Manchester City defender Nathan Ake impressed Ruben Dias again as the two teamed up for the Fa Cup win over Swindon.
For the second game in a row, Ruben Dias had cause to bear-hug his teammate Nathan Ake.
This time, the circumstance were far less dramatic. Rather than making an astonishing goal-line clearance to prevent Arsenal retaking the lead in a slog of a Premier League game at the Emirates, the Dutch defender had simply put his head and body in the line to preserve Manchester City’s 3-0 lead at League Two side Swindon.
That the celebration was still hearty says a lot about both how much Dias loves defending and how much City love winning football matches, but it is another example of Ake being in the right place at the right time.
The former Bournemouth man has been used by rival fans this season as a sign of City’s enormous wealth, a £41m defender signed effectively as fourth-choice, destined to sit on the bench unless there was an emergency.
Pep Guardiola would argue that he needs four to compete in four competitions; although last year he used John Stones and Ruben Dias together so often that even Aymeric Laporte had his nose so out of joint that he considered his future at the Etihad.
Ake was barely seen last season at centre-back or left-back, in no small part due to an injury that ruled him out between January and March when City were at their best. This campaign has been much better, and he is already only 20 minutes away from bettering last year’s tally in terms of time spent on the pitch.
There are, of course, times where he looks fourth choice. He endured a torrid first half against the electric Bukayo Saka at Arsenal, and he doesn’t look as comfortable on the ball as Laporte or Stones.
However, there is also increasing evidence that he can be an effective centre-back for what Guardiola needs. The 26-year-old reads the game excellently to ensure that he is more often than not in position to make the right play at the back, and has also shown he can be a threat in the opposition box from set-pieces.
As big a plus as any is his availability. While Stones was one of the stories of last season, he has rarely been fit enough to pick up where he left off and has missed more matchday squads (nine) than he has made starting line-ups (eight) in City’s 30 games so far. The only squad Ake has missed was so he could attend his father’s funeral.
Stones still has credit in the bank to return when he comes back from his latest problem, but not only has he been ousted by Laporte to partner Dias for much of this season it is becoming more and more difficult for Guardiola to leave Ake out for him.
Best Club Situation
That is a situation craved by the manager of course, with four central defenders each making strong cases to be included and the pecking order naturally shifting with changes in form and fitness. There is an argument that Ake’s improvement is pushing the Blues closer towards their strength in depth in the second half of the 2018/19 campaign when Vincent Kompany magnificently rose to the challenge and Laporte was at his peak.
The quality of opposition must be factored into Ake’s starts, and the most high-profile game he has started was away to Aston Villa in the league at the beginning of December.
Ake can only perform against the attackers he is put up against though, and this is how Stones worked his way back into favour by taking all opportunities he was given.
Stones and Laporte know they must compete for a place in the team, but they now must accept that competition for a place has become even more difficult.
Man City players give Swindon fans the VIP treatment in FA Cup
“Dad! Did you see De Bruyne? And Jesus? He winked at me when he went past!”
Excitement started around Manchester City’s arrival long before they arrived at the County Ground – most of Swindon Town’s opponents don’t normally travel by aeroplane, and there is only one £100m footballer in the country – and home fans queued for over an hour to be at the front of the line to see the Premier League champions turn up on their branded bus for this FA Cup Third Round tie.
The atmosphere was far from deferential, right from the off. City players walked the few steps from their coach to the tunnel accompanied by boos or chants asking who they were as the home fans got into the pantomime spirit early. That carried through into the match as the crowd relished the chance to roar on the underdogs or enjoy any misses from the visitors; “How **** must you be, it’s only 3-0” was the chant after Gabriel Jesus missed his penalty.
VIP Facilities on Manchester City
Cutting through the boos at the bus though was excitement as kids recognised players that they have only previously seen on the telly – especially if they responded to their names as Jesus did. Inside the ground it was a similar story, with Kevin De Bruyne the topic of many conversations before, during and after he had carried out his warmup.
City would likely have played a strong lineup anyway for this fixture – Pep Guardiola did similar at League Two side Cheltenham Town last season in the fourth round of the same competition – but it is hard not to think that their seven Covid absentees contributed towards seven regular first-team players starting this game; Kyle Walker, Ruben Dias, Joao Cancelo, Rodri, Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne all get into City’s strongest XI at the moment.
Having shown that respect for their opponents with the lineup, City continued to by treating the game professionally from the off. They pressed hard and high, pouncing on any mistakes such as the ones that led to the second goal, as they would in any other match.
Even if City wouldn’t have wanted to concede in the second half to give the home fans their biggest cheer of the night, the way Cole Palmer finished after that to restore the three-goal advantage and then Rodri shook the crossbar in the 90th minute kept the quality running through right to the end of the match, before warm exchanges with the opposition players at full-time.