The defender left the Blues for good in the summer of 2017 after loan spells at Reading, Watford and Bournemouth. Frustrated at his lack of first-team opportunities, the Dutchman decided it was time to take affirmative action.
His was a familiar story. Go out on loan. Take in another loan spell. Probably another. Maybe another. After all that, return to find tens of millions of pounds worth of talent in front of you.
“I have no regrets, no way. I am still 100 per cent happy with my decision,” Aké said in October 2017, four months after leaving Chelsea for Bournemouth.
“Chelsea were disappointed and wanted to keep me, but they understood as well. They didn’t want to stop me from fulfilling my dreams.”
Aké’s decision has been more than vindicated. The 24-year-old has been an ever-present in the Premier League in each of the last two seasons and is racing towards 100 top-flight appearances for the Cherries – something he could never have dreamed of at Stamford Bridge.
But could that be about to change?
Chelsea scout Piet de Visser has urged his employers to consider re-signing their former academy graduate to ease their defensive issues.
“Ake should have played for Chelsea by now. He’s so good,” he told Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant.
“How often does he not score with his head? He has timing and insight. I hope they buy him back. That boy is perfect for them and he has played with Lampard.”
It’s a sensible suggestion. Lampard and Aké were, briefly, team-mates at Stamford Bridge. The now-Chelsea boss has shown he is more than willing to put faith in youth – even at the expense of more experienced and more established names.
While the Blues’ defence is slowly but surely tightening up, there are still question marks over Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma. The duo have been benched in favour of youngster Fikayo Tomori who was Derby County‘s Player of the Year while on loan under Lampard’s watchful eye last season.
Aké has a record of performing in the Premier League and Chelsea were reportedly interested in their former player in January. But Eddie Howe played down the speculation, claiming Bournemouth hadn’t received any offers for Aké.
“We love working with him and we think he has got outstanding attributes. He’s getting better and better in his position,” Howe told Sky Sports.
“The speculation, as it has been all January for us, has been purely that, as with all our players. We’ve had no contact from any other club, so it’s business as usual.”
That might not be the case for much longer, though. Bournemouth will get a reprieve in January as the final window of Chelsea’s registration ban passes. After that, one of their prized assets will be fair game.
It’s not hard to see why the Blues might be interested in the Netherlands international. Despite being on the short side (6ft) for a centre-half, Aké is not to be taken lightly. Strong in the air and in the challenge, he is also extremely confident on the ball.
Boasting a passing accuracy of 86.5 per cent, with 40.8 per cent going forward, he would suit Lampard’s possession-based system at Chelsea. Aké averages more completed passes (37.22 per 90) than either of the Cherries’ two other centre-backs – Steve Cook and Chris Mepham – and also comes out on top against his peers for touches with 58.33 per 90, showing he’s heavily involved in Bournemouth’s build-up play.
In fact, the Den Haag native is so comfortable in possession he has been deployed in midfield. Towards the end of last season, he played there in a 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur, scoring the winner against the North Londoners.
It’s a position Howe sees the young defender playing in more frequently, too.
“Nathan enjoyed the midfield role, it’s one that is natural to him and I think he likes the idea of playing there,” Howe said.
“He was key to our win (over Spurs). The beauty of a player like Nathan is his versatility. I think he would play wherever we wanted him to and that’s a credit to himself.”
But that’s not the limit of Aké’s versatility. While on loan at Watford in 2015/16 he made the left-back spot his own. That despite the signing of experienced Greek international José Holebas from Roma. His impressive performances for Quique Sánchez Flores’ side earned him the club’s Young Player of the Season award.
That versatility would enable Lampard to utilise the back three he’s experimented with this season. Aké could tuck in on the left-hand side comfortably.
His aerial prowess, reading of the game and distribution make Aké the perfect modern defender. Chelsea are now the perfect modern club for the Dutchman to fulfil his potential.