It would be unfair to suggest that Tottenham Hotspur’s victory over Chelsea a fortnight ago has damaged the latter’s hopes of lifting the Premier League title, but nevertheless there has been a gradual – albeit largely unspoken - decline in the performances of Antonio Conte’s side over the last month. An inevitable slowdown, a seizing up of limbs and minds, had begun long before Spurs ended Chelsea’s 13-match winning sequence at White Hart Lane.
Even at the peak of Chelsea’s remarkable run of form, when watertight defending and ruthless finishing briefly catapulted the Blues into a nine-point lead over their nearest rivals, anxieties surrounding squad depth and tactical depth have hovered over Stamford Bridge. When the secrets of Chelsea’s 3-4-2-1 are discovered, and when the first 11 burn out, how will Conte adapt?
Brief interludes in which Diego Costa or Nemanja Matic were absent have eased concerns over the malleability of their attack, but the biggest question mark has always been in defence; the creaking legs of Gary Cahill and the makeshift scurrying of Cesar Azpilicueta suggest that season-long defensive resilience is unlikely. John Terry’s red card against Peterborough - the desperate lunge of a man wheezing through his final days in blue - only added to the sense that Chelsea’s back line is in need of a revamp.
Nathan Ake, recalled from his loan at Bournemouth, is the answer. A fresh new signing at zero expense, Conte has become the first Chelsea manager to use their controversial loan policy to the club’s advantage. The 21-year-old has only started eight league games for the Cherries in 2016/17 (having struggled to break into the first-team until early December) but in a short space of time has proved he can become a Conte regular.
The Dutch centre-back’s intelligence became clear during his loan spell at Watford last season, when manager Quique Flores played Ake as a left-back throughout the campaign. Over 24 league appearances Ake made more tackles (3.3 per match) and more interceptions (3.2 per match) than any other Watford player, winning the club’s young player of the year award despite being fielded out of position. Very few footballers are capable of adapting so comfortably at such a young age, and it is proof of Ake’s positional intelligence that he was able to do so. Learning to become a member of Conte’s hard-working, expertly-drilled three-man defence will not be a problem.
And it is in central defence that Ake can really shine. While he has been unable to repeat his tackling or intercepting statistics from a more central role, Ake’s average of nine clearances per 90 minutes is the fifth highest in the Premier League (amongst players that have made five or more appearances). What’s more, Bournemouth have averaged 1.5 points per game in which Ake has started, and just 1.08 when the Dutchman is absent.
Defensive resilience is not Ake’s only strength. He has already scored three goals this season, making him the second highest goalscorer amongst defenders in the division (behind Gareth McAuley’s four), and – most importantly of all – he is excellent in possession. With a future captain’s forward-thinking instincts, Ake loves to charge into the opposition half, injecting directness into an attack by playing a quick one-two with a midfielder. He boasts an 89.7% pass accuracy; only Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta, and John Stones have better ball-playing statistics amongst Premier League centre-backs.
What all this equates to is a perfect fit for Conte’s system. The Italian requires ball-playing defenders because they so frequently begin his team’s attacks. An absence of full-backs, plus the use of a two-man central midfield, means that Chelsea’s centre-halves are often expected to come out of their defensive line. It is for this reason that Azpilicueta has been re-positioned by Conte.
But with a new option in defence, Chelsea can now move Azpilicueta back into his more natural right wing-back position, relieving Victor Moses from a duty that has become increasingly difficult for him. The Nigerian has performed admirably this season but his defensive positioning has become a vulnerability - and opponents are gradually learning how to isolate Moses one-on-one to exploit the weakness. Another potential victim of Ake’s return is Cahill, who is perhaps too slow and error-prone for a Conte defender.
The recall is a major blow for Bournemouth, but both the player and his parent club stand to benefit from a smart decision. As a confident, spritely, ball-playing centre-back Nathan Ake adds the strength-in-depth Chelsea are craving while re-energising a team that - in matches against Crystal Palace, Stoke City, and Tottenham - had begun to look jaded.
More than 18 years after Terry made his debut in a 4-1 win over Aston Villa, Chelsea finally have an academy graduate ready to become a first-team regular.