My favourite Chelsea youth prospect, Nathan Aké has left Chelsea for Bournemouth this morning. The move has been a foregone conclusion for the last two days or so, though, and I clearly haven’t been taking it well.
Anyway, enough of that. Here are some of my thoughts and reflections on the matter, which I penned down while playing Coldplay’s Parachutes album for the 4th time on repeat, just like I used to as a teenager.
Nathan Aké is as much of an “academy prospect” as, say, Andreas Christensen. He was purchased from a foreign academy in 2011 (Feyenoord) at the age of 15 and was subsequently developed by the Chelsea academy, also helping the youth sides to an FA Youth Cup and an Under-21 Premier League title. The first manager to actively involve him in the first-team was interim boss Rafa Benitez, who handed 17-year-old Aké his Chelsea debut with a late cameo against Norwich on Boxing Day in 2012. I remember it as if it were yesterday; my 15-year-old self wondering just who this follicly blessed youngster with a strange surname was. Benitez also handed him starts in the League Cup against Middlesbrough, in the Europa League against Rubin Kazan and on the final day of the 2012-13 season against Everton, with third place in the league, and thus automatic qualification for the Champions League group stage, anything but secured. Benitez had shown faith, and each time Aké had delivered. His appearances for Chelsea that season weren’t as quite as jaw-dropping as, for example, Josh McEachran’s on that night against Newcastle, but it took no genius to tell that Aké had a bright future ahead of him.
At just 17, he looked at ease playing in midfield in the men’s game with dogged determination in his tackles and composure on the ball beyond his years. Of course, I knew what I was getting into. I had watched McEachran, Bruma, Kakuta and Van Aanholt before and hoped at some point or another that at least one of them would eventually become part of the furniture at Chelsea. With Aké it was just different, though. To this day I probably couldn’t tell you in exact terms as to why Nathan Aké was my favourite Chelsea prospect, except for that I felt a very personal connection with the player and identified with him and the way he plays, if that makes sense. I was all in with my ‘prospect-obsession’ and there was no turning back.
The years that followed were largely disappointing due to Jose Mourinho’s strangely sparing usage of Aké. In fact, Mourinho initially demoted him back to training with the Under-21s full-time and Aké had to win his place in the first-team again. An impressive short-term loan at Reading towards the end of the 2014-15 season led to his first full-season loan at newly promoted Watford. It was another Spanish coach in Quique Sanchez Flores who placed the same kind of trust in Aké as Benitez before him. Aké waited for his chance, which eventually came at left-back due to injuries to starters ahead of him, and took it with open arms. He remained first-choice for the remainder of the season and kept Watford’s new signing Jose Holebas out of the side. If there were any doubts regarding Aké’s level earlier, there remained none by the end of the season — he was Premier League through and through, and deserved to be playing week-in and week-out in one of the best leagues in the world.
Come the following summer, Aké was loaned out once again, as Chelsea apparently saw him as a midfielder first and wanted him to spend a season playing regularly in midfield. His next assignment was in the coastal town of Bournemouth, whose football club had gone from the verge of liquidation to Premier League mid-table in just a few years. Despite spending the whole of pre-season with his loan club, Aké was only handed starts in highly-rotated starting elevens in the EFL Cup, which Bournemouth exited after just two games. Like at Watford, injuries to a first-choice defender forced a re-shuffle, and saw Aké slot in at center-back this time. He scored the winning goal on his full debut in the league and the rest was history. Aké took no time at all in making himself an indispensable member of the Bournemouth starting eleven and once again proved his mettle in the Premier League. It was enough to earn him a recall to Chelsea in January, although we all know how things played out after that. He was brought back to Chelsea primarily as depth and was only a starter in the FA Cup. Whenever he was called upon, he did well, especially in the semi-final against Tottenham when Gary Cahill was out because of illness.
It does beg the question - at what point exactly does a youngster get a chance to make his name at Chelsea? Probably during an injury crisis. When has a youngster been given a chance at Chelsea in the recent past? Ryan Bertrand did get his shot but Jose Mourinho thought differently and so that ended when he returned. McEachran never quite lived up to his potential on loan, Van Aanholt did well at Vitesse but was never kept around, Chalobah probably should’ve been integrated back in 2013 while he was riding the wave that was his Watford loan. There are just so many things to factor in like the timing, the nature of the loan, the overall circumstances, etc.
Is it really hard to take a chance on just one youngster and make a genuine effort to integrate them into the first-team? Perhaps that’s just not the way it works at Chelsea, where trophies are expected year after year and managers are in and out at the drop of a hat. Stability at the head coaching position seems to be completely out of the equation, which means the only real way a youngster can make it is impressing on loan to the same extent that Thibaut Courtois did during his three seasons at Atletico Madrid, which I like to think as the exception rather than the norm. Not every team of the stature of Atletico Madrid are going to put their faith in a loanee year after year. It also depends on the current Chelsea manager’s beliefs. We haven’t had a manager who rotates regularly in five years. Antonio Conte doesn’t quite seem the type either, meaning if the likes of Nathan Aké, Andreas Christensen and Nathaniel Chalobah are to make it at Chelsea, they would have to prove to be consistently better than the more senior and expensive options ahead of them. And how does one gauge any of that without giving them chances? Of course, the manager sees them every day in training and I’m not going to say I know any better than Conte, but for any youngster, the pathway to the first-team (at least for the moment) is very difficult, to say the least.
Aké did not agitate to leave, at least publicly, and the club has viewed, and continues to view him in high regard. But when Bournemouth came calling, it was a question of whether the next season at Chelsea would be similar to the one just concluded for Aké, in terms of opportunities. Chelsea are in the market for a new, big-money center-back despite the return of Andreas Christensen from loan and the likes of Aké and Kurt Zouma already in the squad. And that just about sums it up, doesn’t it? Aké wasn't going to get any assurances about his playing time for the club and therefore he took the decision that was in the best interest of his career. He is well-loved and just as highly regarded at Bournemouth and will no doubt be playing for them regularly next season.
A young footballer could train under the best manager in the world and with the best players every day but the bottom line is that it's the minutes on the pitch that matter the most. Aké himself said it best in a recent interview, that at 18 or 19, even minimal involvement with the first-team is a special thing, but as one grows older and reaches 21 or 22, playing a few odd minutes here and there just doesn’t cut it. Like Nemanja Matic and maybe soon Romelu Lukaku, the most likely path for a Chelsea youngster to actually make it at the club is perhaps to leave for greener pastures and become so good that Chelsea eventually buy them back for millions. That’s just the way things are, and not necessarily at just Chelsea, but any top level club in England or in Europe. One can only hope that Chelsea plan to start, or have started using buy-back clauses when selling their best prospects — if reports are to be believed, the club have done so with Aké and Bertrand Traoré already. Manchester City have begun doing it too; they sold prolific Eredivisie striker Enes Unal to Villarreal with a buy-back clause and are insisting on one if they are to sell Kelechi Iheanacho as well. Real Madrid has seen success with buy-back clauses too, with the likes of Dani Carvajal, Lucas Vasquez and Alvaro Morata.
Good luck to Aké at Bournemouth. I know I’ll be watching his games every week; I still dream that he'll captain Chelsea someday and who knows, maybe he does as well. As the saying goes, if you love them then let them go.
But with a buy-back.