MANCHESTER, England — Manuel Akanji is sitting in a room at Manchester City‘s training ground surrounded by pictures of himself lifting the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup. The question is about whether, after winning the treble in his first season following a £15 million move from Borussia Dortmund in 2022, you can still have the same hunger for success having already achieved something almost impossible.
When the answer comes it’s delivered with a smile, but there’s nothing funny about the sentiment behind it: City and Akanji aren’t done winning.
“I didn’t win the Carabao Cup and we can’t win it this year so I hope I can make it happen,” Akanji says in an exclusive interview with ESPN. “The Community Shield as well, we missed out on it. We had a really good season. It doesn’t get much better than that, winning the treble in the first year. It’s been really good.”
That doesn’t quite do it justice. City became the first English side in nearly a quarter of a century to win the treble and with it claimed the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history. The celebrations, which included an open-top bus parade through a rain-soaked Manchester, lasted most of the summer, but now the 2023-24 season is in full swing, and a new goal has already been set for his second season at the Etihad Stadium.
“To repeat it,” he says. “If we don’t win, it’s going to be a disappointment. I want to win every trophy again.”
“The treble is really hard to do but, yeah, our goal is to win it every year. Obviously we’re going to be disappointed if, let’s say, we lose in the quarterfinals of the Champions League because we want to go to the final and we want to play for these trophies but sometimes the opponent is better or our performance wasn’t good enough.
“But I think everyone in the team wants to go into every game to win it and that’s why we’re always disappointed when we lose a game. We want to win the treble again,” adds Akanji.
Already champions of Europe and winners of the Super Cup against Europa League winners Sevilla in August, City can be crowned the best club team in the world if they win the Club World Cup in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in December. Pep Guardiola’s team are also looking to win a record fourth Premier League title in a row, but there’s a downside to all the success, something the Catalan coach spelled out to his players in their first team meeting of the summer in July.
“He said it’s going to be even harder,” recalls Akanji. “After a year like that, to do it again and win these titles because lots of people are going to expect it now from us because they’re going to say we’re the best team in Europe and we have to prove it every game. Every team is going to come for us and that’s not going to be easy.
“Maybe already before because City won the Premier League so many times and every team is meeting us and they want to beat us. Now there’s probably even bigger motivation.”
They’ve already discovered how tough it’s going to be this season, losing three times in four games at the end of September and the beginning of October. City have bounced back with five straight wins, but their next three Premier League matches, against Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, will be a test of their title credentials. It’s ominous for the other challengers that City are already at the top of the table.
“It will be challenging,” says Akanji. “It’s what we want, to win these games. We lost against Arsenal and we weren’t happy about it. It’s not easy and we know we can do better. We knew we had to show a reaction and I think we did it. We’re on the right path now.
“If we go into games and show our best performance, it’s really hard to beat us. We know that we need to be at our best because if we let it slip a little bit, then the teams are there waiting. There are a lot of good teams in the league so we have to be at our best.”
The run of tough fixtures either side of the international break might require what Akanji calls “dirty wins,” something the defender says City have mastered just as much as the silky, possession-based football. There’s a beauty about Guardiola’s team but also a brawn that can sometimes be under-appreciated.
“It’s impossible to be at your best in every game,” says Akanji. “Sometimes you’ve got to adjust and sometimes you have to have a dirty win when you don’t play at your best. But these are the most important, when you’re not at your best. When we’re at our best, we know what we can do but it’s even more challenging to win when we’re not at our best. That’s how you win these titles.
“Let’s talk about the Champions League final because we weren’t at our best. Inter could have scored two or three goals but you need games like this to win these trophies.”
With tests against some of the Premier League’s best teams coming thick and fast over the next month, it helps that City can lean on a manager who doesn’t really know how to lose. Guardiola’s impact on his players is so great, according to Akanji, that even though he arrived at the Etihad as an experienced Switzerland international defender, he’s almost had to re-learn the game from scratch.
“Definitely!,” he laughs, when asked whether it’s true that Guardiola’s management makes players question what they thought they knew about football. “I think you can feel it when you go into the national team and play with other players that haven’t been with him. You learn a lot with him.
“It makes you a little bit nervous in the beginning. It’s demanding but that’s what I came here for. I want to get better every day and I want to win all the games I play in. He lets you know that it’s not only about football. It’s about me as a person. My son was born a couple of days after I signed here and I asked him if I could go to Switzerland and he said ‘yes, take your time and come back when you’re ready.’ For him, it’s not just about football and that makes it easy to be here.”
A full trophy cabinet after just a year in Manchester has helped too, but Akanji and City aren’t done winning yet.