April 23, 2024

To say that much of the pre-match talk centered on a left-back Manchester City sold in the summer, one of his replacements ensured that talk did not continue after the game.

Nathan Ake is not a direct replacement for Oleksandr Zinchenko following his £32 million move to Arsenal, not least because he is already at the club and plays a different position. With Joao Cancelo and Sergio Gomez – the youngster from Anderlecht brought in to cover Zinchenko’s absence after the club refused to pay what Brighton wanted for Marc Cucurella – Ake has made himself integral to Pep Guardiola’s plans in any way he can, which was very Zinchenko.

It should be noted that Ake has not played every game for City at left-back. Similarly, had City followed through on their original intention of signing a Zinchenko replacement, there is every chance that new faces would have performed admirably.

However, the fact that Guardiola has used Ake at left-back in a number of crucial games this season is telling. The manager was recently gushing about how many duels the Dutchman won against Mo Salah when he played there against Liverpool.

There were also standout performances against Hakem Ziyech in a 1-0 win at Chelsea, Dejan Kulusevski in a 4-2 comeback win over Tottenham, and most recently against the in-form Bukayo Saka in a 1-0 win over Arsenal. Not only did Ake keep Saka quiet, but he also made him vulnerable to a pounce at the other end of the pitch.

With two games at centre-back against Manchester United, Ake has become one of Guardiola’s first names on the teamsheet in big games. In his first two seasons at the Etihad, he started five of 30 meetings with Big Six teams; this year, he has started seven of eight.

The more he plays, the less of a surprise Ake becomes to Guardiola. After all, we’re talking about a seasoned international player who partnered Virgil Van Dijk to help the Netherlands reach the World Cup quarterfinals last month.

But the fact that none of the league’s best attacking talent has been able to beat Ake so far demonstrates why he continues to be selected. As Guardiola recently stated when exempting himself from team criticism, they are not as good without the defender on the pitch – whichever position he plays at the back.

There was some irony in benching him for the next game, but with Tottenham and Arsenal both coming up in the Premier League next month, it feels like a foregone conclusion that whatever Guardiola decides for those games will include Ake in the XI.

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