Opinion: Ake's return better than a new signing for Chelsea

Opinion: Ake's return better than a new signing for Chelsea

Nathan Aké has had a "career year" so far this season at Bournemouth, and is on track to be one of the best defenders in the Premier League

Scott Nicholls

When Antonio Conte mentioned to press that he was mulling the idea of recalling Nathan Aké from his loan at Bournemouth there wasn’t a sensation of shock among media, nor fans of the club.

Aké’s final game for Bournemouth was a commanding central defensive performance in which he was dominant — a adjective that has become synonymous with the young Dutchman of late.

It was the kind of performance that typifies Nathan Aké’s transformation from Chelsea hopeful, to a Premier League stalwart. It hasn’t always been easy for Aké, a product of Chelsea’s “loan army,” but the hard work is finally paying off for the promising centre-half, and for Chelsea Football Club. 

The learning curve for Aké’s road back to his parent club has been somewhat steep, and rarely are these things straightforward. Loan spells away from Stamford Bridge included a brief stint at Reading before his coming of age season at Watford in which he played the majority of games at left full-back, before cementing his status as a worthy Premier League player by playing exceptionally for Bournemouth this term. 

Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe lamented the loss of his commanding centre back, admitting to the BBC "It is easier said than done to say we are going to go and recruit a player of a similar stature to Nathan [Aké].” With Simon Francis staring at a suspension after a straight red card against Arsenal and Marc Pugh sidelined with injury, Nathan Aké’s departure for Chelsea will stretch the Cherries’ defensive ranks for the remainder of the Premier League Season. 

A calculated move from Conte

Aké’s return isn’t a snap decision — Antonio Conte doesn’t make those. The former Italian national team boss has been monitoring Chelsea’s pool of youth talent since he was announced as the next Chelsea manager — even asking interim manager Guus Hiddink to play youth players toward the end of last season, so that he might have a better chance to assess the level of talent in the Blues’ youth system. 

Nathan Aké is returning to Chelsea because Antonio Conte recognizes that since he’s been playing every week in the centre of Bournemouth’s defense, Aké has become a top Premier League defender and should become an invaluable asset to Chelsea’s title push. 

Conte believes that Aké can play in the back three or in midfield, the Blues boss did also mention he will see if Aké can play at wing-back too. While Nathan Aké still sees himself as a central midfielder, arguably his best position has been in the centre of defence and it would be wise for Conte to deploy him there when possible. 

Aké is an excellent distributor of the ball and has completed 88% of his passes this season from his central defensive role, something that Antonio Conte will look to hone even further upon his return. It’s not just his passing that has been impressive, though, it’s how well all of his stats stack up not just against Chelsea’s current crop of centre-halves, but against the league’s best. 

Ake compares well to league's best

Comparing Nathan Aké with Laurent Koscielny, Toby Alderweireld, £30 million Manchester United defender Eric Bailly, and Chelsea defensive maestro César Azpilicueta in the following categories (all per 90 minutes): Tackles won; clearances; blocks; fouls committed; percentage of total duels won; key passes; and pass completion, thanks to stats courtesy of Squawka, Ake comes out rather well.

Tackles Won: 
Azpilicueta — 1.85
Aké — 1.82
Bailly — 1.75
Koscielny — 1.5
Alderweireld — 1.12

Aké — 9.12
Koscielny — 6.36
Alderweireld — 6.18
Bailly — 5.94
Azpilicueta — 4.20

Alderweireld — 1.12
Aké — 0.85
Koscielny — 0.70
Bailly — 0.49
Azpilicueta — 0.30

Fouls Committed: 
Alderweireld — 0.34
Aké — 0.36
Koscielny — 0.59
Azpilicueta — 0.80
Bailly — 1.36

Total Duels: 
Koscielny — 63.54%
Aké — 58.73%
Bailly — 52.38%
Azpilicueta — 51.35%
Alderweireld — 50.00%

Key Passes: 
Azpilicueta — 0.60
Aké — 0.36
Bailly — 0.10
Koscielny — 0.09
Alderweireld — 0.00

Pass Completion: 
Aké — 88%
Azpilicueta — 88%
Bailly — 88%
Koscielny — 87%
Alderweireld — 84%

He may be only 21-years-old, but Nathan Aké has outperformed some of the best defenders in the Premier League so far this season. With Antonio Conte always looking to insert quality youth players into his teams Nathan Aké is surely poised to make his full debut for Chelsea within a matter of weeks. 

His calm, sophisticated, ball control coupled with his excellent distribution have earned Aké comparisons to Ruud Gullit in years passed, and it now looks like he may emerge as a worthy recipient of such praise regardless of their positional differences. 

It has been widely thought by fans and pundits alike that Aké will take Marcos Alonso’s place in the team as the 26-year-old Spanish wing-back has arguably been the weak link in Chelsea’s otherwise stout defense this season. 

While Alonso may be the casualty to make room for Aké, Antonio Conte will likely see it makes more sense to switch César Azpilicueta to the left wing back role and deploy Aké centrally.

This time last season Chelsea were a club in disarray and their future looked bleak, but under Conte Chelsea’s culture has been changing for the better. Aké’s return doesn’t just signal a watershed moment in his career development; coupled with the emergence of Nathaniel Chalobah, Victor Moses, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, it signals a change in Chelsea’s attitude toward integrating its youth prospects. 

Chelsea fans shouldn’t expect the club to shell out millions of pounds on players like Kalidou Koulibaly, quite simply because the Blues don't need them. Nathan Aké has proven to Antonio Conte that he deserves his place on a team that is pushing for a Premier League title this season. 

If Aké keeps improving at his current trajectory, he will soon be one of the best defenders in the Premier League.