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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Why Achraf Hakimi is the perfect addition to Antonio Conte’s Inter

Why Achraf Hakimi is perfect for Antonio Conte's Inter
After capturing the world’s attention at just 21 years of age, Achraf Hakimi is headed to Inter Milan. Martin Divisek/EPA. 

For 11 years, Madrid was Achraf Hakimi’s home. Even as he spent the last season shining for Borussia Dortmund, it was still technically his home, with the Moroccan full-back only on loan at the Bundesliga club. Hakimi’s relationship with the Spanish capital is a peculiar one in that he has flourished into one of the game’s brightest young defenders without ever really proving it at the Santiago Bernabeu. Madrid won’t be his home, contractually or otherwise, for much longer, though.

The 21-year-old was in Milan this week to undergo a medical and read the small print on a deal that was officially confirmed by Inter Milan on Thursday. Real Madrid will collect €40 million for Hakimi, a fee that has prompted some criticism in the Spanish press. The Moroccan, they claim, either should have been given a chance by the Zinedine Zidane or sold for substantially more.

It was Zidane who actually gave Hakimi his Real Madrid debut, calling on the youngster when Dani Carvajal was injured during the second half of the 2017/18 season. His potential was clear and so a two-year loan move to Dortmund, a renowned finishing school for young talent, seemed ideal for the full-back’s development. So it proved.

Now, though, it’s Inter rather than Real Madrid who will benefit from that period of development. Deep down, Hakimi surely harbours disappointment that Zidane, the man who gave him his first chance at the Santiago Bernabeu, didn’t want to keep him around. The upshot is that Inter, specifically Antonio Conte’s Inter, might be an even better place to be.

Conte has built a solid foundation at the San Siro since his arrival there last summer. Inter exceeded early expectations by storming to the top of Serie A, positioning themselves as genuine challengers to Juventus for the Scudetto. It now seems that Inter’s campaign will end in disappointment, but this is only because the bar was raised so high over the first half of the season.

While Conte has managed to get the best out of players like Romelu Lukaku, Lautaro Martinez and Marcelo Brozovic, his trademark 3-5-2 formation has given Inter some deficiencies. One of those deficiencies can be found in the right wing-back position. It’s a position that will be filled by Hakimi next season.

It was as a wing-back that Hakimi truly excelled for Dortmund. The Moroccan’s pace, energy and directness makes him a force of nature when given the freedom to roam, and that’s something he will be afforded under Conte at Inter. There is no better coach for wing-backs in the game right now, giving Hakimi—perhaps already the game’s best out-and-out wing back at just 21—the chance to push his ceiling even higher.

At Real Madrid, Hakimi would have been expected to attack, but not in the way Conte will ask of him next season. Carvajal is an attacking outlet for Los Blancos, sometimes even making runs into the opposition box, but he is still a right-sided defender in the orthodox sense. He’s a far cry from Hakimi, who is a full-back, winger and attacker all in one.

Inter are still something of a work-in-progress under Conte. Juventus look set to claim a ninth successive Scudetto in the next few weeks despite having faltered at various points over the season. This illustrates the strength of their supremacy. Even when Juve are vulnerable and rivals, such as Inter, are rising, they are untouchable.

Hakimi’s signing suggests Conte is systematically building a team capable of truly changing the Italian soccer landscape. He needed a right wing-back and so secured a deal for a right wing-back, and an exceptional one at that. Now, Inter are in need of a left wing-back and so Marcos Alonso, a left wing-back specialist who played under Conte at Chelsea, has been linked with an arrival in Milan.

At a time when so many elite level clubs have seemingly lost all vision and sense of strategy in the transfer market, it’s refreshing to see a team and a coach address their problems with a clear plan. This is partly why Hakimi should be so enthused by his switch to the San Siro. If Conte wanted him, the defender can bet that there’s a plan to use him to his full potential. Given how much potential the young Moroccan has, that’s quite a thrilling thought.

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