November promises to be quite a month for Manchester City and Netherlands defender Nathan Ake.
In the next three weeks he will become a father for the first time and within days, in Qatar, he will make his debut in a World Cup finals.
But none of it fazes the 27-year-old defender for whom this season promises to be his best so far.
The Hague-born defender, who arrived at The Etihad Stadium via Chelsea and Bournemouth, is already a two-time Premier League title winner under Pep Guardiola but is hungry for more and is this season enjoying an expanded role in City’s title defence and quest for Champions League glory.
In an exclusive interview with The National, he revealed that for all the beautiful football and hundreds of goals (600 + under Guardiola and counting) City score, nothing irritates his current manager more than not keeping clean sheets.
“Pep is very hard on defenders,” smiled Ake. “We do a few drills in training on defending. He’s not just attacking, attacking, he’s very good with defending as well. The United game [when City won 6-3 but gave up three goals in the second half] he wasn’t happy. He doesn’t take it lightly.
“He’s very specific, tactically he knows exactly what he wants. Some people take it in quickly, some it takes a little bit longer, for me maybe it took a little bit longer, but once you get it you get it.
“He watches the games [of the opposition] over and over and he will see where the spaces are, the way we have to play. We have our own style, of course, but we adjust a little bit sometimes to the opposition so over the years you start to understand that if we have this game you play like this, for that game you play like that, game by game you start to understand more.”
Ake endured a tough time of things last season. He lost his father, Moise, to cancer just minutes after scoring in the 6-3 win over RB Leipzig but has battled through that personal loss and injuries to be at the forefront of his manager’s thinking.
He’s started the biggest games of the season so far against Man United, Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund. And has proved his versatility and reliability from central defence and left back. He also believes that he has improved markedly since his £40million move from Bournemouth.
“I have learnt a lot, on the ball and off the ball, tactically, the way I present myself on the pitch, everything has changed a little bit,” he said.
“The first season at City wasn’t a very good season for myself, with injuries and performances. After all those injuries you try to overshow yourself, over perform, because things weren’t going well at the start. But with that you’re going to do stuff you don’t normally do and start to make mistakes, so you have games you don’t normally have.
“I think last season, naturally, with games and with time, it already got better and I felt more confident on the pitch, I showed more of myself and what I’m normally about. This season has been even better. It has gone pretty good and pretty automatically.”
Ake has also got used to Pep’s rotation policy that means you could be man of the match one week but sit on the bench admiring your teammates the next.
“At the start it [rotation] was maybe difficult because you feel that he thinks you might not be playing well, but then you understand,” he reasoned.
“Pep said it to me, 'when you come to City it’s about the team performance'. Everyone he has in the squad he trusts to play in every game and he wants everyone to do it together. If one guy doesn't play for two games he could then be very important in a Champions League semi-final. You can never be too down if you don’t play one or two games and never be too high if you do play. It keeps everyone sharp.
“Everyone knows each other very well, everyone has played with each other before, say one game you play with Dias, the next with Akanji, then with Laporte or Stones. It’s all quite similar, everyone knows what to do. In training we switch a lot of times, you play with everyone in training and in games everyone has played with everyone.
“It’s not like you play 20 games with someone and then you play another game with someone you’ve never played before. Everyone knows each other so it’s not too difficult.”
Ake is also convinced that playing in central defence gets easier as you get older and wiser. He believes he’s now entering his peak years.
“You deal with situations differently as you get older. You handle them better, and you read the game better. It comes with experience,” he said.
“Pep always makes sure that we know we are central defenders first and foremost. Of course we have to start attacks and stuff, but you have to defend the goal, still make sure you keep a clean sheet.
“When you have situations when we are attacking and attacking and attacking we have to stay switched on.”
Ahead of their pre-season tour to the United States this summer, City hired comedian Troy Hawke (Greeters Guild) to have a few laughs with players as they arrived at the airport.
Bedecked in a purple smoking jacket, the self styled greeter met Ake with "you have the poise of an apex predator and the eyes of a kindly woodland creature".
The resulting video has been viewed more than 25 million times and made everyone smile but the comic had a serious point. Ake is the ultimate professional while being a likeable human being.
“To be honest, I had no clue what he was saying,” laughed the player. “I thought he was a fan saying hello to the guys. I was ‘thank you, yeah’. After I watched it back I was like ‘ah, now I understand’. Now I see him everywhere. He’s a funny guy.
“I don't know if I’m the nice guy, I just try to be myself. On the pitch and off the pitch you can change a little bit. On the pitch, you’re harder and don’t really care, but off the pitch, I try to be more myself.
“I like to socialise to be honest, especially at the club, I like to know people and understand people. At our club it’s quite easy, everyone is very nice, the staff, the players, everyone gets on really well with each other, it’s easy to be yourself.”
That openness and camaraderie at the home of the champions is something that Ake admits took him a bit by surprise.
“I never thought there was going to be such togetherness. I’m sure a lot of people say it about their clubs, but it’s actually true,” he said. “Before you arrive you think there are a lot of stars, maybe it’s not going to be the same as Bournemouth because in Bournemouth there are a lot of English people and everyone bonds together easier.
“I thought maybe there would be more cliques, like languages together, but when I arrived here it was eye-opening, everyone was so nice, the staff, the players are very good with each other, there are no real groups, everyone is together. It surprised me a little bit, but a good surprise. We’re very competitive and direct in everything we do.”
Guardiola is also sure the depiction of Ake as one of football’s nice guys isn’t misplaced.
“He is so reliable, especially when you behave in life like he does,” praised the City chief.
“In the bad phases he is always helping. When he doesn’t get the minutes he deserves, and then gets the minutes, he is always thinking about his teammates and has done well.
“He is an exceptional person. The older I get, the more aware of this kind of behaviour I am. Your life is better when you behave like this. Nathan is so focused, so concentrated. He is an intelligent guy. It’s a joy to have him. He always trains well and is loved by the team.”
Part 2 of the interview will be out before World Cup 2022.