This piece is taken from Issue 2 of The Modern Footballer, Get Football’s publication dedicated to European football. It includes in-depth analysis of the latest goings-on at the continent’s biggest clubs, a range of player profiles, and feature articles. You can get your hands on a copy of your own for more pieces like this one here.
With a fourth placed finish obtained this season, Borussia Mönchengladbach have arguably over-achieved in qualifying for next year’s Champions’ League ahead of local rivals Bayer Leverkusen. Under Marco Rose’s management, Die Fohlen have not only produced some of the best free flowing, attacking football in Europe, but have remained impressively solid at the back. With an ability to heavily influence the play across the park, whether in attack or defence, 23-year-old Swiss midfielder Denis Zakaria has arguably become Mönchengladbach’s most important player over the past year.
A native of Geneva in Switzerland, Zakaria was born in late 1996 to a Sudanese mother and a Congolese father. Picked up at the age of eight by local side Servette FC, Zakaria was initially used as a striker but was then moved back to the defence before making the central midfield spot his own later on in his development.
Overall, Zakaria enjoyed a steady rise through the youth ranks at the then Swiss Challenge League (second tier) side before making his first team debut at the age of 16 in November 2014 against Lausanne-Sport. Despite his debut only lasting a few minutes and his not featuring in the next 15 matches for the club, the central midfielder played in his side’s last five matches of the season. Over those five games, Zakaria majorly impressed in a midfield two, adding two goals to his fine defensive work. Servette finished the campaign as runners-up, but due to financial problems were unable to obtain a licence for the following season and were relegated as a result. The club’s off-field troubles ultimately proved to be Zakaria’s launchpad and in the summer of 2015, BSC Young Boys bought the talented youngster for a fee reported to be around £250,000.
His impact with one of Switzerland’s biggest clubs was swift. In his first season in Bern, Zakaria made 33 appearances across all competitions, often playing as the anchorman in defensive midfield as his new side finished runners-up to Basel in the standings. His second season in Bern was injury-hit, but Zakaria still managed to make a further 34 appearances before making his big switch to Germany, joining Borussia Mönchengladbach in the summer of 2017 for a fee of £10m.
The defensive midfielder has already racked up just shy of 100 matches in a Gladbach shirt, adding eight goals and six assists along the way. During his time to date, Zakaria has become an integral cog in the Mönchengladbach machinery and is perhaps now the club’s most important player. His willingness to get stuck into the tackle and to chase down every loose ball in midfield regardless of if it is the first or last minute of a match has made him a crowd favourite at Borussia-Park since his switch from western Switzerland.
This season in particular, Denis Zakaria has risen to the next level for Gladbach, often dominating matches from midfield with his powerful runs and strong tackles. The midfielder has formed a formidable partnership in Gladbach’s explosive midfield with fellow youngster Florian Neuhaus which has pushed the club towards eventual Champions’ League qualification. Adopting the more defensive role between the two youngsters, the Swiss international has again widely impressed fans, coaches and pundits alike this term with some stand-out performances. Despite his relatively young age, Zakaria is a leader on the pitch. The midfielder is not shy of barking orders to and at his teammates when necessary whilst in possession, Zakaria assertively dictates the play from deep. Standing at 6’3, the now 23-year-old offers a physical edge for Mönchengladbach in the centre of the park and gives boss Marco Rose much needed protection for the centre-backs in the formation and system that the German manager opts for. Due to his remarkable versatility, Zakaria has also himself operated as a centre-back four times this season, putting in steady performances when called upon to fill the defensive gap.
His stats per 90 make for fantastic reading. Making on average 2.3 tackles a match in the Bundesliga and boasting an impressive 87.4% pass completion rate, Zakaria has gained huge praise from his teammates, among others, again this season. Gladbach goalkeeper and fellow compatriot Yann Sommer has previously stated, “It’s not easy to compare him to the greats of the past, but he combines many qualities that were really defined by Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane.” Therefore, it is little wonder that Premier League clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United are said to be very interested in capturing the Swiss international in the near future
But it is not just on the domestic stage where Zakaria has thrived. Despite having the chance to play for both African countries of his parent’s heritage, Zakaria has always represented his country of birth, making his full Swiss debut in 2016 after his first season with BSC Young Boys. At the age of 23, the box-to-box midfielder already has 23 full international caps to his name and was a member of his country’s squad for the 2018 Russian World Cup.
Still a few years from his prime in central midfield, Zakaria will only continue to improve his overall ability. Defensively, Zakaria is already the complete midfielder but if he can add that extra bit of quality to his offensive decision-making and all-round attacking play, the Swiss international could develop into one of Europe’s best all-action midfielders over the next few seasons and beyond.