How could Nathan Ake fit at Manchester City 2020/21 – scout report
Manchester City have already begun signing players for the new season, and their second big arrival is Nathan Aké from Bournemouth. The Citizens paid a fee of £41m to bring in the Dutch centre-back. In this scout report, we will throw some detail on the player’s attributes and suggest how he can fit into Pep Guardiola’s tactics.
Aké joined Chelsea at the age of 15, but never got enough chances to be a regular at the London club. After playing under Eddie Howe for 121 Premier League games, Aké developed into an experienced player for the Cherries.
Aké’s heat map for the 2019/20 campaign can be seen below. As a left-footed player, it is very normal to see his activity focused on the left half of the pitch. The covered region is quite large, as he is also comfortable moving out to the flanks, having played as a full-back during his career as well. Aké has also spent time playing as a defensive midfielder, and so City are getting a versatile player who could do a job in quite a few roles for them.
In Guardiola’s teams, every player has to be able to move the ball into advanced areas. Bournemouth play in a similar way, which means that Aké already has some practice of playing in a progressive style. We compared the final 3rd passes per 90 and progressive passes per 90 of all Premier League centre-backs this season. These two metrics measure the ability of a player to initiate the attack and deliver the ball into dangerous zones.
However, Aké appears in the bottom-left quadrant of this chart; this means that his ability to make these passes is below the average for both indexes – 3.88 final passes per 90 and 5.6 progressive passes per 90.
To further check whether his team is a factor that attributed to these poor numbers, we compared his partner – Steve Cook with Aké. S. Cook has higher figures – 4.52 and 7.26. It seems Aké is not a very good progressor of the ball.
Another domain we are investigating is the aerial ability of Aké. It is important as City need their central defenders to defend long passes when the front players are pressing high. It is a concern given Aké is only 1.8m tall, even shorter than Nicolás Otamendi’s 1.83m.
The below scatter chart is a summary of the aerial performance of Premier League centre-backs. In terms of the number of aerial duels per 90, Aké is slightly above the average, but the success rate is too low – 47.33%, not even near the average.
How about the ability to regain possession? This will be important as well since City are a team looking for instant counter-pressing to dominate games. Regarding the defending of Aké, we have a scatter chart that summarizes the PAdj interceptions and PAdj tackles of Premier League central defenders.
Normally, if a player is outstanding in both metrics, he appears in the top-right corner. Aké stands on the top-left, this means he is good at making interceptions, but not tackling. This is completely fine as Guardiola does not teach or emphasize tackling.
Since Aké is regularly playing in the Premier League in 2016 for different clubs (Watford, Chelsea and Bournemouth), we compared his passing numbers to see whether a trend is observable. Indeed, we found one, but it is not too promising.
This bar chart recorded the average numbers of forward passes and final third passes per 90 for Aké in the last four seasons. A trend is clearly noted – the forward passes and final third passes decreased yearly, and he never reached the level of his debut season in the league. The drop of performance might be a concern for City, but we will show more of his traits through in-game examples to see how Aké can help City.
An upgrade to the defence
Without remarkable defensive numbers like Virgil Van Dijk, or even the likes of Ben Mee and James Tarkowski, there must be some reason for City to have spent £41m on this player. When seen on the pitch, we can gauge that Aké is quite good while defending, including his body shape and awareness. These are intangibles which cannot be reflected in metrics at the moment.
Aké is not a centre-back who always steps out, but when he does, he seldom commits himself fully. The Dutch centre-back seldom sprints in at full speed, as this would make it too easy to be bypassed. Instead, he keeps his knee bent to be able to change direction quickly if needed.
This is a vital attribute, as when getting out of the defensive line, spaces can be available behind and potentially can be exploited by opponents. We have seen Otamendi and John Stones being caught out in this manner and so Aké’s presence could plug this loophole.
In this example, Aké stepped out, but he soon realized that his midfielder is also pressuring the target, so there is no need to stick that close given the space behind the defence. Aké is always ready to change his direction if the situation demands.
In terms of marking or protecting a high line, the defensive habits of Aké are useful. The former Bournemouth player seldom sticks to the target/receiver tightly; instead, he keeps the distance, only challenging the ball after judging the situation.
As a defender, Aké does not have a strong body and physical qualities like Van Dijk or Kurt Zouma to be very aggressive. Some unnecessary physical contact should be avoided as this is a weakness of the player. And, for the team, holding his position is more important than leaving a gap in the defence, as these gaps can be exploited by runners.
In this example, his judgment and decision-making are good. Mason Mount receives the ball, and he is in a position to protect the ball with his body, but cannot turn yet, so Aké just keeps dropping and waiting for the situation to evolve. If Mount turns, the distance will help Aké to move in to tackle. If Mount does not turn, then the attack is not dangerous because of his closed body orientation.
Aké’s defending is quite good. Apart from constantly scanning his blindside (even when he is moving), the centre-back also has the calmness to deal with dangerous situations.
For example, this is a risky scenario as Aké is overloaded by two players; sticking to either target will open space for the other one. However, Aké is good enough to keep adjusting his position while dropping back, maintaining accessible distance to both targets while waiting to see where Reece James passes the ball.
Because of these passive but useful delaying tactics, Aké seldom forces himself into physical duels. The fouls per 90 record of this player is extremely low – 0.33, this is also decisive as City are not particularly good at defending set-pieces.
Regarding his defensive habits – bending the knees is a very good strategy of Aké, as this helps the player to change direction quickly. In this instance, the situation is similar to the above but there is a slight difference – James had already passed the ball.
Here, Aké reads the pass and quickly shifts to the central target. This shift has to be quick and perfect, or else the receiver could potentially release the third man (another target that was marked initially). Since Aké bent his knees, this movement, change of direction and speed is possible, and he manages to cover the receiver as well.
The last strong defensive quality of Aké we are showing is the ability to clear crosses. It can be a mismatch if Aké is forced to head the ball or compete with the striker in a physical duel. Therefore, it is of the essence for Aké to read crosses early, cover the area and clear the danger before the attacking players get to the ball.
In this example, Aké is doing his best to cover all possible angles of the cross. He places himself in front of the striker so as to meet the cross. When the carrier drifts to the byline, Aké is the first one to recognize the crossing lane, and thus dashes to this zone to clear the ball. This will be useful to City as the likes of Benjamin Mendy might concede a few crosses for the opponent, and they will need a defender who is adept at reading these and getting in front of the opposition striker to clear the ball.
Transitions and isolations
In 2019/20 campaign, City conceded a lot of goals from long shots. Although the responsibility is partly on the goalkeeper and partly on the defenders, the defence of the team should improve with Aké here.
During transitions, when the backline is exposed, the central defenders of City should minimize the threat by demonstrating their defensive qualities. Aké is very strong at blocking shooting lanes and avoiding being dribbled past.
For example, Aké forced Joelinton to use his weaker foot to shoot, while covering the near post for the goalkeeper in this example.
Another example, where Aké adjusted his orientation to limit the shooting angle of the opponent. The attacking player on the ball is Joelinton again. This time, the context is different given the ball is on his stronger foot, and there is a supporting player as well.
Aké seldom panics even in these 1 v 2 situations. He just did his best to cover the near post for the goalkeeper. Meanwhile, I am impressed to see that he kept his knees bent, which allowed the Dutch centre-back to change his direction and move to cover the supporting player if Joelinton did not shoot.
Given this ability to block shooting lanes, Ederson’s job might be easier next season.
As suggested by the numbers in the above analysis, the passing figures of Aké are not promising. But, why City are still bringing him to Manchester? This is because the potential of Aké to improve is too early to judge at this stage.
As a centre-back, Aké is good on the ball, willing to carry the ball forward and bypass the first line. Part of his passing stats are adversely affected by the team in general, as the Bournemouth midfielders always shut the passing lanes to a diagonal target between the lines, which made Aké’s job very difficult. Consequently, he had to choose a suboptimal target, such as the left-back, and this offers zero progression.
The below image is an example, where Philip Billing totally shuts the passing lane to the centre. Under pressure from Joelinton, he is still able to carry the ball out and pass to the left-back. Another point that impressed us is his awareness to drop deep immediately, which provides the offensive depth for ball circulation if needed.
At City, we believe Aké’s main role will be to operate in the half-spaces. He may even start as the left-sided centre-back in a back three, with a right-footed centre-back partnering Aymeric Laporte, potentially even Kyle Walker. Further, we may see João Cancelo play at right-back consistently if he manages to reach the level of performance he had while playing for Juventus.
Basically, Cancelo is the player to attack the wide zones now, which will release Riyad Mahrez closer to the opposition goal. Meanwhile, Raheem Sterling could be the isolated winger on the left, using his qualitative superiority to create something down this side. The closer proximity of Kevin De Bruyne, Mahrez and Cancelo to each other might work as a combination like Mendy, David Silva and Sterling on the opposite side.
Also, note the passes that Aké has to make in this system. This is a leap he has to make because merely playing readable and simple vertical passes will not be enough. City will need those diagonal passes to improve the attack. The one to De Bruyne is likely to be a line-breaking pass, and so Aké needs to improve his ability to pick the player between the lines. Meanwhile, the one to Sterling is also a diagonal pass, it is more related to non-verbal communication on the pitch as we are going to explain later on. Seizing the timing to release Sterling, City could create something from the 1 v 1 on the left flank. The one to Laporte is for ball circulation, not the most lethal but also useful.
Weaknesses and development
As a centre-back, Aké has very clear strengths and weaknesses. The above data analysis has identified aerial ability as a shortcoming of the player, which he will need to improve at City. As a reference, this is a scenario where Joelinton used his physical strength to dominate Aké, and the Dutch centre-back failed to win the ball back.
At City, flexibility is needed during the rest defence. Ideally, playing Rodrigo Hernández with Aké can ease this issue as the Spanish international has the aerial ability to compete with the target man. Aké only has to provide defensive cover for his teammate.
In terms of passing, Aké needs to improve his accuracy and decisions to facilitate better attacks. For example, using the direction and speed of the pass to tell the receiver what he should do next. The pass below is sloppy even if it is accurate, as it travelled to the back-foot of the receiver, despite Aké not being under pressure when making the pass. Mendy at City would not be happy to receive a pass like this. In a team like City, every detail is important and this is an attribute that Aké needs to improve.
Although Aké is definitely an unimpressive player in terms of numbers, his skills come to the fore when you watch the Dutch international. Other than a tactical standpoint, what impressed us is the professionalism of Aké, according to his former coach and former teammates. The Dutchman centre-back also has a strong mentality and the right attitude to push himself to be a better player. Since Fabian Delph joined Everton in last summer, City will need another voice in the locker room, and probably Aké can fill this role as well. He is not yet the perfect option for Pep, but we believe that improvements are possible.
As we have shown in this tactical analysis, Aké possesses some defensive qualities that Otamendi and Stones do not have. Although he might not be starting as a centre-back regularly, his adaptability to different positions and availability across a campaign will be a reinforcement for Pep’s team.