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Keep, Sell, Loan: Nathan Aké’s 2016-17 season in review

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Appearances (starts + substitute):
Premier League: 8 + 2 (AFC Bournemouth, 733 minutes), 1 + 1 (Chelsea, 98 minutes)
FA Cup: 3 (Chelsea, 270 minutes)
EFL Cup: 2 (AFC Bournemouth, 210 minutes)

Nathan Aké played a highly fragmented 1,311 minutes of football this season. Despite being sent on loan to Bournemouth early enough to participate fully in their pre-season preparations, the youngster found it difficult to break into Eddie Howe’s rigid starting XI. Aké was sent there with the intention of spending a season playing in the Premier League as a midfielder rather than the left-back as he did at Watford in the season before, but the deadline day high-profile loan signing of Jack Wilshere from Arsenal certainly threw a spanner in the works for the Chelsea talent. Wilshere was thrust straight into the starting line-up, while midfielders who were well-drilled with Howe’s system in Harry Arter and Andrew Surman proved to be very difficult to displace from their positions. As a result, Aké was handed his opportunities to impress only in League Cup games, and only at center-back and with highly-rotated sides. His two starts in the EFL Cup included a narrow victory against lowly Morecambe and a shock exit to Preston North End. Aké played well in both games but was arguably let down by the weak team around him.

AFC Bournemouth v Preston North End - EFL Cup Third Round Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

All of 22, Aké is a youngster with great attitude and he continued to work hard in training and patiently wait for his next chance to impress, which eventually came as a result of a suspension to first-choice right-back, Adam Smith. Simon Francis occupied the right-back spot, while Aké filled in at left center-back. Aké scored the winning goal in that game, heading in from a set-piece, and played well enough to remain in the Bournemouth starting XI for every game he was eligible for until his (un?)timely recall by Chelsea. Aké never did get his midfield gig at Bournemouth, but instead he reminded the world of his potential as a center-back. Aké was a perfect fit for Eddie Howe’s system, astute with the ball at his feet and able to stand his ground against the strikers he came up against. It could be argued that Antonio Conte should’ve let him see out the remainder of the season playing regular Premier League football, but isn’t one of the objectives of the loan system to produce a player for the first-team as well?

As expected, Aké found that playing time didn’t come as easily back at Chelsea. Conte saw him as a direct replacement for Gary Cahill as left-sided center-back in the back three, or as back-up left wing-back, capable of filling in at the center of the back-line as well. He made three starts in the FA Cup and played well each time, especially against Tottenham in the semi-final when he was unexpectedly called upon due to Cahill’s illness. In the league, his lone start came against former loan club, Watford, after Chelsea had clinched the title, but he also had an impressive cameo against Everton, coming on for an injured David Luiz for the last few minutes. Aké has played every position in midfield, plus center-back and left-back at youth level, too, but the first glimpse we got of him as a center-back in the Premier League was with Watford, against the title-winning attack of Leicester City.

Aké’s strengths lie in his tackling, passing and composure on the ball, as is apparent from the above video of his defensive actions against Leicester. He’s also an intelligent player, and has now managed to cut it in the Premier League in two different positions. He himself has stated in the past that left-back is probably his least favourite position, yet he played in the excess of 1,800 minutes for a newly-promoted Watford side that remained afloat in the league quite easily. Of course, he had his share of pitfalls and made mistakes as any young player would do, but Quique Sanchez Flores kept faith in him and allowed him to learn. In Aké’s early days at Watford, his aerial ability and positioning as a full-back exposed him at times and he was heavily targeted by the opposition. His manager’s trust in him was rewarded though, as he improved fast in both aspects and looked very much a competent Premier League left-back.

Here’s a video from the second half of Aké’s first league start for Chelsea, which came in the final league game of the 2012-13 season under Rafa Benitez, another manager who trusted Aké. Aké played as a holding midfielder in this game, alongside Frank Lampard and in front of a back four of David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole.

If you did watch that video, you witnessed an 18-year-old Aké holding his own in midfield against the grown men of Everton. This may have been the last game of the season but third place was very much at stake for Chelsea and a win was needed to see that through. It was, in fact, Aké’s pass that began the attack that led to the winning goal. Clearly, Rafa Benítez saw his potential as a midfielder and nurtured it in the half-season that he was Chelsea manager. The fact that his recent playing time has all come in defence is a bit of a pity in that regard, but the point remains that in my eyes at least, he can make up numbers in Chelsea’s midfield depth chart at the very least.

For a rough idea about his skillset, let’s have a look at the stats Aké has amassed over his three loan spells. Note that most of his appearances at Bournemouth and Watford came at center-back and left-back respectively, while at Reading he made three starts in midfield, one as a center back and one as a left-back. His pass completion rate stands in the mid-70s for his spells at Watford and Reading, although I suspect that was largely down to the system both teams were playing at the time. At Watford, he was often required to hoof the ball up to Troy Deeney, for example. This point is further reinforced when one looks at his passing accuracy at Bournemouth, which clocks in at 88%, averaging 37.4 successful passes per 90, consisting of 1.5 successful long balls. Aké isn’t known for his proficiency at chance creation, and has registered an average of 0.4 key passes per game at all three loan spells. Of Chelsea’s current starting defenders, only César Azpilicueta averages more, and not by much (0.43), while the differences in passing accuracy are negligible (though Chelsea’s starting back three all make more passes total).

Reading v Cardiff City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

Aké has excellent tackling technique, and over all his loan spells averages 2.38 successful tackles per 90 minutes, whereas none of our starting defence crosses 1.74. These are all numbers that are affected greatly by systems and possession figures, so as Aké has been attempting more tackles in total, he’s also averaged almost as many tackles lost as won, although his success rate at Bournemouth was 84%. Aké isn’t much of a dribbler, but averaged 0.4 successful take-ons even at Bournemouth, which is higher than any of our current back three. Although his positional awareness at Watford needed work, Aké registered 3.65 tackles at Watford, and 2.20 at Reading. His numbers are understandably lower at 1.1 with Bournemouth, and in this regard he doesn’t surpass either of David Luiz, Cahill or Azpilicueta. All four defenders register a similar amount of blocks, while Aké claims more aerial duels won (2.25) than Azpilicueta and David Luiz, falling just short of Cahill (2.38). Aké was rather foul-prone earlier in his career, averaging 1.34 and 2 at Watford and Reading, respectively, although his numbers went down at Bournemouth, where he averaged just 0.4 fouls per 90 minutes, which is once again lower than Chelsea’s first-choice defence.

For further and more recent demonstrations of Aké’s footballing actions, you may look to the videos below.

Verdict:

Antonio Conte has reiterated time and time again that Aké deserved to be called back to Chelsea, and that he has faith in the youngster. While I don’t think Aké making four starts since returning is an unassailable indicator of Conte’s actual trust in his ability, I do know that Aké isn’t going to be sticking around for long if he doesn’t start playing more regularly. He is now 22 years old, and has multiple Premier League clubs showing great interest in him. Frankly, it’s now or never for Aké at Chelsea. Chelsea will be competing in Europe this season and Aké could prove to be an extremely useful player to have in the squad, as he can provide able depth in four specific positions. Of course, his role would have to be a greater one than it was for the past half-season. Hopefully, he’ll prove to Conte in pre-season that he’s worth an increased role in the squad. My verdict (keep) should be fairly obvious to regular readers of the blog; quite simply put, I love Nathan Aké and want him to spend his whole career here, eventually becoming captain some day. I acknowledge that the probability of such a thing happening is low, but for next season at least, I believe he should be kept in the squad. If his playing time remains the same, then he should move on the following season for his own good. Wherever Nathan Aké does end up, though, I believe he will turn out to be a special player.

Poll

What would you do with Nathan Aké next season?

This poll is closed

  • 86%
    Keep
    (1661 votes)
  • 2%
    Loan
    (52 votes)
  • 8%
    Sell (cash in!)
    (158 votes)
  • 2%
    Sell at a lesser price, with a buy-back clause
    (56 votes)
1927 votes total Vote Now