His team could end up with a treble but it has been a debut season to forget for Manchester City’s Dutch defender
On the surface, things look pretty good right now for Dutch centre-half Nathan Aké.
He plays for one of the best clubs in the world, under one of the best Managers. By the end of his first season in a new side, he could end up with a treble of winners medals if Manchester City can add a first ever Champions League to the Premier League and League Cup trophies that they have already secured. He is also set to play an important role for the Netherlands at the imminent European Championships, particularly in the absence of Virgil van Dijk.
However, scratch beneath the surface and things aren’t as rosy as they seem for the man originally developed in the Eredivisie academies of ADO Den Haag and Feyenoord.
His debut season in Manchester has been blighted by four separate muscle injuries, including whilst on international duty, confining him to just 13 appearances in all competitions at point of writing. A campaign that began promisingly, starting the first two league matches, has been spent largely watching on from the stands as Guardiola’s team have moved close to footballing perfection without him. His longest period out injured coincided pretty much exactly with the start and end of a remarkable run in which City won 15 of 16 League games. His recent struggles when back in the side that he has acknowledged, essentially in their Premier League B team, are indicative of someone playing catch-up after far too long away; chasing a successful horse that has already bolted.
And, whilst these past injuries cannot be used as a stick to beat Aké regarding whether he is good enough for Manchester City, they remain an important contextual factor in understanding arguments that even a fit and in form Aké may not have a future at the Etihad Stadium.
Cast your mind back to last August and Aké was widely viewed as a potentially very intelligent piece of transfer business for numerous suitors. Although Bournemouth were relegated, he had been one of their standout performers and it was always expected that he would make a move up, irrespective of where they finished. An international player with clear potential, Premier League experience, his prime years ahead of him and a point still to prove after just seven league appearances in five years at Chelsea – you could see why a ‘big’ club would be interested. Perhaps there was surprise that it was Guardiola who stumped up £40 million to sign him but in a COVID-19 hit market it still looked like a good piece of business. Few, maybe even Aké himself, would have expected him to be a constant starter in one of the deepest squads in the world, yet it seemed a good move both parties – a chance for Aké to start taking his game to the next level and for City to add a highly regarded defender to their squad with his best years ahead of him.
The problem for Aké is that whilst misfortune has prevented him from staking his claim to fill the massive boots of Vincent Kompany, another big money centre half signing from last summer has proven himself the heir apparent. Indeed the performances of Rúben Dias have been so consistently strong that he is touted as a possible player of the year winner. For the Champions League Final Aké will be on the bench, with not a single European minute under his belt. Meanwhile Dias will be integral if they are to become European Champions. The Portuguese has played nearly 50 times this season. The stark contrast between the two couldn’t be worse for Aké – one transfer a resounding success, the other with the jury very much still out.
In theory, the man from The Hague would be a good partner for Dias. Yet in his enforced absence that role has been gleefully taken on by a revitalised John Stones. Many thought the Englishman’s career at City was over, yet he has developed a partnership with Dias that is currently one of the best in Europe. Next in line is Aymeric Laporte, who before Dias was long viewed as City’s finest defender and who is probably the best defensive back-up in world football right now. When he joined, Aké would have wanted to be banging on the first-team door by now yet he arguably would even be behind the adaptable Fernandinho at present, who Guardiola has also frequently deployed at centre-half. If the Brazilian stays another year, would Aké, a full international in the years when he needs to be kicking on, really want to be 4th or even 5th choice in his main position?
One of the original values highlighted in signing Aké is his versatility, with his natural confidence on the ball and athleticism meaning he is more than comfortable playing at left back. Indeed 11 of his 19 appearances for the Netherlands have come in the position. Yet again developments in the past year mean he has been pushed way down the pecking order in that area too. Who would have thought eight months ago that the right-footed João Cancelo would be so impressive in the position this season? Or that midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko would continue to impress when appearing there, so much so that he was the best player on the pitch recently in the Champions League against PSG? With City likely to sell Benjamin Mendy and bring in a replacement, it looks like that string to Aké’s bow has been snapped.
It is a gloomy picture but is there a positive solution? There is obviously still time for Aké to turn things around. A strong performance in the Euros could force him back into domestic contention and Guardiola generally isn’t the type to just give up on a player he has invested in within a year, especially considering the circumstances. Nonetheless, realistically it would require one of Aké’s colleagues to go through the same injury misfortune he has experienced for him to get back into the team. He could easily get a season-long loan to a strong European side but would that simply add fuel to the fire for the claims that he is not cut out for the highest level? And in the current COVID-19 impacted transfer market and with his recent injury record, would anyone really want to spend the decent amount of money required to sign him permanently?
In this writer’s personal opinion it would be great to see someone never quite deemed good enough for the Chelsea first-team, who has spent time learning his trade in the Championship with Watford and near the bottom of the Premier League with Bournemouth, fulfil his potential and establish himself at one of Europe’s best clubs. Yet football at the very top waits for no-one and if Aké wants to make it at City the clock is, rightly or wrongly, fairly or unjustly, already ticking.