Interview: Nathan Ake on learning from Virgil van Dijk to help fix Manchester City’s defensive woes

Pep Guardiola’s £41m signing is benefiting from playing with Liverpool talisman for Holland as he prepares for new challenges at the Etihad

Nathan Ake of Holland, Virgil van Dijk of Holland during the UEFA Nations league match between Holland v Poland at the Johan Cruijff ArenA on September 4, 2020 in Amsterdam Netherlands.
Nathan Ake has been deployed as a left back by the Netherlands recently Credit: GETTY IMAGES

There were plenty of occasions last season when Manchester City supporters, exasperated by their team’s defensive problems and ruing the departure of Vincent Kompany and the loss of Aymeric Laporte to a long-term injury, must have looked longingly at Virgil van Dijk.

The Liverpool centre-back’s impact on Merseyside has been hard to overstate, the Dutchman forming the bedrock of the club’s march to a first domestic championship for 30 years, 12 months after helping steer them to European Cup glory.

Many of Van Dijk’s leadership qualities were in evidence in a video the Dutch national side posted of their captain on their social media feeds after a 1-0 win over Poland earlier this month and, while there was an inevitable rush among Liverpool fans to acclaim arguably the world’s best defender on the back of it, they were not the only interested observers.

Nathan Ake was operating at left back for Holland that night in Amsterdam but, while it may have afforded him an up, close and personal view of the towering figure to his immediate right, it did not prevent the defender from later sitting down on his own to watch that 59-second clip of Van Dijk constantly marshalling, organising, cajoling and communicating.

Having joined City from Bournemouth in a £41 million deal last month, Ake will hope to be part of a side that wrests the title away from Liverpool, a sea change from the relegation battle he fought and ultimately lost with his former club last season. Yet, as he talks about his ambitions and challenges ahead of a potential debut away to Wolves on Monday night, it is clear that Van Dijk has become a valuable reference point for a man Pep Guardiola hopes will help to ease City’s defensive frailties. 

“It’s more seeing it [from him than speaking to him about it],” Ake says of Van Dijk’s leadership. “Like with that clip the national team put out on Instagram with the way he was communicating. It’s those kind of things I’m trying to pick up and learn from. 

“The way he behaves on the pitch as a leader, always talking, always organising the line, helping the other people in front of him, I’ve picked up those kinds of things over the year and try to implement them in my own game and get that leadership.

“It’s not easy. In the last year especially, I tried to step it up at Bournemouth more on the pitch, and sometimes off it - things like organising the team, trying to pick them up in certain situations when the team wasn’t playing well, trying to give information, even in training sessions to get the team going. That is what Virgil does all the time, and that is what I have been trying to learn. I think I have got better over the last year. I still have things to improve but I’m sure I can do that.”

Speak to anyone who has worked with Ake and they will tell you the same things about him: dedicated, strong-willed, vocal and low maintenance. Ask him why he is tee-total and his response offers a neat illustration of his driven mindset. “It’s because I’ve always said to myself that I want to make sure I don’t have any regrets after my career and think, ‘I shouldn’t have done that or I could have gone that better’,” he explains. “I want to be able to say that is the best I could have done because I gave everything.”

Where Ake fits in Guardiola’s plans remains to be seen. Despite spending an eye-watering £365m on goalkeepers and defenders during his four years at City, the Catalan remains in the market for another centre-half and could yet be tempted to play a three-man back line with flying wingbacks if he lands one. But Ake is unfazed by the prospect of added competition in the position and says it was not a topic of conversation with Guardiola when he joined. “I think it was more about me at the time, I didn’t really ask about other things,” he said.

Equally, Ake said he sees no reason why he and Laporte, two left-footers, could not operate together and, while he would prefer a central role, the Dutchman insists he is comfortable at full-back. “You don’t really see it [two left-footed centre-halves] often but I played on the right side [of central defence] for Bournemouth in the last few games,” Ake said.

“Both [centre-back and left back are options] really. My preference has always been in the centre but everyone knows that I’m quite versatile and can play multiple positions so I’ll just have to see where the manager needs me and he knows he can put me wherever.”

Aymeric Laporte has become a key cog for the Manchester City machine Credit: Andy Hooper/NMC Pool

With Nicolas Otamendi seemingly on his way out, John Stones also facing an uncertain future and Eric Garcia wanted by Barcelona, the onus is on Guardiola to find a settled partnership and address the miscommunication and individual errors that cost City dearly last term. Ake should have an important role to play, the only downside about moving to Manchester being that he no longer has a beach nearby along which to walk his Pomeranian dog, Mallow. Still, the prospect of silverware should sooth that minor inconvenience for a player who was certainly in demand this summer.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Manchester United manager, was heard telling Ake he needed a left-footed centre-back after Bournemouth’s 5-2 defeat at Old Trafford in July and Chelsea had a £40m buyback option on their former player. Ake is reluctant to start discussing what might have been, beyond admitting there was “interest from others” but, for Chelsea supporters, it must be curious to see two players who were part of the club’s academy now lining up as expensive recruits for direct title rivals.

Kevin De Bruyne and Ake’s paths crossed at Stamford Bridge and the Belgian, the reigning PFA Player of the Year, is one of those who has been busy helping his new team-mate to settle.

“Kevin has been helpful - we were in contact when I was looking to find a house,” Ake said. “We know each other from Chelsea, even though that was quite brief in the end. It’s always good you can speak to someone you know.

“You never know what’s going to happen or how careers go but I’m just very happy I’m able to come to a club like this, to play with players like Kevin and for this manager as well and to learn from them. Nothing is scripted, you know.”

While Van Dijk is an obvious source of inspiration for Ake, it is another Liverpool and Holland player whose achievements the City defender hopes to mirror. Georginio Wijnaldum was relegated with Newcastle in 2016 but bounced back to win the Champions League and Premier League with Liverpool and Ake hopes to do similar with City. “I’ve not spoken to him specifically about that experience but it’d be nice if I could do the same,” he said.

“Obviously it’s a big step [from Bournemouth] and different expectations but I’ve been in those situations before, with Chelsea and the national team, where you’re expected to win so I know the feeling.”