Our cultured defender's Oranje journey to date

Progression to the Dutch national team was inevitable as it was natural for Nathan Ake.

The versatile defender had represented The Oranje on 68 occasions at various youth levels, from Under 15s through to Under 21s and had long been on the radar of a succession of national team head coaches.

In 2012, Ake led the Dutch Under-17s to the UEFA Under-17 Championship title in Slovenia, captaining the side at the age of 15.

At the time, he said: “My strength is my mentality, I am determined and focused. My style is similar to David Luiz. I can play in the centre of defence or midfield and I like to play out from the back as he does.”

The Luiz reference was  mostly because Ake was then a Chelsea player, having joined the club a year earlier from Feyenoord. Prior to that, he was with the Den Haag youth academy.

Ake’s future at Chelsea looked incredibly bright, particularly when he was handed his debut aged 17 on Boxing Day 2012, replacing Juan Mata in added time at Carrow Road.

With a hairstyle similar to that of Dutch legend Ruud Gullit, the teenager was getting plenty of attention at home and in London.

“I know of Ruud Gullit but not much. I am not the new Ruud Gullit..”
Nathan Ake, 2017

He said at the time, "Because we used to have similar hairstyles, everywhere I went people would call me Gullit, but that’s stopped now.”

Wisely, when the inevitable comparisons to Gullit were made as he grew in prominence, he add: “I know of Ruud Gullit but not much. I am not the new Ruud Gullit.

“As for the hair I didn’t do it because of him. When I was young, I had short hair and dad used to do it every morning. When I went abroad and he couldn’t do it, he just said make dreads.”

Not that he doesn’t admire Gullit, of course, but being labelled as the next version of a player regarded as one of the greatest Dutch players of the modern era would have brought with it unbelievable pressure and expectation.

He would be in and around the first team for the remainder of the season, even being an unused sub in the Europa League final that Chelsea won 2-1.

But over the next four years, chances were limited for Ake who would be loaned to Reading, Watford and Bournemouth before eventually making the switch to the Cherries permanent in 2017.

Between 2013 and 2017 he was voted Chelsea and Watford’s Young Player of the Year and the Bournemouth supporters voted him as their Player of the Year for 2017/18.

It was also the season he won his first full cap for the Netherlands, playing at left-back as the 10-man side triumphed 2-1.

In total, he has now won 21 full caps for his country, though it hasn’t been easy to dislodge Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk or Juventus  centre-back Matthijs de Ligt seemingly ahead in the pecking order for the Dutch.

“He's always talking, he's always organising the line, helping other people in front of him.”
Nathan Ake on Virgil van Dijk

Van Dijk, of course, is missing due to the injury and de Light picked up a knock in training that kept him out of the win over Ukraine – a game that saw Ake come off the bench on 64 minutes to help The Oranje secure  a thrilling 3-2 win by supplying the left wing cross that Denzel Dumfries headed home five minutes from the end.

Versatility is a by-word in Dutch football and Ake has already shown he can fill in a number of positions in his first season with City, though a series of niggling injuries meant he made just 13 appearances in 2020/21.

He showed, however, that he will be an asset to Pep Guardiola in seasons to come with a number of impressive performances, particularly his debut away to Wolves.

Representing his country on a regular basis is one of Ake’s main aims and at the age of 26, he is keen to do exactly that.

Learning from those around him, he knows continued improvement is the key and he will be desperate to avoid injury and play a fuller part for club and country in the months ahead.

For City, he has Ruben Dias, John Stones and Aymeric Laporte competing for the central defensive berths, though the left-back berth is a definite possibility should he be given the opportunity to have a sustained run in that role.

The left of a back three with wing-backs is another position he is comfortable in, and he could even be handed the task of playing as a defensive midfielder, with his reading of the game  and calm, assured approach.

For now, it is only Euro 2020 that he is focusing on and he understands that taking bits and pieces from his team-mates at City and those in the national team can only help develop his own game.

Van Dijk has been a huge influence on Ake, and the Liverpool skipper, alongside de Ligt, have been rocks at the back for the Dutch in recent seasons.

"Over the last three years or so they formed a great partnership in the national team but especially with Virgil being more experienced and older the way he behaves on the pitch as a leader - he's always talking, he's always organising the line, helping other people in front of him," said Ake.

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"I've picked up those kind of things over the years and try to implement them in my own game and get that leadership. It's not easy. In the last year at Bournemouth, I tried to pick up those qualities more on the pitch, sometimes off it.

"Things like organising the team, certain situations when the team is not playing well, trying to pick the team up, trying to give information, even in training sessions trying to get the team going and stuff like that.

"That is what Virgil does all the time and that is what I have been trying to learn. I think I have got better over the last year or so, I still have things to improve and I'm sure I can do that.”

The 3-2 win over Ukraine was, incredibly, Holland's first win at the Euros since 2008.

A cultured football nation with a passionate and fun-loving army of supporters, world football needs the Dutch to be a powerful force again.

If Nathan Ake can be part of The Oranje resurgence, whether at Euro 2020 or in Qatar at the World Cup, he'll be achieving the aims he has worked so hard for - as well as continuing the traditions of a nation every football fan seems to have a soft spot for.