There have been many young stars who have failed to make the cut at Chelsea over the years – Kevin De Bruyne and Daniel Sturridge to name just two – but, and whisper it quietly, that is a pattern that could be about to change with Gullit-lookalike Nathan Aké writes Sam France.
The young defender, 19, has turned down numerous loan offers and has made several first-team appearances, evidencing a will to succeed and to better himself that belies his precocious youth. He signed a new contract with the Blues last summer, so his future is guaranteed until 2018; with new addition Kurt Zouma, he could form part of a fearsome future defensive lineup.
Having started his career with ADO Den Haag, Aké made the step up to Feyenoord as a twelve year old and remained there for much of his development. Varkenoord, the Feyenoord youth academy was voted the best youth set-up in the Netherlands during Aké’s time there, and some of its recent graduates include Robin van Persie and Norwich’s Leroy Fer. He moved on again after four years at the club having broken into the Dutch under-15 and under-16 squads, and has continued to represent his nation at every youth stage up to the Jong Orange (under-21), however he is yet to receive a full international call-up.
Aké’s first Chelsea start came against Championship side Middlesbrough in last year’s FA Cup, and it took some a while to realise that the wild-haired youngster in the centre of midfield was a teenager rather than Brazil’s David Luiz. It was not just a matter of the hair; Aké’s performance was composed and fluent, and although he did not set the world on fire, in his position that is just what you want – he was barely noticed, but passed the ball like a veteran and constantly broke up the attacks of a pacey, highly-motivated young team at a packed Riverside Stadium. He was entrusted with the same position in the Europa League quarter-final against Rubin Kazan, so then-manager Rafa Benitez must have had a great deal of faith in the youngster. His first European appearance ended in defeat, but an aggregate victory eventually saw Chelsea lift the Europa League trophy – Aké was an unused substitute in the final.
He clearly has a bright future, but there are some question marks about his best position. Throughout his youth, he has been mainly used in a purely defensive capacity, but given his size – only 5’11” – he may not be suited to the physical nature of being a Premier League centre-half. He has been deployed on the left of defence, a position soon to be made vacant by either the departure or possibly retirement of Ashley Cole, but his passing and reading of the game would be wasted out wide. It seems that his best position is the ‘Makelélé’ role, but it is a position occupied by Nemanja Matic and sometimes Ramires. Getting into this Chelsea side will be no mean feat.
With his position already well-filled, a loan spell would seem a good option with the window fast approaching. Vitesse Arnhem and Middlesbrough are Mourinho’s preferred destinations with links with both clubs, but Aké has reportedly demanded his choice of club. He clearly has the confidence and the mentality to make it at the top, but does he have the ability? At this point in time, there are few who would bet against him.