By The Atlas Lions, Oct 5 2019 08:42PM
Achraf Hakimi believes he is now a better player than the one who arrived at Borussia Dortmund on a two-year loan from Real Madrid in summer 2018.
The 20-year-old underlined his budding reputation as one of the most exciting full-backs in world football with a match-winning display away to Slavia Prague in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday, contributing both goals in a 2-0 win.
In fact, calling Hakimi a full-back is to do the Morocco international a disservice; he excelled in a new role in Prague, playing in front of Raphael Guerreiro on the left flank.
"I was a bit surprised that the coach started me in such an attacking position," Hakimi said after the game. "I know I can play there, and I'm just happy that I could help the team to victory."
That he certainly did. His first goal came at the end of a 100-metre sprint from the edge of his own penalty area, at which point he still had the energy and composure to cut inside, wait patiently for an opening and fire Dortmund in front.
His second was no less impressive, again romping forward on the counter, this time in the 88th minute, before finishing from a tight angle, becoming the first Moroccan to score a Champions League brace in the process.
At full time, Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc did not hold back in his assessment of the BVB No.5's display: "He had a superb match as an attacking winger and he decided the game for us."
While it was Hakimi's first outing on the left side of midfield, he did briefly play on the opposite flank earlier this season, replacing Jadon Sancho in the 74th minute of Dortmund's DFB Cup first-round victory away to KFC Uerdingen.
Such versatility is nothing new for the youngster, who has also made 16 appearances in all competitions at right-back for Lucien Favre's side, and another 20 at left-back.
Understandably, such a wealth and variety of top-level experience has had a positive effect on Hakimi, who had found his path to first-team football blocked at Real Madrid.
"Sometimes you have to have experiences like this, you have to go somewhere else so that you can get to where you want to be," he told Spanish publication AS. "In my case that meant coming to Germany and I have to say it's been great. I'm really grateful for the opportunity I've been given to keep on growing as a player and as a person.
"I've kicked on, which is something I needed to do, and I'm a better player and am getting regular football, playing week in, week out and really enjoying myself. All in all, it has a real impact on your confidence and I'm grateful to the club, the coaches and the players. That confidence is what allows you to really just express yourself and go out there and play with freedom. I'm now a different Achraf."
So much so that despite being schooled as a right-back in the Spanish capital he now feels capable of doing a job anywhere: "I wouldn't be able to tell you which side I'm more comfortable on. I've learned a lot playing on both flanks and I'm going to keep on doing so. I think it's a real string to my bow: any coach who has a player able to play on both wings, someone versatile, knows that this benefits the team."
Hakimi's rapid rise and top-level consistency have inevitably led to calls for him to return to Spain when his loan spell in Dortmund ends.
The player himself, however, is content to keep his head down and let his football do the talking: "There'll be time to talk to [Real coach] Zinedine Zidane later. He is focused on his own work right now and I’m very focused here. It wouldn’t be a disappointment or failure not to return to Madrid in the summer; what I want is to continue growing."