Nathan Ake backs Netherlands to cope with great expectations going into World Cup

In the second part of his interview with 'The National', The Dutchman says the Oranje are going to Qatar to lift the trophy under the 'very direct' guidance of manager Van Gaal

Netherlands defender Nathan Ake celebrates after scoring during the international friendly against Denmark at the Johan Cruijff ArenA in Amsterdam, on March 26, 2022. EPA
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New dad Nathan Ake believes the Netherlands have what it takes to deal with the increased expectation levels going into the World Cup and is confident the team can go all the way in Qatar.

The Manchester City defender didn’t have long to get to know his new daughter – born last weekend – before saying goodbye to wife Kaylee and packing his bags for Qatar but he has had plenty of time to mull over recent international tournament disappointments and assimilate his country’s chances this time around.

Led by Frank de Boer, the Dutch flopped at Euro 2020 falling in the last 16 to the Czech Republic after topping their group with three straight wins.

That swift exit led to former Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal calling time on his retirement to coach the national side for a third time. The improvement has been reflected in results.

The Netherlands lost just once in ten qualifying games, winning seven and topping a group that included Erling Haaland’s Norway. They’ve also qualified for the Nations League finals.

They now compete in World Cup Group A, which is completed by hosts Qatar, Ecuador and Senegal.

Ake admits that despite the presence of the home side, the African Champions with or without injured star man Sadio Mane, and an Ecuador side that finished fourth in the South American qualifying section, the expectation will be that he and his colleagues win the group or at least move forward.

Ake has settled into the left side of a back five in a 5-3-2 formation that has seen the Dutch tighten up considerably defensively. The formation is a big contrast to what the 27-year-old is asked to fit into under Pep Guardiola at City but it doesn’t faze him.

“It is different,” he smiled. “Obviously the way we play here is different here to how we play with the international team. But we are used to each other now in the Netherlands squad. LVG has been our manager now for the last couple of years so we know the formation and what he wants from it.

“You just pick up those things again as soon as you go back to the national team. We all know exactly what we have to do so it is not so difficult any more to switch from club to country.

Nathan Ake says that Netherlands players 'know exactly what we have to do' under manager Louis van Gaal. AFP

“We go to Qatar with a long unbeaten run behind us. We are very confident. The last few games in the build up have been very good. We have been improving as a team. The manager has been hammering on about clean sheets before the last two games and we also delivered those [against Belgium and Poland].

“We can probably improve a little what we do on the ball. As a team I feel we are improving and we are feeling good. The manager is very direct so everyone knows exactly where they stand. That helps as well.

“I think people see us as favourites to qualify from our group but if you see teams like Senegal and the players they have in the team it is not going to be easy. Especially as they are our first game. After that game we can judge how we are going but that first game will be vital.”

The Netherlands have long been admired for their football and style, their hordes of orange shirted fans also light up every tournament they attend, but expectations have waned slightly since the heady days of consecutive silver medals in the World Cups of 1974 and 1978 – a position they most recently filled in 2010.

However, there is a buzz about the current crop even if they are more defensively minded than the great teams of the past.

“There is more expectation on us at this tournament than in recent years. I think everyone in the team is at a good age,” admitted Ake.

“We have experienced tournament football together at the Euros when we didn’t do great. As a team we expect a lot from ourselves going into Qatar. It’s difficult to say what success would look like but personally you go into a tournament to win it otherwise you may as well not go.

“It’s always a curious tournament to predict. Some teams start really well and fade. Others start badly and gradually improve. It’s all about making progress. That’s why I said the first game will be important and then we will grow into the tournament from there.”

Such is the international nature of club football these days it is highly likely that Ake will find City teammates blocking his path to potential glory at some stage and then there are the friendships with countrymen who are sworn enemies when it comes to the Premier League. It’s an odd environment.

“It is not difficult to separate club friendships and rivalry at a big tournament to be honest,” reckoned Ake.

“Virgil [Liverpool’s van Dijk] for instance is one of my best friends. Two weekends a year we have to play against one another and at that moment he is not my friend any more. Both of us want to win but once the game is over it is back to being friends.

“It is the same with teammates here at City. Before the game you say hello but during it is business. Most players find it easy to separate club and country.

"There might be an extra smile and a handshake during the pre-game formalities but that’s it. Then it is just focus. Everyone is so competitive. There will be plenty of stick after the game though depending on the result.

“The WhatApp groups might get a bit quieter but that will depend on who is doing well and who isn’t!”

Opinion is divided on whether the World Cup in the middle of the European domestic season will benefit players or not and Ake is of the opinion that the quality in the early rounds may be better than normal.

“Having a World Cup in the middle of the season might be strange but for the players it might be easier because we are already in the rhythm of playing so the quality from the start might be higher,” he said.

Nathan Ake says that international teammate Virgil van Dijk is one of his best friends despite the rivalry between their club sides Manchester City and Liverpool. AP

“One week it was Brentford at home in the Manchester winter [a defeat he missed due to his daughter’s birth] and a few days later we will be playing in the World Cup in the heat of Qatar.

"That change will be strange, too, but for the flow of form it will be good. At one point it might get too much but I’m not sure. We will see. I’m looking forward to it.

“Players at City – and we have a lot who are going – haven’t been focusing on the World Cup, we’ve been busy every three or four days trying to win matches in the Premier League and the Champions League.

"There’s not even been a subconscious thought there. There’s no time to think about something in the future. When you play any game at the top level you have to focus 100 per cent.”

Ake admits, however, that the World Cup was a hot topic for discussion with Guardiola and his teammates before a ball had been kicked in the Premier League and it caused a change in thinking and attitude.

“We spoke before the season about how the last few seasons we have started slowly as a team and then from November and December we started to kick on,” he revealed “We talked about not having that November and December time in the Premier League so it was important to start well.

“We consciously spoke about a fast start because you never know what shape teams will be in after the World Cup. I think we have done that fairly successfully.

“I don’t fear burnout,” he added. “As players you always want to play as many times as possible. I like games that come quickly because you stay in the flow and keep going.

"This season is going to be crazy because we have played twice a week since the start of it and then straight into the World Cup and back and play every three or four days again. Maybe this season will take a toll but time will tell.”

Updated: November 16, 2022, 2:51 PM