Nathan Aké: Gullits hair, Terry’s successor and in the mould of David Luiz
Despite the eleven major trophies to have crossed the threshold at Stamford Bridge since Roman Abramovich’s helicopter landed in South London in 2003 no-one has managed to emulate John Terry. That is not in the sense of gate-crashing a Champions League final victory, or even throwing a final away, no this is far more important than that. Terry is the last Chelsea player to graduate from the club’s academy and become a true first-team regular. Many have tried and failed and many, namely Ryan Bertrand are still trying. 18 year old Aké is perhaps the best placed that any of them have been and he might be the man to answer Chelsea fans’ calls for a player produced at the club.
Born in The Hague in South Holland Aké started his club career with ADO Den Haag before joining Feyenoord, the club where Chelsea signed him from. Of course being Dutch he will always have nationality as a key difference with club legend John Terry but such is the lack of home grown talent that Chelsea fans really aren’t too bothered what nationality their latest starlet is. Aké’s reputation at Stamford Bridge as a potential star of the future was already confirmed long before Rafa Benitez’s arrival but the Spaniard was so impressed with what he saw from the youngster that he elevated him into his squad of 18 for match days.
It was on Boxing Day 2012 against Norwich City that Benitez saw fit to throw his young talent on for his first taste of Premier League action although the circumstances did seem strange. Just three days earlier Chelsea had demolished Aston Villa 8-0 at Stamford Bridge and were three goals up by half-time. Despite their clear control of the match Aké remained an unused substitute as club stalwart Paulo Ferreria was preferred. Nevertheless it was during the 1-0 win at Carrow Road that Aké made his debut, being brought on as a 90th minute substitute for match winner Juan Mata. Clearly this gave the youngster no time to make any sort of an impact but in a way I can see why managers do this. It may seem pointless to the fans but for the player they can get those first few nervous minutes out of the way. That being said Benitez clearly had no intention of playing Aké again because a further eight matches went by before he featured again. This time it was away at Middlesbrough in a FA Cup 5th round tie but here Aké started and completed the full 90 minutes, putting in a composed performance providing the perfect partner to the energetic Ramires.
He then went out of the picture due to commitments with the Chelsea youth squad who were competing in the NextGen series. Chelsea’s youngsters made it all the way to the final (confirming their place as one of the finest youth squads in the country) before succumbing to Aston Villa in the final. Despite their eventual loss Aké was one of the stars of the tournament, really shining for Chelsea.
By this stage Aké, who’s hair has drawn comparisons with former Chelsea and Holland legend Ruud Gullit, was making quite a name for himself in the English media. Such are the shortcomings of English youth at Chelsea that the media had little option but to big up Aké and as of yet he doesn’t seem to have been fazed by the attention. People often lament clubs like Chelsea for the way they poach youngsters at a young age and restrict their playing time but one thing they do learn is how to deal with pressure. Clubs like Manchester United have a more illustrious history than Chelsea but the way the London club attract headlines and media attention means that their young players will learn from a young age how to handle the press. Players like Josh McEachran and Nathaniel Chalobah come across very well in interviews and they both speak with great humility. Aké is no different and in an interview with The Evening Standard he said “Things have changed quickly, I didn’t expect to be in the first team already. I can’t believe it but I will have to keep working to stay here.” Determination is something Aké seems particularly keen to show and to demonstrate. In an interview with The Daily Mail in February Aké highlighted the mental side of his game saying, “My strength is my mentality, I am determined and focused.”
It was in this interview with The Mail that Aké spoke of how the player he compares himself with at Chelsea is David Luiz. The Brazilian was turned into a makeshift defensive midfielder at Chelsea by Rafa Benitez following the injury to Oriol Romeu and John Obi Mikel’s international commitments with Nigeria at the African Cup of Nations. Many believe this could well be a better position for Luiz because of his superb passing and his dangerous long range shooting. Aké may not possess these headline stealing traits yet but he still has time to develop these abilities. I see him as much more of an anchor man as opposed to the more offensive minded Luiz who does like to roam forward more. In a team that can boast the attacking prowess of the likes of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata having a truly defensive minded player in the midfield might be a good thing. Even if Frank Lampard does start to sit deeper as his legs grow older he will always make those marauding runs into the box. Luiz’s defensive awareness has improved no end in recent months but if Aké is developed correctly at Chelsea he could become a truly world class player in that position, the attributes are all there.
In terms of the immediate future Aké, Chelsea and Jose Mourinho are now left with a difficult decision, one which plagues a lot of the top teams. The decision is namely this, does Aké go out on loan, probably to another Premier League or Championship side in order to gain match experience or does he stay with Chelsea and keep playing the odd game here and there. As far as Aké is concerned the choice is obvious. He told goal.com that he would prefer to stay at Chelsea because he enjoyed being around the big name players and gathering experience from training with them. He cited his height as one of the reasons he felt he would end up playing in midfield and given the physical nature of the Premier League you can see his point.
At international level he has captained both the Netherlands’ U17 and U19 sides but he is playing at a time when Holland are producing a number of very talented players. Unfortunately for Aké central defence and central midfield are two areas in particular where the Dutch youth sides look particularly strong. Nevertheless he is a player with a lot of potential and he has looked assured in games he has featured in so far. He displayed a good level of intelligence with his distribution against Middlesbrough and his passing is impressive if not spectacular. One area he will need to work on but that will come with time is his concentration which he himself has admitted is an area he struggles in. With more game experience and a general maturing Aké seems well set to become a mainstay at Stamford Bridge and could even become a future captain.
This piece is written by Pete Sharland, a Chelsea fan currently studying History down in Southampton. Like so many others he is looking to forge a career in the wonderful world of football journalism. Outside of England he has an unhealthy obsession with Stade Rennais and is a keen follower of Parma as well. A writer for various sites, who has been featured on Sabotage Times, Squawka Sports and Back Page Football amongst others, Pete prefers not to specialise and covers the game in all countries from all countries. Furthermore, he is editor of Off The Post News and presenter of Surge Radio. You can find him at Twitter: @Psharland55 .