Nathan Ake exclusive: 'The biggest setback of my career was also the biggest help... it changed everything'
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In a Manchester City team that boasts five of Transfermarkt’s top 10 most valuable Premier League players — Erling Haaland, Phil Foden, Rodri, Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva — it is an often underappreciated member of Pep Guardiola's side that is being recognised for his priceless contribution of late.
Nathan Ake may not be on track to smash the league’s Golden Boot record after scoring 28 goals in 26 games, nor is he leading the assists chart. And he definitely hasn’t completed more dribbles than any other City player this season. But the man described by his manager as ‘extraordinary’ continues to be a shining light in their ever-improving backline.
The 28-year-old defender has earned the nickname ‘Mr Consistent’ in certain circles of the Manchester City fan base and for good reason. As well as showcasing the attitude and commitment his manager has lauded on numerous occasions, he is flourishing on the pitch in a hybrid left-back/centre-back role following the untimely departure of Joao Cancelo.
In this position, Ake has kept a handful of the Premier League’s top performers quiet, including Bukayo Saka — a player he names as his toughest opponent this season. He has also produced mammoth performances against Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester United, to name just a few.
The numbers don’t lie, either. He records an average 6.72 progressive passes per 90 – the second highest in England's top flight – and attempts just over 86 passes per game, which are numbers that match up with the league's most creative players. His attacking output from wide positions is improving game-on-game, too.
But with all that being said, the Netherlands international plays down talk of being the Premier League’s best defender this season.
“If people think that then thank you, but I don't agree,” he tells SPORTbible after becoming Nike Underwear's newest ambassador. “I think there's many, many top defenders who have been doing it for so many years. No, I don't agree with that. But I am in a good rhythm. The only thing I can do is to keep improving and to hopefully remain at this level.”
Ultimately, the humble Ake has suffered enough setbacks in his career to not get ahead of himself.
"I was all over the place," says Nathan Ake, who is recalling the setback that hit him hardest over a 30-minute Zoom call. "It was one of the toughest periods because I'd never been through anything like that before, and I never really understood it. But at the same time, I think it made me into a much stronger person today."
The expression 'make or break' is thrown around a lot these days. On this occasion, however, it is completely justifiable.
In the summer of 2013, a teenage Ake arrived at Chelsea's training ground for the opening day of pre-season with a smile etched across his face. After impressing in their successful Europa League-winning campaign, the 18-year-old was voted Young Player of the Year in what was an extremely promising breakthrough season at Stamford Bridge.
He had every right to be happy. His stock was rising thanks to a memorable month of May, when he showed maturity beyond his years in games against Basel, Manchester United and Everton. "Everything was going well," he says. "I remember thinking this is easy. I'm young and playing with such big names."
But in the space of a few weeks, Ake's young career hit a wall when Jose Mourinho arrived on the scene for a second spell. On his return to Cobham that day, the self-confessed 'Special One' made a statement by dropping the Dutch defender from his first-team plans.
"Without training, or talking to anyone, I turned up on the first day of pre-season and they said I had to go out on loan,” Ake remembers. "And then the next second it was like, ‘Oh no, you have to play with the reserves.' That was a really tough moment."
Ake sat on the news for a few days. He was left “mentally broken” by the decision but rather than feel hard done by after being demoted to the reserves, he opened up about the situation to his family and left the conversation with a plan.
“I decided to create a mindset of, 'Okay, I'm going to do everything to make a comeback'. I wasn't going to sulk. I was going to train with the U21 and see how it went from there.’”
Six months later and Mourinho decided to pull him back into the first-team fold. "To see that get rewarded, I think that only helped me further my career because you've seen firsthand what happens when you work hard," he smiles. "I think that was the biggest setback but also the biggest help in my career."
It's a story that sums up Nathan Ake's career. In fact, ten years after suffering his biggest setback, the experienced defender has 191 Premier League appearances and a further 34 caps at international level to his name after spending time on loan at Reading, Watford and Bournemouth.
Even the journey to becoming a first-team regular at reigning Premier League champions Manchester City was far from straightforward.
After making a reported £41 million switch from relegated Bournemouth in the summer of 2020, Ake made a bright start for City, featuring in their opening day win against Wolves before scoring in a surprise defeat to Leicester.
He was in a "good rhythm" on the pitch as he started to adapt to Pep Guardiola's system but the defender picked up successive hamstring injuries towards the end of that year, which kept him out for just over three months.
Soon, Ake lost some of his self-belief and confidence in what was a flakey debut season at the Etihad. "Coming back from that injury was really hard," he tells us. "I wasn't in the team as much. I remember looking back at that first year and asking myself, ‘Why did that happen?’ I think because of the injuries, and because I wasn’t playing much anymore, I lost some of my confidence and self-belief.”
With a loss of confidence came moments of self-doubt, too.
"I asked myself at the time, 'Should I even be in this team anymore? Am I pushing enough to be playing?’
"Then when you eventually get over those injuries, you are also thinking that you have so much to prove. As a result, you're doing stuff you normally never do. You play with a weird kind of mentality of, 'Oh I need to do this. Otherwise, I'm not playing the next game.' You start to overthink and overdo things. I just didn't feel like myself.”
He continues: "It wasn't because of the manager. I think he's always been so clear about what exactly he wants from me. He sat down at the start of the first season a few times and explained what he expects from me, both with and without the ball. That was actually quite clear but I think in the end it was self belief after all of those injuries.”
Ake admits his mentality changed in that second year. “Last season I was like, 'Okay I know what people expect from me,’ and from then you start to be a little bit more comfortable. You play your own game. I think that started last season, and then straight away from the start of this season.
"I feel even more natural. I think it just came with years and games. Naturally, confidence and everything else starts to grow as well.”
That confidence has developed over time at City, and with that has come a steady improvement in all aspects of his game. Ake's development is down to a number of factors, including sacrifices off the pitch, but one of the key reasons is the influence of his manager, who has thrown a great deal of praise at the ball-playing defender.
Speaking to Sky Sports this month, Guardiola described the Dutch international as "exceptional" and a real team player. He also suggested the defender has earned 'karma' for his hard work over the last two years, when he wasn’t in the starting line-up every week. There were no excuses or complaints from Ake; just a real willingness to learn and improve.
In fact, to put his importance at City into perspective, Guardiola recently called Netherlands boss Ronald Koeman to wish him a happy 60th birthday but as soon as he congratulated his former teammate, the Spaniard pleaded with Koeman to take special care of Ake while on international duty.
In the coming days, he would feature against France and Gibraltar — a game in which Ake picked up the Man of the Match award after scoring a brace. It tells you everything you need to know about his current form. The 28-year-old is one of the first names on every team sheet, especially at City under the formidable Guardiola.
So what is it like working under one of the greatest coaches of all time?
“Tactically, he is so good," Ake says. "Every meeting, he is so clear. He analyses everything. He loves the game so much that he knows everything about everyone. As a player, going into the game, you know exactly what you have to do and what you have to expect. He makes the game seem easy as well. The way he explains it. That sets him apart from the rest.”
When asked how important his manager has been since joining City, Ake recognises Guardiola's influence, both on and off the pitch, mentioning the Spaniard's actions when his father, Moise, sadly passed away in 2021, moments after seeing his son score his first Champions League goal.
“He has been very important in every aspect, especially in my overall game. I've improved loads," Ake says about Guardiola.
"He made me understand the game differently. It was always a different style of play at previous clubs I've been at. I love it and he's been helping me from day one. Even when the first season didn't go as planned for myself, he was still backing me, always trying to help me and make sure I got back to my best. The second season I was already improving.
“Also off the pitch, when the stuff with my dad happened, when he passed away, he was there and came to speak to me a few times, giving me time off when I needed it. I will always appreciate that. He's been a big influence, especially this season; putting so much trust in me to play so many games.
"That's why I try and do everything to pay him back.”
Like his manager has mentioned of late, Ake’s adaptability and willingness to learn has played a big factor in the last three years.
In fact, throughout an 11-year professional career, Ake has been asked to play in a number of different positions, including a more defensive midfield role during his early days at Chelsea and more recently under Eddie Howe at Bournemouth.
But this past seven months has tested his versatility like no other. Ake is currently being used in a hybrid left-sided role which has allowed City to build play in a two or three-man defence and as a result, he is flourishing. Naturally comfortable in possession, the defender has become a key player in transitional moments, showcasing his impressive range of passing on a weekly basis.
Adapting to that new role has, however, taken a lot of hard work in training. Early on, the manager and his assistants spent hours with the defender, letting him know exactly what they expected tactically on match day. He also spends time watching footage from previous games to improve, including when he is, and isn't, involved with the ball.
“I think the more you train it, the more familiar it becomes," he says. "You can see that from the whole team since we've been playing three at the back."
Away from the training ground and Ake sticks to a strict routine when it comes to eating the right foods. The club also has a physiotherapist, who comes to Ake's house on a regular basis to make sure his muscles are recovered and ready to go again. Eight or nine hours of sleep is a must, too.
As you can probably tell by now, there is real structure in place when it comes to everything football, although his time management is far from perfect away from the pitch – just ask his wife and childhood sweetheart, Kaylee.
“It's funny, because in football, I'm a structured person," he laughs. "In terms of timings, I’ll have the same structure each week. For example, when it comes to what I eat before a game, I’ll be very organised. But in normal life, it can be different. When we go for dinner or something, I can sometimes be 10 minutes late. That never happens in football.
"My wife always points out that if it’s anything to do with football, then I’ll always be 100 per cent focused!"
On the subject of off-the-field habits and Ake's almost non-existent relationship with alcohol should give you a further insight into his elite mindset. For the first time ever last summer, he drank at his wedding in Majorca after promising to give it a try at a special occasion. But before that, he never touched a drop.
"I'd always hear stories when I was younger," he explains. "When you meet older people and you ask them why they aren’t playing anymore, they’d often come back and say, 'I was going out too much' or 'I was drinking, clubbing and I got injured.' All of these excuses.
"Growing up, I always wanted to be a professional footballer. I always wanted to do well and reach the highest level possible. I never wanted to be able to make those excuses."
Now he has reached the highest level, Ake shares the same pitch with a Manchester City team that has broken many records. On an individual level, the likes of Ruben Dias, Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri and Phil Foden have helped the Citizens lift four Premier League titles in five years.
This season, it is the almost unstoppable Erling Haaland that is set to go down in the history books. He’s already the fastest player to score 25 times in the Premier League (19 matches) and recently, he scored his fifth hat-trick of the season against RB Leipzig, becoming the youngest player in history to reach 30 Champions League goals.
Ake, who has played with the likes of Didier Drogba, John Terry and Eden Hazard during his time at Stamford Bridge, says Haaland is "right up there" when it comes to being the best player he's ever played with. But for him, it's the Norwegian's work ethic that sets him apart from the rest.
“He's so professional," the defender points out. "Before I met him, I never thought that. But when you meet him, you see the things he does off the pitch, like the food he eats. It’s all of the little things. He's always early. He's always working and making sure that his body is in the right way to perform. And at his age, I think that's great.
“Also, all of the applause and stuff he's getting; you might think, 'Okay, maybe he's gonna think I've done it and it’s all good.’ But he has this mindset where he just wants to keep going and going and going."
In terms of the team as a group, Ake says they surprised him when he first walked through the door.
"The atmosphere around the club is very good," he says. "To be fair, before I arrived, I never expected it to be like this. I thought it was going to be more, everyone is going to be on their own, focusing on their own lives and their own performances but it's nothing like that.
"We are a very good team together. There are a lot of different nationalities but everyone mixes together. I think you could see that in the little clips like that Hippo debate video. Those kinds of discussions go on every day. The atmosphere is great and that naturally transfers on to the pitch.
"Everyone is good with each other. Everyone can say stuff to each other because of that. And I think that helps with performances on the pitch.”
Three years after joining Manchester City and Ake is in a familiar scenario. With four Premier League-winners medals to his name already, including two from his time at Chelsea, the 28-year-old is currently involved in another hotly-contested title race – this time with an in-form Arsenal side who currently sit eight points clear with 10 games remaining.
There is plenty of time to catch up with their rivals, however, and Ake knows the impact pressure can have in the final weeks of a season. In fact, with Arsenal having to play Chelsea, Newcastle and in-form Brighton ahead of their final game against Wolves at the Emirates, the Dutch defender thinks this season's battle at the top will go down to the wire as the pressure ramps up.
Oh, and then there's that crucial game between Manchester City and Arsenal at the Etihad on April 26.
"I think it's going to go right to the end," he says. "It's very tight. Everything can change. We still have to play them at home, so that's going to be a massive, massive game.
"We know, from now on, that every game is going to be vital. If you lose one point, if you lose two points. It's so difficult to comeback from it. The only thing we can do is win our games. We have a tough test coming up against Liverpool, which is the first one after the international break. That is going to be tough. But we need to win them all.
“I think all of Arsenal's remaining games are difficult to be fair. In some of our previous games, we dropped points to teams that people didn't expect us to drop points against. But they lost against Everton, too. Every game in the league is so difficult. You can't relax at any second because teams will respond.
"I think it's going to go all the way to the end. The only thing we can do is focus on us and see how it goes.”
Nathan Ake debuts new Nike Underwear collection for Spring Summer 2023, check out the collection here at jdsports.co.uk
Featured Image Credit: Alamy/Instagram - nathanake
Topics: Manchester City, Nike, Premier League, Pep Guardiola, Chelsea, Bournemouth, Reading, Watford, Spotlight