It’s not often that a rising young star has his name compared to the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Toni Kroos and Michel Platini, to name just a few. And when th is does happen, it’s high time to find out who this rising young talent is.
The name is Denis Zakaria. Yes and it would not come as a surprise to hear the quizzical ‘WHO??’ pop up at the mention of the name, especially for those who have had their peripheral vision honed in on only the English Premier League.
Zakaria is the Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder and latest rising star to follow in the footsteps of Kai Havertz and Timo Werner in trading the Bundesliga for the Premier League.
Now that the initial introduction has been summarily dealt with, the latest tabloid talks are suggesting that Manchester United (who as always seem to be keen to sign everyone who’s up for grabs) and Chelsea are keepng their falcon-eyes on the 23-year-old Switzerland international, who has previously been linked with the other big boys, Liverpool and Manchester City.
But who is he, what kind of player is he, and how good is he that the big boys are already beginning to circle around the rarefied stratosphere above him?
Here’s the lowdown on this fascinating young footballer who’s started to arouse the interest of some of Europe’s top clubs.
A Swiss national born and raised in Geneva and developed at local club Servette, Zakaria started to be noticed after being recruited for Switzerland’s Under-19s and was soon scouted by Swiss Super League giants, Young Boys, who signed him as an 18-year-old in 2015.
Quick off the starting blocks, he immediately became an important player for the club, making 67 appearances across two seasons as they finished runners-up in successive years to a dominant Basel side on a run of eight straight titles.
In 2017, Zakaria switched to Gladbach, who had then already begun to build a reputation for nurturing young talent in the Bundesliga, having helped develop the likes of Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Michael Cuisance, Mahmoud Dahoud and most recently Marcus Thuram in recent years.
The young starlet then made his senior international debut for Switzerland at the age of 19, after which it didn’t take long for Zakaria to make his presence felt in Germany, with 61 Bundesliga appearances across his first two seasons with the club.
Progressing well cumulatively year-on-year, he was especially impressive last year as Die Fohlen were the proverbial dark horses for an unlikely title challenge, sitting top of the table between October and mid-December, before eventually falling away, albeit securing a respectable fourth-place finish.
Unfortunately, despite his name once again dominating the gossip columns, he’s yet to appear this season and may not be back for some time yet after suffering a knee injury back in March, with his coach saying:
“It’s anybody’s guess” when he’ll be back in training.”
Given that he’s been compared to greats like Zinedine Zidane, Toni Kroos and Michel Platini, besides Paul Pogba and Patrick Vieira, it’s obvious the young talented midfielder does possess some nifty skills to be able to invoke comparisons with the aforenamed legends.
“I’ve been compared to Vieira and Pogba – two more players I really respect and, in a way, see as role models,” the man himself said.
“When I watch videos of them I think I’d like to play that way.”
Often referred to as a defensive midfielder, Zakaria occupies deep positions for club and country, often playing in a double pivot alongside Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka for Vladimir Petkovic’s Switzerland side. But while this might give an idea of the areas he occupies, he’s a much more dynamic and skilful operator than a rudimentary enforcer – hence the similarities with some of the game’s great midfielders.
He also possesses the athleticism and physical prowess needed to dominate the midfield, which is perhaps why some see similarities to Vieira, having impressively averaged 2.1 tackles and 1.6 interceptions per game in the Bundesliga last term, alongside 2.0 successful dribbles and 38 passes with an 86.7% success rate – solid numbers all-round, demonstrating his versatile skillset. He also scored two goals and registered a further two assists in 2019-20.
Former Germany sweeper Lothar Matthaus has compared Zakaria to another World Cup-winning great of Die Mannschaft’s midfield – Toni Kroos.
“I’m glad that Gladbach have found another pearl. At his age I was earning my first stripes for Borussia. He reminds me of Toni Kroos at that age,” he said, harking back to his time coming through Gladbach’s academy in the late 1970s.
“He is a very complete footballer who still has a lot of development potential,” Gladbach manager Rose told Sky Germany.
“He has incredible dynamics, understanding of the game and is not yet at the end of his development.”
“It’s an insult to Zakaria (to call him a defensive midfielder)!” 76-year-old former Gladbach legend Gunter Netzer told BILD.
“He is enormously valuable because he plays for the team. Players like him play a part in the success of many teams, they do the dirty work for others.”
Meanwhile, his team-mate Yann Sommer has cited two of the all-time greats to describe his playing style.
“It’s not easy to compare him to the greats of the past,” Sommer said.
“But he combines many qualities that were really defined by Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane.”
That’s quite a heapful of compliments from the game’s contemporaries. Which would mean this young talent is certainly someone worth monitoring.