When Pep Guardiola’s team selection was revealed at 19:15 on Wednesday evening, there was likely a collective wince from Manchester City fans both down in Brentford and at home.
Owing to the absences of Rodri, John Stones, Kyle Walker and Oleksandr Zinchenko, Guardiola had to do a bit of chopping and changing in the defensive half of his team.
Joao Cancelo filled in at right-back and Fernandinho came into midfield as was expected, but it’s fair to say many City supporters would have been nervous at the sight of Nathan Ake lining up at left-back.
Ake has not had the easiest of starts to his time at the Etihad Stadium.
Since City signed him from Bournemouth for £40m in August 2020, Ake has had to compete with the excellent Ruben Dias, Aymeric Laporte and Stones for a centre-back spot, a situation not of his own making but one that has nevertheless severely restricted his playing time.
Minutes at left-back have been hard to come by too, with Zinchenko then Cancelo making the position their own.
On the rare occasion that Ake has been afforded opportunities to stake his claim to a regular starting berth, he has failed to impress.
Last season he looked shaky and error-prone, and while he has been more reliable this term, his ability to play out from the back has lagged behind that of the other three centre-backs.
Yet when playing out of position during City’s 1-0 win at the Brentford Community Stadium, he was excellent.
In the system Guardiola is currently using – where the full-backs tuck into midfield to help the holding midfielder with ball progression – Cancelo and Zinchenko are two extremely tough acts to follow.
The former has been one of City’s best players this season, while the latter is a midfielder by trade so makes the transition seamlessly. But on Wednesday Ake made the role his own, coming into the middle of the pitch to provide passing options for Fernandinho and roaming forward to progress the ball to the attack.
Given his struggles at City, it’s easy to forget that Ake was highly regarded as a ball-playing central defender during his Bournemouth days and that the Blues were just one of the top-level teams fighting for his signature.
Despite his recent reputation for being shaky on the ball, it should be of no surprise that he is capable of being one of Guardiola’s inverted full-backs.
Reports had begun to gather pace in recent weeks surrounding Ake’s future at the club, with West Ham the frontrunners to sign him. As the Ferran Torres situation showed, City and Pep are not ones to keep players at the club who don’t want to be there.
It’s understood that Ake is frustrated by his lack of game time – as any professional player approaching his prime should be – and in all likelihood, he isn’t going to displace those ahead of him in Guardiola’s pecking order.
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But against Brentford Ake showed that he can still be of great value to City. With Covid-19 cases surging among Premier League clubs and City’s squad already on the small side, a player who can fill in at multiple positions is an invaluable fall-back option for Pep and City.
Selling Ake would raise some more funds for the summer transfer kitty, but it would also leave City short of options should injuries and Covid strike again.
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