Making Sense Of Nathan Ake To Manchester City

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On the face of it, Manchester City buying Nathan Ake for £41 million can look like just a very expensive purchase of a backup centre back. For many people it is hard to justify putting up that kind of money for, in theory, a player who could just provide an alternative option to Aymeric Laporte, should he be left out or unavailable.

However, when you start to factor in some of Ake’s characteristics, and some of the other circumstances surrounding the deal, it makes a lot of sense for City. If we start first off with the fact that Ake is a Premier League experienced player and Bournemouth were, until a few weeks ago, a Premier League club then the price stops looking quite so steep.

Premier League clubs, with the huge amounts of money they receive, tend to be in a strong financial position to hold out for a transfer fee closer to where they value their key players rather than where the buying club value them. You saw this with Crystal Palace and Leicester holding out for big offers for Zaha and Maguire last summer. Of course in the end Man United paid up for Maguire while Palace were happy to keep their man with no bids meeting their demands.

On top of that, there is the value that comes with experience in the Premier League. It’s easier to gauge how a player will transition into a new team when he isn’t also moving to a new league and new country. That obviously makes the top English clubs willing to shell out more for the best players from further down the Premier League table.

Now, it is easy to say that because Bournemouth have been relegated Man City should have been able to negotiate the price down further than £41 million. However, if you remember back to last summer, Bournemouth were reportedly asking for almost double that when Leicester were considering him as a replacement for Harry Maguire, so the £41 million is already factoring in Bournemouth losing their Premier League status.

Moving onto how Nathan Ake fits into the Manchester City squad, I suspect it will be more complex than simply being a backup to Aymeric Laporte. We already know he can play as a left back after he played the position earlier in his career, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him deployed there at times. For Man City that is particularly key, as it’s a position of relative weakness in their current squad.

It also opens up the possibility of Pep using a three at the back setup. Maybe not even out of possession, but when City have the ball Ake could tuck in to form a three with the two central defenders, allowing the right back to push up the field. We might see this when Cancelo is starting at right back as he is much more effective when playing closer to the opposition box than his own. That’s even more so than the typical modern fullback.

Another trait of Ake’s, on top of his experience and versatility, that made him an attractive prospect for City is the fact that he’s left footed. Having a left footer playing as the left centre back is a useful dynamic for teams that put an emphasis on building attacks from the back. Not only does it make the pass out to the left back a safer option, but it opens up a greater variety of passing lanes to progress the ball up the field.

Ake being a left footed defender also puts a more favourable slant on his price tag. If you’re specifically looking for a quality left footed option for the centre of your defence then your options are more limited straight away. If you’re also looking for one with Premier League experience then your choices are whittled down to less than a handful.

Left footed centre backs are scarce, even moreso at the right age. Nathan Ake, Aymeric Laporte, Kortney Hause, Tyrone Mings and Jack O’Connell are the only ones in the PL this season with 900+ minutes and under the age of 28. If you want a PL experienced CB, it’s a small pool.

All of that makes this sound like an excellent move for City, and overall I do think Ake is a great addition to their squad, even at the price of £41 million. With that being said there are some more questionable aspects of this transfer that we’ll need to watch closely and see how they play out. One of the major ones is if he will be used alongside Laporte at any point.

Very rarely do we see centre back partnerships where both of the defenders are left footed. I’ve already mentioned the benefits of City having another left footed centre back, but they are almost always used on the left side where they partner a right footer on the other side. While there are plenty of centre back duos made up of two right footed players, left footed central defenders tend to have very little experience playing on the right side and lefties are typically more one footed than their right footed counterparts, or so I’m lead to believe.

So that’s one dynamic to look out for, another is whether or not Ake not being particularly strong in the air causes problems for City. In the 2019/20 Premier League season Nathan Ake won just 53% of his aerial duels, a low rate for a centre back. For comparison, Laporte sits at a win rate of 67%, and that’s still a way off the best defenders in this department who manage to win around 80% of their aerial duels.

Of course that can be a problem when trying to defend your own box, but also it makes it easier for opponents to bypass your press with long balls if their strikers can dominate your defenders in the air. We’ve seen how effective having aerially dominant central defenders has been for Liverpool who have the best two in the Premier League in this area: Matip and Van Dijk.

On the whole though, I think this is a smart buy for Man City. We all saw that this was a position of weakness for them last season, plus they struggled badly without Laporte. Now they have an excellent ball playing centre back who can fill in for him should be out of the starting lineup. As for the price, when you factor in Ake’s qualities, his age and Premier League experience then it seems fairly reasonable. What many people may not find reasonable however, is a club spending £41 million on a backup player in the first place, but that is a debate for another time…

Originally published at http://jackmccutcheon.com on August 6, 2020.

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