Vincent Kompany officially left Manchester City on July 1, 2019. That day marked not only the end of an era, but also the last time there was genuine trust in the club’s center back depth. City still boasted the second-best defense in the Premier League this season, but you couldn’t find a fan that didn’t break out into a sweat when an opponent had a free run at the backline on the counter. While the season long metrics are not all that different from previous campaigns, the long term absence of Aymeric Laporte and a habit of compounding mistakes resulted in a schizophrenic defense. Drastic swings in form led to seven matches with at least 1.50 expected goals conceded, up from three in the previous season and zero in 2017-18.
This inconsistency obligated City to reinforce the backline, particularly in central defense, and the first domino has fallen in achieving that objective. In walks Nathan Aké, the 25-year-old left footed center back brought in for €45.3 million to inherit the role of Laporte’s backup. If the current iteration of City’s backline is defined by inconsistency, the newest member of that group provides a reliability that is sorely lacking and exactly what Pep Guardiola’s team needs.
Aké’s numbers don’t jump off the page, but it’s remarkable that he’s sustained league average defensive metrics along with respectable distribution given the circumstances surrounding him. Bournemouth’s problematic spiral began a few seasons ago and while Eddie Howe’s desire to play attractive football is commendable, he’s been grappling with a roster that’s increasingly incapable of fulfilling his ideals. Bournemouth have had a harder time controlling games with each subsequent season in the Premier League, a downward trend that has seen possession crater to 43.8% and shot totals reach a five year low.
The defense was similarly inept, hell bent on pressuring upfield but hopelessly unable to succeed at it. Only Southampton applied pressure in the attacking and middle thirds more than Bournemouth, though the Cherries’ success rate on these defensive actions was third-worst in the league. Struggles on both sides culminated in a team unable to sustain its own possession and contain opponent possession alike. This may appear as an indictment on Aké, but the Dutch defender was actually the stabilizing force within an otherwise sinking ship.
The ease with which Bournemouth are often played through regularly presented Aké with the tenuous decision of whether to close the space between the backline and midfield, or retreat as opponents quickly carve through his teammates ahead of him. Luckily, Aké combines an innate game awareness with sneaky acceleration that allows him to expertly track attacking runs and also spring into the midfield to disrupt passes between the lines. Aké managed to successfully navigate these high leverage defensive situations with few mistakes on his name, only committing two errors that led to a shot (neither which ended in a goal) and conceding just a single penalty in four years at Bournemouth. His ability to defend on both the front and back foot while on the move is critical to his success with a City team that primarily defends in the counterpress or fast paced transitions.
Guardiola’s attraction to Aké is not only for his defensive acumen, but his positional versatility as well. Throughout his years under Howe, Aké deputized at left back on five occasions and as a defensive midfielder in an additional three. There shouldn’t be an expectation that he’ll feature regularly at either position unless Txiki Begiristain forgets to buy a left back this offseason, but too much cover is never a bad thing. Furthermore, Guardiola constantly looks for tactical wrinkles to throw at opponents and Aké provides a suitable candidate to fill in at left back when his mad scientist tendencies kick in. The Dutch national could occupy the inside fullback role and opens up the possibility for asymmetric backlines with an advanced right back opposite a centrally shifted Aké while in possession.
The ability to play that assortment of positions usually coincides with strong technical skill and Aké is no exception. He is clean on the ball and his 88.1% passing percentage ranked 20th in all of the Premier League this season. Bournemouth’s struggles provided few opportunities to show off his abilities as a distributor but when given the chance, Aké proved to be a catalyst for attacking progressions. His 38% involvement in expected goal buildups, according to SmarterScout, represents an influence unmatched by any of his center back colleagues Steve Cook (27%), Chris Mepham (35%) and Simon Francis (19%).
Aké also shows a natural inclination to dribble into the teeth of the defense from the center back position. He regularly reads the body language of opposition front lines and subverts their expectations by driving into any forward space conceded rather than deferring to the obvious passing channel. This tendency may intrigue Guardiola considering how often opponents resort to uber-defensive tactics that feature nonexistent pressure on City’s center backs. Aké may be more suited than any other central defender currently on the roster to punish this lack of direct ball pressure with an incisive dribble that could do just enough to tease out a compact low block.
By any measure, City are the most prolific offense in European football and Aké’s play from the back supports a preference to find chances from open play. Only Tottenham and Manchester United get a smaller percentage of their shots from set pieces and though it’s unlikely that Aké increases City’s reliance on dead ball opportunities, he is a significant threat to increase their effectiveness on them.
Of the many things Aké provides, his goal scoring ability is the cherry on top. He netted 11 goals across the last four seasons, the most among all Premier League center backs in that span. You’d imagine his prowess is due in large part to superiority in the air, and while Aké is more capable in the aerial duels than his 5’11” frame would suggest, 5 of those goals actually came with his feet. He has a predatory instinct in the box that few defenders can match and his ability to sniff out dangerous areas to poach rebounds has saved Bournemouth in a couple late game situations.
A holistic look at Aké illustrates a defender strong in every facet of the game, though not spectacular in any of them either. Factor in his reliability and you don’t have to squint hard to see why Guardiola viewed him as the perfect understudy for Laporte. The club’s desire to secure his signing at all costs is reflected in the price tag because €45.3 million for Aké from a relegated team in a pandemic-stricken market could be considered just a bit rich. But City may have been inclined to pay a surplus to make sure Chelsea didn’t sneak in to activate their right of first refusal clause at good value.
Either way, can you really put a price on piece of mind? It’s clear that Guardiola views Aké as a player who can restore some of that trust in his center back depth that hasn’t existed since the day Kompany left. Is he the answer to all of City’s defensive woes? Probably not, but there is still enough untapped potential in Nathan Aké that could flourish within City’s system that he could grow into so much more than a depth piece.