London – When Nathan Aké walked into the Bournemouth players’ lounge after scoring an injury-time winner against Liverpool in a thrilling comeback in December, there was disappointment rather than elation fuelling his emotions. Aké was the hero, the on-loan star who has just delivered a landmark victory for Bournemouth in dramatic fashion, yet something was troubling him amid the celebrations.
“I scored a tap-in and, of course, everyone makes it sound like I played a great game and won us the match,” he says. “But I think you always feel it doesn’t matter how much people talk you up or down; you always feel what you’ve done yourself. And in that game I felt like the first Liverpool goal, and maybe a little bit the second, I could have done better. The next week I asked the manager, Eddie Howe, to watch the clips with me and we spoke about what I could have done.”
It is a story that encapsulates what Aké is all about and goes some way to explaining why they talk about his mentality in the same breath as his talent at Stamford Bridge. Aké is a dream to manage in that sense and Howe will not be alone in hoping to have that opportunity next season as Bournemouth join the queue of Premier League clubs trying to persuade Chelsea to part with a player who is set to win his first senior cap for Holland this week.
Aké has been named in Dick Advocaat’s squad for two friendlies and a World Cup qualifier, starting with Wednesday’s game against Morocco in Agadir, filling the 22-year-old with pride and bringing a smile to his face when the conversation turns to the fact the second of those three matches takes place on Sunday against Ivory Coast, the country that had been trying to convince him to pledge his international future to them.
“It will be weird because obviously my dad is from Ivory Coast and Marc Wilmots, the manager, called me, wanting me to come into their squad,” Aké says. “He gave me time to think about it and then he called again. I said: ‘I don’t know yet, it’s difficult to just make a choice like this.’ So we just left it like that and then I got called up by the Dutch national team. I think Wilmots knew, and everyone knew, the priority for me would be Holland because I got brought up there and I played in every age group.”
Aké’s next decision may not be quite as straightforward and concerns what he is going to do at club level. He has three years remaining on his contract at Chelsea, feels a great deal of affection for the club he joined from Feyenoord at the age of 16, and is highly regarded by staff and team-mates. Yet if the second half of the season is anything to go by – Aké started only one Premier League game after being recalled from a loan spell at Bournemouth – there is little prospect of him playing regular first‑team football for Chelsea in the near future.
While that may not have been such a concern for him in the past, Aké agrees that after making 34 Premier League appearances for Watford and Bournemouth over two seasons, he is probably beyond the stage where he is content to be wearing the Chelsea badge and sat among the substitutes every week.
“I know what you mean, because when I was 17, 18, 19, you are happy you are going to be involved, or be on the bench, or get some minutes. But I think at my age now, you want to play a little bit more, also because I had a taste of it,” he says. “Of course you also know this is a big club, so there will be big players and it’s not easy to come into the team. I just need to see what is going to happen with Michael [Emenalo, the technical director] or the manager. We have to talk and see what is best.”
Aké speaks highly of Antonio Conte, who surprised him when he made the phone call in January, asking him to return to Stamford Bridge. “I really like him. He called me in the office straight away on the first day, explaining how we play, where he sees me, which is more left-side centre-half, but in the centre if needed and sometimes as a left‑wing back. I think the first two weeks I still needed to adjust but after then you know everything you need to do because we’re so well drilled.”
When Aké joined Bournemouth last summer, the understanding was he would play as a No6, in a deep-lying midfield role, yet he had to wait until 19 November to make a Premier League start and when the opportunity did come, away at Stoke, it was at centre-half. He scored the winner that day, started the next seven Premier League matches and registered another two goals, including the one against Liverpool, leaving Howe bitterly disappointed when Chelsea decided to bring him back.
Aké’s versatility is clearly an asset, although he sounds as if he is coming round to the idea centre-back could be his best position in the long term. “At one point there was a problem with height,” says Aké, who is 5ft 11in but has a tremendous leap. “Not every manager trusts a young player to come in and play against the big, strong strikers you get in England, so that was the reason I got pushed into midfield a bit.
“With José Mourinho and Rafael Benítez I played in midfield, so at that time I thought that was my position. The season before last [at Watford] I was left-back, that is not where I see myself, to be fair. And then in the season that has just finished, I got a chance at centre-back and I think I handled it quite well. Sometimes I could have done better but it’s not that much of a problem and I feel quite comfortable now.”
Conte used Aké sparingly, with the highlight of his five appearances for Chelsea being the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur, when Gary Cahill’s absence through illness provided an unexpected opportunity. “I got thrown in and you’re starting against Tottenham, one of the best teams in the country, and it’s the semi-final of the FA Cup, so this was a test and I think it went quite well,” Aké says. “The manager told me before: ‘You need to know I trust you 100%.’ That gives you confidence. I played last season a couple of times against big teams, so I knew I had the level to do it.”
One thing guaranteed with Aké, no matter how long he has been out of the team, is that he will be in the right condition when called on. Driven by a desire to get to the top and stay there, Aké is not the sort to be spotted stumbling out of a nightclub in the early hours. The closest he has ever come to tasting alcohol is when Didier Drogba once chased him around the changing room with a bottle of champagne. “I don’t drink and I never have. A lot of people ask me why. But imagine if something goes wrong … I just want to make sure I’ve got nothing to blame, like: ‘I should have done this, I should have done that.’ I just want to focus on what I do on the pitch.”
As a picture emerges of a dedicated and well-mannered professional footballer – in Chelsea’s academy they still talk about the way Aké would greet everyone with a warm handshake and a smile each morning – he is quick to set the record straight. He also has his bad days, when things unravel.
“No one is perfect,” Aké says. “In the moments when you are not in the team, let’s say like at Bournemouth at the start of the season, you want it so badly and you want to prove to everyone you can play at this level. In training I had maybe two sessions where I didn’t train well at all. It’s not even like I can’t be bothered, because I always have the drive. But then when you are on the training pitch and you give a pass away or something it affects you more and your head starts to go. It doesn’t happen a lot but it does happen.”
In that situation, when frustration is building, Aké says knocking on the manager’s door and complaining about a lack of opportunities is not an option. “I would never do this. People always say: ‘You should talk to the manager, you deserve to play.’ I’m not really like that. I’m more like, if they want me to play, then they should play me. Sometimes of course you will ask: ‘What can I do?’ There was a time with Mourinho when I wasn’t playing and I just went to his office and asked what I could do to make his mind up a bit more about me, so he might give me a game. But I won’t come in and say: ‘I need to play.’”
It would be understandable, however, if Aké used those words this summer when he weighs up his future and thinks about his international prospects as well as his ambitions at club level. He is still part of the WhatsApp group that Chelsea’s loan players set up to share their experiences – “I haven’t deleted myself,” he says, laughing – yet another temporary move seems unlikely at this stage of his career.
“The main thing for me is to play games. Whether it is here, whether it is somewhere else, I don’t know yet. I need to see what Michael thinks. That’s what we need to discuss and see where we go from there.”
The Guardian Sport