Dan-Axel Zagadou: The marauding 19-year-old centre-back finding his feet at Dortmund
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Dan-Axel Zagadou is one of many young French defenders making waves across the big European leagues. France have had a notorious history of promoting young players to their first teams and cashing in on them when the big clubs come flashing their cheque books. The situation was slightly different in the case of Zagadou who swapped the nouveau-riche Paris St. Germain for the financially “second-tier” Borussia Dortmund at the tender age of 17.
A French youth team captain, Zagadou followed in the footsteps of Kingsley Coman (now at Bayern Munich) in swapping the French side for greener pastures, and he couldn’t have made a better decision in choosing Dortmund. It’s a decision that’s proved extremely fruitful for him and the club.
Despite a stop-start first season under Peter Bosz and then Peter Stoger, Zagadou has finally established himself under Lucien Favre as Dortmund’s main central defender this season. Prior to improving under the tutelage of Favre – himself notorious for trusting young players to grow – Zagadou showed his versatility and composure under Stoger, playing at left-back. The pressure eventually got the better of him. Zagadou’s glaring errors at left-back last season were ones to be expected. His lack of pace was exposed time and time again, and too often he was caught on his heels, ball watching rather than proactively chasing it down and was punished as result of it. But still only 19, Zagadou has got an immense future ahead of him.
In a nutshell, Zagadou is the mirror image of Samuel Umtiti. Composed on the ball, strong, tall and tremendous in the air, Zagadou’s improvement has been at both ends of the pitch this year. In recent weeks, Zagadou has chipped in with vital goals for Dortmund in their run in to the reclaim the Bundesliga title. His confidence is palpable now, and he has begun to show maturity well beyond his 19 years might indicate.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to guess that breaking into the national side isn’t going to be easy for Zagadou. Didier Deschamps has already shown that he likes to stick to a core group of players – the same ones that won him the World Cup. At the back, Zagadou finds himself behind Raphael Varane, Umtiti, Presnel Kimpembe, Lucas Hernandez. Additionally, Aymeric Laporte and Clement Lenglet haven’t even been called up as yet, and Benjamin Pavard a centre-back by trade has been played out of position as a right-back. Zagadou being just 19 will have ample time to make an impact with the national team, and with the conveyor belt of talent in France never seeming to stop, it’s almost a guarantee that the teammates he will have when he does make the step up will be just as good as he is.
But besides his obvious frame and size that allows him advantages many don’t have the luxury of access, what is it that makes Zagadou so good? How is he any different from the wealth of French talent in defence?
Standing at 1.96 metres (6 ft. 5 inches), Zagadou may lack the pace required to be a modern-day full-back. Despite this, his time at left-back taught him some valuable lessons. He has talked about wanting to do a job for the team no matter the position and as a result of his time in an unfamiliar position, he has managed to eradicate most unforced errors out of his game already this season. Instead of rushing into challenges against pacier players now, Zagadou is comfortable trying to shepherd them to the channels and buy some time for his teammates to return. This is a very important skill for a defender to have. Great teams have great defenders, and great defenders have this uncanny ability to lead from the back and take responsibility.
With Favre showing him trust more out of choice than a necessity now, Zagadou has improved at a startling pace this season and is on the fast track to developing into just that type of defender. Favre hasn’t shied away from praising the player either, highlighting his improvement and potential as key factors to why he has been played so consistently this season already. It is this type of man-management that has done wonders for Zagadou’s game, and another couple of years playing consistent football in a competitive team can see Zagadou make the leap to the dancing with the elite.
Having shown glimpses of his ability to dribble and step out of the back last season, Zagadou finds the perfect moment to maraud forward from the back and fizz a pass into the feet of his forward players. He completes a remarkable 87% of his passes. An essential requirement for any centre-back these days, sure, it is the manner in which he does it that is so impressive. There is an air of swagger and arrogance about him that all the best centre-backs in the world carry that is starting to seep into Zagadou’s game. Zagadou is third in the list of duels won in the Bundesliga ahead of Mats Hummels and Niklas Sule.
It is a real surprise that more big clubs haven’t yet been linked with him. With most of the headlines being reserved for Jadon Sancho, the lack of spotlight on Zagadou has helped him. He has been able to play with freedom and joy this season and with no added pressure on him to impress potential new employers, he can continue developing at his own pace. He has the talent, if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have been playing for PSG’s youth team, or be playing in a title-challenging Borussia Dortmund.
Talent is just one factor when it comes to success in football. Most top professionals will tell you how the right mentality can propel a player to the very top of the game, and from what Zagadou is showing so far, it’s clear he has that drive. That is what is most impressive about him. His height and strength make him a real specimen already, but it is attitude, humility and determination to put in the hard yards that make him possibly the best, most over-looked young talent in the game today.
Zagadou does still have a long way to go to catch up to the likes of Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Virgil van Dijk, but on current form, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he is on his way to the very top of the heap. Remember the name, Dan-Axel Zagadou.
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