If you had to pick a Manchester City player to score the winning goal in cup ties against Liverpool and Arsenal this season, Erling Haaland would be the most obvious call, given the manner in which the Norway star is tearing up the Premier League record books.
If not Haaland, then perhaps Riyad Mahrez? The Algeria winger is in a rich vein of post-World Cup form. Or maybe Kevin De Bruyne, given his ability to produce magic with either foot. Then there's captain Ilkay Gundogan, whose dramatic final-day brace against Aston Villa sealed the title for City last May.
Either way, Nathan Ake would have been a long way down your list of would-be matchwinners. Yet that’s another unexpected reality in a strangely disjointed season for Pep Guardiola’s side.
After heading home a De Bruyne cross to sink Liverpool 3-2 in the Carabao Cup, Netherlands international Ake stepped up to nonchalantly slot past Matt Turner and give City a 1-0 triumph over Arsenal in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Friday.
"I think once before, but not like this," the versatile defender chuckled afterwards when considering how often in his career he’s managed to find the net with his weaker right foot. "What a hit with the swinger, son," was Jack Grealish’s Twitter take, with the obligatory crying-laughing emoji.
"He played good. He never complained last season when he didn’t play much, always with a big [positive] face in training," Guardiola told ITV afterwards.
"There is not one person in the locker room who is not happy for him. He scored a good goal and controlled one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League right now, Bukayo Saka. He is really good in the box, really good in the duels one-against-one. He is so intelligent.
"You become a manager to have players like Nathan. He deserves all the good things in life and in his profession."
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The winning goal was unquestionably one of those very good things for Ake, but the shackling of Saka was his main job and one he carried out to the letter — no mean feat against a livewire winger in player-of-the-season form for the Premier League leaders.
Saka completed neither of his two dribbles attempted against City, won just two of eight duels and did not create a chance for a teammate nor manage a shot on target over the course of the 90 minutes.
City centre-back Manuel Akanji had little doubt over where the credit for those statistics should lie.
"When I play next to him he’s just so reliable in one vs ones, in the air or on the floor," the Switzerland international said of Ake. "You could see against Saka he did such a great job. He couldn’t pass him once."
John Stones pulled up with a suspected hamstring injury before halftime against Arsenal, while Aymeric Laporte and Ruben Dias have each struggled for form and fitness this season. As a result, Ake has transitioned from a bit-part player to a mainstay in City’s title defence, where it will be hoped a hard-fought cup win can be the catalyst for taking a few chunks out of Arsenal’s five-point advantage.
"I think in this team there is so much rotation and stuff that maybe never you feel 100% ‘I am in the first team’ or ‘I play every week now’. It’s always changing," Ake said. "But the only thing I can do is try and prove that I want to play and the manager puts a lot of faith in me.
"I want to pay that back. The only thing I can do is try to improve every game and keep doing what I’m doing."
There can be little doubt that he is paying Guardiola back in spades right now. At a time when the City manager has publicly questioned his players' hunger and desire as they pursue a third consecutive title and a fifth in six seasons, Ake has repeatedly stood tall as some of his more celebrated teammates become accustomed to the bench.
"Right now, without Nathan, we cannot play good," Guardiola said last week and the former Bournemouth captain appears to be showing more of his on-field leadership qualities, perhaps filling a vacuum left by the departure of veteran captain Fernandinho at the end of last season.
Guardiola also points to Ake as an example behind the scenes, where the Dutchman concedes his boss’ recent claims about a slip in standards were not too far wide of the mark.
"Obviously he says it for a reason. It feels although it has maybe dipped a little bit, but the only thing we can do is try to get that back," Ake said after the Arsenal win made it three wins in as many home games for City following their controversial Manchester derby defeat at Old Trafford.
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"I think over the last few games we showed that we want to try, we want to still compete and we want to make sure we still keep fighting for everything. That’s the only thing we can do as a team and as a club.
"It’s not just now, for the whole season we have to keep it going. We can’t let it drop again and get in a period like that again. We had a little wake-up call and hopefully we can keep [our form] going."
Guardiola certainly seems to have few doubts Ake can keep it going. Forthcoming games against Tottenham, Aston Villa and Arsenal in the first half of February could have a huge bearing on the Premier League title race. Where Ake would once have been viewed as a rotation option, he is likely to be one of the first names on the teamsheet for all of those games.
It’d be best to leave the goalscoring to Haaland and others, though. As the man himself acknowledged, classy finishes with his weaker foot against the best team in England right now are probably a one-off.
MORE: Watch every Premier League match live with fuboTV in Canada2023-01-28T17:05:44Z dg43tfdfdgfd