Denis Xhaka-ria the new heartbeat of the Borussia Mönchengladbach midfield
He has been likened to Granit Xhaka, Paul Pogba and Patrick Vieira, but what does Borussia Mönchengladbach's new midfield dynamo Denis Zakaria make of the illustrious comparisons?
"I know all about the Xhaka talk, but I'm not giving it much thought. I've also been compared to [Patrick] Vieira and [Paul] Pogba – two more players I really respect and, in a way, see as role models. When I watch videos of them I think I'd like to play that way. What's important, though, is that people recognise I'm not trying to copy anyone. I'm trying to be the best Zakaria I can possibly be."
Watch: Zakaria enjoyed a winning Bundesliga debut on Matchday 1!
Early career dalliances as a striker and then a defender will certainly help the seven-time Switzerland international’s cause. Zakaria completed an incredible 100 per cent of his passes in his first four Bundesliga and has continued to prove through 2017/18 that he is a player that the Foals can build a team around.
The tall midfielder comes complete with a rangy athleticism tailor-made for a box-to-box role; not that the Gladbach No.8 is claiming to be the finished article… yet.
"I'm happiest in midfield," the 20-year-old summer signing from Young Boys affirmed. "I can interpret the role defensively or offensively. I love to win back possession and I also like carrying the ball and taking on opposition players, but I need to be more efficient, score and assist more goals and improve in the air. I've proved myself to be a quick learner, though, and I'm in the best place to learn fast."
Few would disagree. Gladbach made a man out of Xhaka and did not think twice about fast-tracking youth academy product Mahmoud Dahoud - now of Borussia Dortmund - to the senior ranks. The baton now firmly in Zakaria's hands, the Swiss-army-knife midfielder is carving his own niche at the home of the Rhineland's most successful club.
"It's just fantastic the way Denis has settled in," Borussia head coach Dieter Hecking said of Zakaria. "He's certainly arrived in the Bundesliga, but he needs to go about his work in the midfield without getting booked."
It is a word of warning Gladbach fans have heard before. Xhaka, who left the club to join Arsenal in summer 2016, was the archetypal midfield general. He defended with honour, scored goals and even captained the side in 2015/16, but was also something of a hot head (29 bookings, including five red-card offences, in 108 Bundesliga appearances). Zakaria has already been cautioned seven times.
Gladbach have had a difficult season in the Bundesliga, and most recently in February, it was a struggle for the Foals. Collecting just one win from four games in not usual form for the European chasers, but with two of those losses coming against RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund it is more acceptable. But Zakaria has been a starter in every game and a thorn in the opposition midfield of whoever he has faced.
In Gladbach’s solitary win over Hannover, Zakaria was a midfield dynamo alongside goalscorer Christoph Kramer. He won 12 of his 19 challenges, as well as holding a pass completion rate of 92 per cent. But team always comes first for the Swiss international, especially in difficult times.
"When the team is in such a situation, I first question myself. I can still do more and that's what I work for every day."
Only Matthias Ginter, Lars Stindl, Jannik Vestergaard and Nico Elvedi have played more minutes than the Bundesliga newcomer, and with three months of the season to play, Zakaria’s name is one that will be a constant in the Gladbach line-up until the final whistle of 2017/18 blows in May.