How Ake went from Chelsea transfer target to Man City starter

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Nathan Ake Manchester City 2022-23Getty

Nathan Ake has already collected plenty of trophies and medals during his time at Manchester City but first-team opportunities have proven harder to come by. Stuck in a four-way battle for the two starting centre-back positions, the Dutchman has often been one of the pair to miss out.

Indeed, should he be in the line-up against Bournemouth on Saturday, it will be just the second time in his City career that he has started three successive matches.

When former club Chelsea showed an interest in re-signing him during the summer, he would have been forgiven for considering a return to Stamford Bridge, given Thomas Tuchel's need for defensive reinforcements.

A deal never materialised, though, with City reluctant to sell. So, while Raheem Sterling and Oleksandr Zinchenko both moved to London before the start of the new season, Ake ended up staying put.

An opportunity had already opened up by that stage due to Aymeric Laporte missing the pre-season tour of the United States in July with a knee injury, and John Stones being unable to travel after failing to meet entry requirements.

Ake impressed in the friendly wins over Club America and Bayern Munich and has started City’s first two games of the 2022-23 campaign: the Community Shield curtain-raiser against Liverpool, and last weekend's Premier League opener at West Ham.

While the meeting with Liverpool ended in defeat, Guardiola was given no reason to drop Ake for the trip to the London Stadium, and he is now set for a run of three consecutive starts for the first time since January.

“I am very happy at the moment," the Dutchman said. "Last season was already better than the season before. I had a lot more game time but also a lot more improvement from myself.

"It was nice to get back into pre-season, play a few games and get my rhythm again. I am very happy to play the first game, but it is only the start.

"We won, we played well I think, but there is so much more to come and hopefully I can continue doing this.”

When he signed from Saturday's opponents in August 2020, Ake was the left-footed central defender that could act as back-up and competition for Laporte.

A month later, Ruben Dias arrived to add strength and leadership, with the Portuguese making an instant impact at the Etihad. Significantly, the former Benfica man was utterly unfazed no matter which side of the centre of defence he was played on.

Stones' subsequent return to form, thus, saw Ake become fourth-choice, meaning a frustrating lack of opportunities to establish himself in Guardiola’s side.

Injuries didn’t help, with a hamstring strain ruling him out for more than three months during his first season, but in his first two years at the club, the Dutch defender started just 30 games.

Guardiola finds it difficult to leave players out when they show such commitment, which is why he maintains players can leave if they are unhappy with a lack of game-time.

The players know, we want happy players here," he told a news conference ahead of the game against Bournemouth.

"In the summer, there were rumours and maybe he had an offer, but it's not that I am happy now with Nathan because he is playing.

"I was always happy because you could not imagine how nice that guy is. I like to work with nice people and people I understand."

On players waiting for a chance to shine, he added: "Always be patient because the calendar is crazy. Tomorrow (Saturday), maybe if Kalvin [Phillips] and Cole [Palmer] cannot play, we have 14 players in the first team.

"Nathan always waited for his moment. That's why he's incredibly respected in the locker room. Team-mates don't like players that have one face when they play and another when they don't.

"Of course, he's sad when he doesn't play, that's normal. But in training and in the locker room, he's always been exceptional.

"With Aymer injured and John not able to come to the States, he played and played really well against West Ham."

But his place in the side has not been awarded out of kindness. Standards are extremely high at City and Ake has risen to meet them.

Now, though, he knows that he must continue his positive start to the season if he is to keep his place.

Playing centre-back at the Etihad is a high-pressure position, given defenders can often be left isolated and charged with shutting down counterattacks on their own, while they must also be comfortable in playing a role in building play from the back.

West Ham striker Michail Antonio is a striker that has caused City plenty of problems in the past but was he kept quiet in last Sunday's Premier League opener, and Ake played a big role in that regard, proving his worth to the team.

Had he been sold, it would have caused Pep a problem, as City would have had to go into the transfer market to find a replacement. And, as the failed pursuit of Marc Cucurella underlined, signing a player is rarely straightforward.

Ake's form, then, is a huge boost for Guardiola and if he manages to continue keeping the likes of Laporte and Stones out of the starting line-up in the coming weeks, it will mean that City will know for sure that they have a fourth top-quality centre-back on their books.