There is a perception about the youth policy at Chelsea and its ineffectiveness at allowing their promising youngsters to flourish. Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Mo Salah all failed to receive significant minutes at Chelsea before moving and becoming stars elsewhere. More recently, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and now Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ethan Ampadu have shown significant promise but have seen their progress stalled by higher-profile signings. One name, however, has shown that it is perhaps a more viable option to gain playing time elsewhere rather than waiting for a chance, that player being Bournemouth’s Nathan Aké.
The Dutch defender had been an integral part of the success of Chelsea’s youth teams during the later years of the 2000s and appeared to have a bright future with the club. Being named Chelsea’s Young Player of the Year in 2012 and signing a new contract that lasted until 2018 had raised expectations, and high-quality loan spells at Watford and Bournemouth only added fuel to the fire. Aké had moved on loan to the south coast club ahead of the 2016/17 season and was one of Bournemouth’s star performers, showing his versatility to play either left back or centre back.
He endeared himself even further to the Cherries fans when he scored a late winner against Liverpool, with the team coming back from a 3-1 deficit to claim a dramatic 4-3 victory, the club’s first over Liverpool. Aké’s stay at Bournemouth was cut short, however, with Chelsea opting to recall the Dutchman in January and he featured prominently in their run to the FA Cup final later that season. An early recall from his loan seemed to spell the beginning of his career at Chelsea, especially as they were looking for a defender comfortable on the ball to replace the out of favour David Luiz.
And yet, there was to be no future at the London club for Aké, with a permanent move being agreed back to Bournemouth in the summer of 2017. It was a club record £20million fee, and, for Bournemouth fans, it felt like an easy deal. In Eddie Howe’s system, one in which his players are encouraged to play football in an positive manner, the defender has become one of the first names of the team sheet, often excelling as the left central defender of a back three.
As much as his ability is clear, it is often his versatility that has made him a firm fan favourite. The player himself sees his best position as defensive midfield, a position which he certainly has the attributes for, and that ability to fill in across multiple positions makes him an asset to both club and country.
With Virgil Van Dijk, Matthijs De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong seemingly covering the central defensive and defensive midfield positions for the Dutch national team, breaking into the Netherlands side more consistently may be a tough ask. Despite this, with the current fluidity that is being reintroduced to the Dutch side under Ronald Koeman, there may be opportunities for Aké to be in and around the squad. A player comfortable on the ball, confident playing across numerous positions and with a high football IQ? Aké certainly fits the stereotypical mould of a star Dutch footballer.
Aké’s recent successes have highlighted one of the major problems with being a youth player at an elite club. Whilst managers at these clubs may wish to integrate some of the clubs younger players into the team, there is always pressure being placed on their heads from social media fans and board members. It makes the decision between patiently offering youngsters regular first-team football or signing a player with more experience an easy one, and not in favour of the youngsters.
It is with this in mind that Aké represents the best option for the myriad of young players filling up underage squads throughout the top clubs in England. By opting to not stay within that system, Aké has removed himself from the future articles detailing young talents who got away and given himself the best opportunity to pursue a career in football he has the talent to have. Being a part of a club consistently challenging for silverware may be nice, but Aké is proving that there can be no substitute for regular football.