on life, take on more responsibility, think about the decisions they make and have someone at home that you'll do everything possible for, I think that changes everyone in some shape or form."
bundesliga.com: Your sisters are also very successful but each in their own professions. How did your parents do that?
Akanji: "Our parents told us to do what we enjoy and we each found what our passion was and we're all delighted with it. We don't all do the same thing, so we can exchange ideas, for example, I can ask my two sisters about politics because they've studied it and I can help them a bit with football and sport. I think it's good that we've chosen different things and have a bit of a variety."
bundesliga.com: When the family is together, what is your role?
Akanji: "Difficult to say, we don't sit down as a family as often now, it's more like visiting when I have a day before joining up with the national team or during the holidays. I'm still the youngest at the table, sure I have my son with me and my eldest sister has her daughter but I'm still the youngest in my family and I think I still have this role to an extent, though they all respect me. I'm a calm person, who is happy to get involved in discussions but I don't lead the conversations at the table."
bundesliga.com: What do you think about Erling Haaland? How is it to train against him?
Akanji: "Of course, he gives up chances, he cannot put away every single chance and I think that helps him because he's unbelievably ambitious and you can see that it annoys him whenever he misses a chance and wants to score the next. It makes him better because he always wants to do better the next time, always wants to score another goal and that helps him. Playing against him in training, I have to say, we haven't often had these duels in training where we've been up against each other for half an hour because we've had so many 'English weeks' with all of our competitions, so we haven't had many sessions with 11 vs 11. In our pre-game training, we might play two to four minutes against each other but we've only had direct duels three or four times and sometimes we might hold back because we need to be ready for the game the next day but there have been a few duels and I think it helps us both get better."
bundesliga.com: You've become close friends with Gio Reyna. How much have you enjoyed his good performances recently?
Akanji: "Yeah, I was very happy for him. He had a tough phase with being sick and then injured, then had some games where he didn't start and had to come on off the bench. And it's not easy for a young player to come here from America, all alone and away from his family, so I try to support him there, he lives only two minutes away from me so I take him to training every day, until he gets his driving licence, and invite him over for meals so he doesn't feel alone. I get along very well with him, he's fairly young and has a lot to learn but he's very open to learning and listens when I try to tell him something. I'm very happy for him and I hope it will continue."
bundesliga.com: What makes Robert Lewandowski so special?
Akanji: "The thing is, when you look at Robert Lewandowski or play against him, he has no weaknesses in his game. Sure, he's not as quick as Erling but he's physically strong, technically strong, a good finisher, clever, he has everything a striker needs. He's so difficult to play against and if you look at the goals he's scored this year and recent years, he's consistently showing it every year, so it's not easy, particularly as a defender, when you're alone against him, it's difficult but doable. However, I think he's scored against us nearly every time we play, so it's not easy to take a striker like that out of the game. You could say he's the best or one of the best in the world at the moment and is likely to remain so over the next two or three years."
bundesliga.com: What do you think Switzerland's chances are at the European Championships?
Akanji: "We'll see who is fit for the tournament but I take it that we'll make it to the next round, that is our target. We've never made it to the quarter-finals and that's what we want to achieve. That depends on what happens in the group phase but I think it's possible to make it out of this group, that's our goal and then hopefully the journey continues from there."