Yet while Jurgen Klopp had to watch on as his side flopped at Anfield after the German decided to make nine changes to his starting line-up, Antonio Conte named a team with the same number of changes, but one that could get the job done. In came the kids, the reservists and Nathan Ake for his first start for the Blues in 820 days.
His last appearance had also come in a cup game away against Shrewsbury Town. Chelsea won that match 2-1 thanks to a late own goal. It wasn’t the kind of performance that enhanced many reputations and the Dutchman was later sent out on loan to Reading by Jose Mourinho.
A switch to Watford followed the year after, and then came a temporary move to Bournemouth in the summer of 2016, where he did enough to convince Conte to bring him back to Stamford Bridge in January. On his return, the 21-year-old slotted in exactly where he was expected to as a left-sided wing-back.
However, Chelsea lined up in a 3-5-2 against Brentford rather than the 3-4-2-1 system that has seen them maraud their way to the top of the Premier League since October to make room for a front two of Michy Batshuayi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Pedro was deployed in the same role as Ake over on the right rather than as an inside forward to mingle with the Dutchman out wide on the over-lap. Instead, the burden of providing some extra width and getting behind the visitors fell to the two players tasked with bombing down the flanks.
It took Ake some time before he began to probe the limits of his jurisdiction on the left wing. He started the match looking rather cautious and more concerned with the business of defending rather than pushing on to help his side attack.
Conte’s gesticulations and shouts have become a common sight (and sound) on the touchline during Chelsea games this season with the Italian constantly demanding that his team keep stretching the opposition in order to keep the pressure on. He could been spotted screaming at his second-string against Brentford from the off, especially given the strong showing by the visitors in the opening exchanges of both halves.
As the Blues threw off their opponents to put themselves ahead and take full control of the match, Ake began to grow into the game and his role. His runs became more bold and adventurous. At one point before the half-time break, he was even beginning to show frustration over the failure of his teammates to make the most out of the couple of reverse balls he had managed to ping into the Brentford box, only to see them go begging.
It was in the one-on-one and two-on-one battles to defend his flank that he did his best work, however, waylaying an attacker to slow their progress and allow a fellow Blue-shirted teammate to come and help him deal with the threat, or attempt to dispossess his opponent all by himself.
Michy Batshuayi has now been directly involved in 4 goals in his last 2 FA Cup games.
2 assists pic.twitter.com/vSsSPBDSGR
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 28, 2017
Marcos Alonso shouldn’t have too much to worry about. For the time being at least, the Spaniard will remain a far more capable and ambitious footballer, capable of acting like an auxiliary playmaker as well as winger out wide to trade passes with the likes of Eden Hazard to crack defences open, but that doesn’t mean that Ake will see limited use under Conte in the short-term.
Nathaniel Chalobah also started against Brentford, lining up in midfield to act as the legs to cover for the artistry of Cesc Fabregas. Previously this season, the Englishman has been sent on late in game as the closer to help Chelsea shut up shop in the final 10 minutes – a substitute to shift the 3-4-2-1 into a 3-5-2 with a solid screen in front of the defence.
Although Alonso’s skill on the ball and vision for a pass may be impressive, he has looked vulnerable defensively at times against sides capable of putting pressure on him. Perhaps Ake’s niche will be similar to Chalobah’s, as a more secure alternative to bring on to protect an area of the team that sometimes requires locking up to make sure of a result.
He is also able to play as a left-footed centre-back too, although he lacks the height and power of Gary Cahill. Standing at five-foot-eleven, rather than six-foot-four like the Englishman, it is out wide where he is likely to be find further first-team opportunities under Conte this season.