The Premier League’s so-called ‘lesser’ sides have traditionally given a home to young players from bigger clubs or created stars from within their own ranks. Giving these young stars a place to perform to the best of their abilities provides these players with a platform to impress the elite sides to further their careers and enhance their reputations. One such club has been Bournemouth who have bought the likes of Josh King and Harry Wilson and have made a positive impact on the club with their energetic playing style. Others such as Dominic Solanke and Jordon Ibe haven’t been as effective but one player that has grown and excelled since his arrival is Nathan Ake.
The Dutchman was deemed surplus to requirements at Stamford Bridge under Antonio Conte with David Luiz, Antonio Rudiger, Gary Cahill, and Andreas Christensen all competing for a starting spot. He went on multiple loan spells in search for regular first team football but Chelsea were wary of the talent they were letting go and in response inserted a buy-back clause in the deal that took him to Bournemouth in the summer of 2017. This meant that Chelsea would have the right to first refusal on any future transfer. With Frank Lampard at the helm and the transfer ban lifted, defensive reinforcements have been on top of the agenda with a host of names being linked. Links to the Dutchman have been prevalent in recent weeks and months making him both an obvious yet shrewd signing.
This tactical analysis scout report will elaborate and detail Ake’s qualities as a central defender analysing his impressive performances for Bournemouth and whether he can help alleviate Chelsea’s defensive issues and improve their tactics.
Nathan Ake – Style of Play
The Premier League boasts a number of ball-playing central defenders and their rise in popularity has seen them enjoy play time across most teams in the league. Ake at Bournemouth is no exception. The Dutchman is considered an excellent ball-playing centre-back with proficient technical abilities. Pace, acceleration, tackling, and work rate are stand out attributes that combine to make him one of the most promising youngsters in England. This type of centre-back is often used in a creative way to create goal-scoring opportunities, offer a deeper passing option, and stop attackers from having time to react. An intelligent defender, Ake is often seen making good decisions on when to press and when to back away from attackers. He has excellent timing and an ability to anticipate balls coming into the area from the wide areas. When he isn’t out wide covering for his full-back, he is making attempts to get in between the wide player and the ball.
Another impressive trait the young Dutchman holds is her versatility to play in multiple positions. As well as central defence, he can slot in at left-back or as a holding midfielder in front of the defence. His spell at Bournemouth has seen him play all three positions without compromising on his performances. Due to his pace, intelligence, and work rate he can adequately fill in wherever needed. This type of player is someone Chelsea would relish to have this option with two extremely good candidates at right full-back in César Azpilicueta and Reece James to create balance. Playing as the underdog in the majority of his games for Bournemouth, Ake is used to defending against possession based sides with technical and fast strikers. This gives him another advantage playing for a team that holds more possession allowing him to both utilise his ball-playing abilities and defend diligently when the opposition starts piling on the pressure.
Part of playing for a team like Bournemouth means possession may be hard to come by especially against better quality opposition. Ake has developed an ability to defend in tight spaces and deep in his penalty box against quick and dangerous attacking teams during his tenure. This requires anticipating the trajectory of the ball, intelligence in identifying dangerous points of attack and covering depth and any other spaces that need to be plugged. Positioning for a central defender is of utmost importance that requires the player to be aware of his surroundings and understand when to move. Despite his slender frame, Ake also possesses physical strength that enables him to defend against bigger strikers making him a versatile defender. He averages 11.2 duels per 90 winning 54.8% of them. The number of duels is impressive but he could improve on his success rate. That will come through coaching and playing with top tier, experienced defenders.
Through analysis, we can see that Ake possesses all of these traits and has been subject to different defensive situations since his move. When watching him play, we can see that he uses his incredible work-rate to prevent the player from getting into dangerous positions by either pushing up when dealing with players in front of him or forcing wide players to the by-line before blocking their crosses. When playing against these types of attacking teams, defenders have a small margin for error making it imperative that they keep their concentration levels up. Ake’s understanding of space and timing is what separates him from his peers and makes him an excellent defender when the team has their backs against the wall.
One example can be taken from this fixture against Arsenal last season when Bournemouth were put on the back foot early on after going a goal down. Arsenal have traditionally been a team that holds 70% possession or more and look to dominate games. In this situation, we can already see a low, compact block with the Gunners committing close to six players in this attack. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is seen collecting possession in space and will look to cross the ball into Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s path. However, Ake is privy to the situation and looks to keep Aubameyang marked whilst anticipating the right time to move into the vacant space in front of him to intercept the cross. He is able to move into position early enough to easily deal with the low, fizzing cross into the six-yard area.
While he is better at defending in a unit than in 1v1 situations but doesn’t take away from his excellent defensive skills in those scenarios. What supports this notion is the statistics that show him attempting an average of 6.4 interceptions and 4.44 defensive duels per 90 (Wyscout) which is a defending player in a 1v1 situation trying to his attacking run. As we mentioned earlier, this is down to Bournemouth having to defend deep against better quality opposition. His immense acceleration and pace helps him track back in the event the opposition wingers or strikers get in behind or look to get into wide positions and drift inside bringing his 1v1 defending in to play.
Ake’s movement here against Aubameyang is a prime example showing his 1v1 defending ability and game intelligence. Mattéo Guendouzi plays a pass out towards Aubameyang who is forced out wide due to two Bournemouth’s players positioning. Ake is able to keep him in position long enough to the rest of his defence to get organised and deal with a cross if it isn’t blocked. He will look to try and push Aubameyang further back and towards the byline.
Here we can see Ake now in an excellent position to take on the Gabon striker whilst the rest of the team are perfectly in line to deal with any incoming threat. The gaps have been plugged and the outcome of this attacking move will be decided by Ake’s ability to stop Aubameyang from driving past him and crossing. The Dutchman forces him down to the touchline and uses his incredible work rate and tackling ability to block the cross. His reliability in defence gives Bournemouth a reassurance that Ake is able to deal with most situations and giving his team enough time to organise themselves to deal with other threats as a result of this.
Being a ball-playing centre-back makes Ake a valuable asset for any team that plays a possession based style. Bringing possession out from the back as a defender frees the players further forward to find space and get into position forcing the opposition to react to their movement. The ball-playing defender serves two purposes – one to relieve pressure to evade pressing teams and to build attacks in systematic fashion to open up opposition defences. Teams will usually employ a high-pressing system to limit the influence these ball-playing defenders have over proceedings. However, players like Ake will rely on their technical and tactical ability to play their way out of these situations. Against teams in the lower half of the table, Bournemouth revert back to their more natural possession based style that sees them control more of the game.
Ake boasts incredible technical skill on the ball that is borne from his Dutch heritage. He attempts 17.28 forward passes and 3.6 long passes per 90 (Wyscout). His forward passes, in particular, boast a 79.8% success rate and 51.5% for his long passes. While the numbers could be higher, he has been limited to 16 appearances this season having suffered a hamstring injury keeping him out for six weeks in late December. If we compare his numbers to Bournemouth’s two other central defenders in Steve Cook and Chris Mepham, we can see that Ake has the best statistics for passes into the final third as compared to his two teammates. Nonetheless, he has the lowest rate of long passes but a better execution rate and is narrowly second for forward passes. While Mepham has only played nine games this season, Cook has made a similar number of appearances as Ake this season. The young defender is keeping up with his teammates and can use this as a platform to improve his passing abilities.
Here we can see Estonia holding a compact, low-block shape against the Netherlands. This is a-typical of a team that wants to defend deep and frustrate the opposition and scavenge on rare opportunities to break forward on the counter. Ake’s position and role here is to find spaces between the opposition lines by making line-breaking passes that can eventually create opportunities for his teammates to move into. Patrick van Aanholt takes advantage of the space available in the wide area and wants to make a move down the left something that Ake notices.
The Dutch defenders long-ranged pass into the left-back is perfectly weighted and creates a large gap between Estonia’s defence and midfield. Not only does this give Van Aanholt an opportunity to attack in a 1v1 situation but opens up space for the likes of Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum to make runs into the box. Sometimes he will look to play a simple pass to the players in front of him to generate momentum and allow Bournemouth to become organised.
While passing and movement is the core crux of Ake’s ability to transition possession from defence to attack, perhaps his positioning and tackling is what makes him such an impressive defender. Being such a versatile player, Ake has had to play as a central midfielder due to Eddie Howe’s injury crisis in midfield. This hasn’t stopped Ake from playing his natural game further up the field, focusing on defensive positioning to protect his back four and provide Bournemouth with a platform to push forward. He rarely dives into tackles preferring to stay on his feet and time his tackles rather than lunge in to them. His 0.26 sliding tackles per 90 proves as much. Even if he does have to make them, he has a 60% success rate making his timing very good. What makes this even more impressive is his lack of yellow cards for playing in a position that is susceptible to bookings. He has averaged 0.05 yellow cards this season.
Against Tottenham Hotspur earlier this season, Ake was deployed in midfield and came up against a Moussa Sissoko in this situation. While the French international midfielder isn’t the most effective dribbler, he still possesses power and pace that carries him into the final third. Ake’s starting positioning is excellent as he is blocking the obvious pass to Dele Alli and forcing him to drive to his left. Bournemouth have cover and should be able to deal with the situation if Sissoko chooses to go there. Nonetheless, Ake doesn’t allow the midfielder any time to react as he times his tackle which results in him winning back possession and putting Bournemouth on the counter-attack.
Can Nathan Ake alleviate Chelsea’s defensive frailties?
Chelsea are in the market for a new defender after their defensive shortcomings in the first half of the season. With the transfer ban lifted, Chelsea are in search of a new central defender to compete against the likes of Kurt Zouma, Andreas Christensen, and Fikayo Tomori. Antonio Rüdiger’s return to full fitness has seen him make a difference but the indifferent form of Zouma and Christensen has seen Frank Lampard’s options diminish. Tomori has excelled but Lampard will need more than two reliable options at the back. Christensen, in particular, has disappointed having shown promise under Antonio Conte in his first season while Zouma has been inconsistent. The Blues hold the current top six’s worst defence, conceding 25 goals in their first 17 matches. The links with Ake make sense given his previous time at the club and experience in the Premier League with Bournemouth. So what do Chelsea see in Ake and how does he compare against Chelsea’s current defenders?
Chelsea’s defensive frailties are borne from a lack of concentration and discipline from the back four. Lampard’s team likes to aggressively press from the front and at times leaves space in behind the midfield exposing the back four to counter-presses and attacks. Individual errors have cost Chelsea with a lack of communication a key factor at times. Chelsea’s three games against Bournemouth, Tottenham Hotspur, and Southampton in December were prime examples of this. In each game, the opposition team had a lower xG than Chelsea yet Chelsea only managed to win one of those three games. Bournemouth had an xG of 0.66 against Chelsea’s 1.57 yet won 1-0. Against Southampton, they mustered 1.07 as compared to the Saints’ 0.77. In each of those occasions Chelsea were outdone by a couple of individual errors that led to the goals.
Here we can see Southampton pressing Callum Hudson-Odoi with Emerson on the overlap with the opposing team taking advantage of the space in behind. Jorginho has moved over to cover the space but isn’t quick enough to close down the attacker.
Tomori misjudges the pass into Michael Obafemi and sticks a lunging leg out to try and intercept the pass but misses the ball. This allows Obafemi to move himself into a 1v1 situation against Zouma with another Southampton attacker right behind him to create numerical superiority.
Zouma’s strength does not lie in 1v1 defending and it was shown here. Zouma allowed the Southampton striker space to continue on to his left side where there was no cover. This allowed him to drive into the penalty area and place his shot towards Kepa Arrizabalaga. This situation is one Ake has experienced on multiple occasions and would understand how to handle. Through the analysis I showed earlier, you can see how he fared against Aubameyang and how he handled that situation.
Both left-backs have flattered to deceive and remain a problem area for Lampard and links with Ben Chilwell and other left-backs are there for good reason. Ake seems like the perfect foil for Lampard with his versatility, work-rate, pace, and concentration a key factor in his recruitment. Being able to defend against counter-attacks and limit the space opposition attackers have will be a valuable asset to the defence. Being a left-sided player helps as Ake is able to slot in naturally at left centre-back and left-back giving Lampard more tactical options given he has two excellent right-backs in Azpilicueta and Reece James.
How does Ake stack up against Chelsea’s centre-backs? An apt comparison will be against Zouma seeing as he’d be competing with him for a spot alongside Rüdiger and Tomori. From the outset, we can see that Zouma and Ake differ in some ways. Ake has better interceptions, clearances, and engages in fewer fouls. This comes down to the fact that Chelsea play a possession brand of football against nearly every opposition they face, whereas Bournemouth are known to be selective in playing with this approach. This means Ake will have less of the ball and therefore the statistics seem to indicate that he is not as good as Zouma. However, we have to bear in mind that Bournemouth don’t employ a high press when defending against quick, possession-based teams. They tend to defend deep and look to intercept and clear balls from their 18-yard box.
Ake’s effectiveness comes more into play when off the ball in these situations. Positioning and maintaining team shape becomes much more crucial than active defensive tasks.
What lies ahead?
“Ake should have played for Chelsea by now. He’s so good. How often does he not score with his head? He has timing and insight. I hope they buy him back. That boy is perfect for them and he has played with Lampard.” – Piet de Visser
Ake was always destined for a bright future ever since his move to Chelsea the first time round. The Netherlands international’s journey to regular football was a long one but paved the way to the career he has now. He made five appearances with the Blues as a defensive midfielder across three seasons after joining the senior squad in 2012.
Ake underwent a positional transformation during the following campaign, making 23 appearances as a left-back on loan at Watford, along with a solitary start at centre-back. After yet another loan spell with Bournemouth, Howe decided to purchase Ake who has since flourished and started 91 out of 92 league games – 86 of those as a central defender.
His future lies at centre-back but his ability to play across a variety of positions will be a major asset to any club that wins his signature in the future. His abilities as a player can only improve and can become the mainstay for Chelsea if they decide to activate their buy-back clause.