Nathan Ake happy to reward Pep Guardiola's faith at Manchester City

Defender reveals it was his coach's support that helped him turn his career around at the Etihad Stadium

Manchester City defender Nathan Ake with manager Pep Guardiola. EPA
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Nathan Ake says Pep Guardiola's man-management was the key to his transformation from an expensive flop into an integral part of Manchester City's treble-winning machine.

Talking in the aftermath of City's come-from-behind 3-2 win over RB Leipzig on Tuesday night – a result that confirmed them as group winners for a seventh successive year – the Dutch defender reflected on his own progress.

The 28-year-old, who has learned to play anywhere across the back line under Guardiola, knows better than most that success in football never come easy.

A teenage sensation back home, he was sidelined by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, went on loan to Bournemouth where he struggled to get a game for months before becoming captain and securing a big-money move to City.

A disastrous first season could have spelled an end to his dreams of major silverware but Ake is made of stern stuff and explained how his manager's faith changed everything at City.

“Keeping your feet on the ground is so important,” he said. “I’ve been around players who get carried away by things at an early age and then a few years later they are nowhere to be seen. You can never think you are there in football. Being humble is important.

“My first year here at City was tough. Injuries played a part and confidence went down, so when you do get in the team you start to try to overshow yourself and I did that. You try to do things you don’t normally do. That’s the wrong way to play, especially as a defender.

“Pep spoke to me at the end of that first season and told me to keep going and that I was going to be very important in the second season, especially as I can play in different positions. He told me to keep the faith and that made me think he still believed in me and straight away the confidence came back up.

“The second season was different and then last season was great for the team and for me.

“Istanbul and winning the Champions League final was a dream come true. Sometimes you still don’t realise what happened and what you really achieved because it goes so quickly and then you are straight back into a new season and just see the odd clip and picture to remind you.

“I think it's only after your career that you really start looking back and appreciating achievements.

“Istanbul was different to the previous final against Chelsea in Porto in the way we approached it. In Porto, we didn't have a team meeting planned after training there but Pep called one and told us to relax.

"Second time around we’d been there before. Obviously, there was a lot of pressure because we wanted to win but we had a calmer feel.

“We fought the whole season to get there, it’s tough to explain when that final whistle goes and you’ve won. Those last minutes were scary. You just want it to be over and when the final whistle goes all the pressure just falls off your shoulders. All that fight that you’ve put in all season is at an end. It’s a feeling you can’t describe or relive.

“In the end, there was relief because there was so much riding on the game in terms of the treble, a first Champions League for the club and for most of the players. After the game you are totally drained.”

Despite the treble and the 40-plus caps won for his country, Ake has remained the same level-headed and calm character that he was when his career started.

To be humble and gracious were mantras drilled into him by his parents as a young boy growing up in The Hague. It served him well as he made the switch to England as a teenager.

“People in Holland questioned my move to Chelsea at 16 years old but it only spurred me on to show them that there was more than one way to become a successful senior player,” he recalled. “I like challenges.

“But I got to 21 years old and was not really part of something at Chelsea and I took the decision to go to Bournemouth because I needed to play and develop. It was the right thing to do and Eddie Howe did a lot for me.

“He was always a great manager. We always tried to play our football. He is a man who was never afraid to make big decisions. I’m not surprised he’s doing well at Newcastle.”

Ake, meanwhile, is settled in Manchester with a young baby nearing her first birthday and a new contract extension signed just before the season started that will keep him at the Etihad until the summer of 2027.

“We like Manchester,” he told City’s official podcast. “Family is so important. There are a lot of Dutch players in the north west and at City the team is very easy to connect with each other.

“We do a lot of things outside football with our wives and little ones. That makes it easy to settle. The club has very good people in player care and they help everyone so much to settle in. Everything is done to make your life easy and your family life easy so you can concentrate on football. It’s very important.”

When he isn’t fully occupied with his wife, Kaylee, his baby or exercising the family dog, Ake is a big sports fan and has recently got hooked on Formula One after watching the Netflix TV series ‘Drive to Survive’.

“I watch every race,” he admitted. “I got to go to Silverstone and meet Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez and I felt like a child in the candy shop. It was crazy.

“I like tennis, too. You can learn a lot about mental strength from watching individual sports. I am following basketball and the NFL a bit more too. I am a general sports fan.”

And if he had any advice for teenage footballers looking to make the grade in the paid ranks he would just say: “Enjoy it. And if you can do that you will develop naturally. You have to realise at the 14-17 age range there are going to be many ups and downs in your journey and career.

"You have to learn to keep fighting and never give up. Keep working hard even when things are not going your way.”

Updated: November 30, 2023, 6:20 PM