Joe Butterfield on an academy rich in promise but compromised by purpose.
What is the purpose of an academy? There’s ultimately a universal truth to the question – to be a production line for professional footballers. It is the purpose of the professional footballers where the differences lie. Some clubs use their academy to keep their club constantly stocked with players, often replacing outgoing signings with players who’ve been raised within their own ranks. Southampton are one of the most noteworthy recent examples, using numerous homegrown players to get them back into the Premier League and, for a short time, using their own youth reserves to replace outgoing players.
Other clubs use the academy as a money-making tool. Invest heavily in the structure, bring through talented youngsters, sell them on for profit. A player being sold for £2-3 million is conceivably enough to finance a Premier League team’s youth academy at all levels for a year or so. This is more akin to Chelsea’s model, who have made huge profits from the youngsters they’ve developed in the last four or five years, rather than necessarily seeing them as legitimate first team prospects for the most part.
So which of these categories does the academy of Manchester City fall into? Well, on the day after Manchester City’s centurion title win, the club announced that Pablo Maffeo was to be sold to VfB Stuttgart. Having spent the latter stages of his career at City’s academy after signing for the club at the age of 15, he particularly impressed City fans when he played in a League Cup fixture at Old Trafford, pocketing Paul Pogba in the process. A lot had been made of Maffeo’s progress in La Liga, most notably after a game against Barcelona where he managed to man-mark Lionel Messi with great success. He also impressed against Real Madrid and has been a regular starter in the side, with many onlookers suggesting he may have what it takes to compete for a place in Guardiola’s side.
Maffeo’s career plan at City was no doubt intended to be very different. Last summer, as the club thought they had a short-term deal for Dani Alves wrapped up, the idea seemed to be to give Maffeo another year at the club he’d been loaned out to for the last six months, developing his game against Spain’s top teams whilst an aging Dani Alves would fulfil the role of a temporary stop-gap. Of course, once the deal for Dani Alves had broken down it was too late, Maffeo had been sent out on loan and the club decided to buy Danilo, immediately blocking the route to the first team which had once been open to him.
Maffeo is not the only example of this, however. Marcos Lopes came before him, heralded as the next bright hope from the academy. Originally from Benfica, himself and Bernardo Silva were hyped up to be the potential future of their attack, yet ironically it’s not the one who spent the latter stages of his youth career at City who now plays a large part in Pep’s title winning team. After a couple of appearances in the first team, Lopes was sent on loan to Lille before being officially unveiled as an academy graduate and promoted to the first team on 5th August 2015. On 28th August 2015, he was sold to Monaco.
Kelechi Iheanacho had an impressive couple of seasons with the club, not technically an academy product although he did spend a year with the Elite Development Squad. His goals per minutes ratio during his time at the club was incredible, though he was soon seen as surplus to requirements in Guardiola’s system and was sold to Leicester.
So, then, the only reasonable conclusion would be that City’s approach to its academy is more similar to that of Chelsea than that of Southampton. Though that’s not the impression you’d get from the club…
Do you see a time when half of City’s team is homegrown, is that an ambition?
“Yes. I think this has always been the objective and the premise behind the investment we have made in the City Football Academy and the infrastructure we have put in place.
“This has been operational now for two years and we’re starting to see the outcomes and the results of that this season and I hope for many seasons to come.
“We would like to have the maximum number of players in the first team coming out of our academy.”
This is taken from an interview with Manchester City chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, in the aftermath of the 2015/16 season. Lauding the achievements of the club at every age level, he said that it was no longer a case of promise, more a matter of simple facts, that the club is developing talent which is working its way up every level of the youth system before eventually hoping to push on at first team level.
After Sheikh Mansour took over the club in 2008, the youth academy structure was given heavy investment. Of course, a youth set-up is like a planted seed. A tree takes years to grow and so fans patiently waited, knowing that realistically there would be a good few years before the next crop of youth came through.
Now, a decade later, the tree has had ample time and has certainly branched out amongst all age groups. Restructuring of the youth recruitment, improvement of training facilities and coaching staff along with investment to bring some of the highest potential youngsters from abroad have all helped to shape the academy set-up into what it is today. Manchester City have dominated youth leagues at almost every level in the last five years, humiliating their equals from the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. Moving up to the older generations, the club reached three consecutive FA Cup Finals in a row. They may not have managed to win any of the finals but that in itself is not too concerning. What is more worrying is how few of the players to feature in these finals have gone on to make a meaningful number of first team appearances.
Chelsea have received a lot of criticism in the media for failing to follow up their successful youth system which, at U18/19 level at the very least, is arguably more successful than Manchester City’s. Each of Manchester City’s three FA Youth Cup Final features have resulted in defeat to Chelsea teams. Tammy Abraham and Dominic Solanke are the most recent examples which have brought the club under fire. Abraham followed up a very successful season with Bristol City by being sent out on loan to Swansea, raising questions as to why he wasn’t given a chance in Chelsea’s squad, whilst Solanke outright rejected Chelsea’s offer of a first-team contract last summer and moved to Liverpool instead, where he’s still faced with the overwhelming task of outing the likes of Firmino and Salah from the first team to get regular minutes.
Despite not winning the games, Manchester City were still involved in three consecutive finals; 2014/15, 2015/16 and 2016/17. In 2015/16 the U18s also won their respective league. These squads have clearly had very talented youngsters in them and, whilst some were only competing in these teams at the age of 16 and are still working their way into the final stages of youth development, there are some who are now 20 years old and are still nowhere near getting any meaningful first team football for the club.
Tosin Adarabioyo has spent the last season very much on the periphery of the squad, eventually turning down interest from Everton last summer to sign a new contract with City and being rewarded with two League Cup appearances and two dead-rubber Champions League appearances. With no Premier League minutes to his name, he isn’t a recognised Premier League Champion and maybe he will look for more playing time next season, even if it will mean moving on.
Brahim Diaz, the youngster who made an instant impact on the youth sides after transferring to the club from Malaga, has made the five appearances required to put the Premier League Champion title on his CV. However, with the likes of Real Madrid sniffing around as his contract is due to expire in the summer of 2019, combined with the certainty that Manchester City will add another big-money attacking player to the squad in the transfer window, he may also start considering his options unless more assurances are made.
If it seems like I’m being rather down on the youth integration system at the club, even pouring scorn on those who are being granted actual opportunities, then it’s largely because I am. Pablo Maffeo had a year remaining on his contract and, for a player whose potential has been hyped up within the club and Spanish media, it’s difficult to believe that Manchester City weren’t interested in extending that contract as evidenced by the reported buy-back clause which is supposedly included in the transfer deal. This would presumably, and this is all speculative, mean that Maffeo made the choice to move on from the club rather than find himself in another loan cycle and waiting for an opportunity which isn’t forthcoming any time soon.
This, of course, follows the high-profile exit of Jadon Sancho in 2017. Sancho is an exceptionally gifted winger who made a mockery of the U18 league despite spending the vast majority of the season as a 16-year-old. He’d caught the attention of scouts across the world and some of his highlights from the season were unbelievable. This was different to the likes of Lopes, different to anybody else in his age group. This was the real deal.
In May 2017, during Khaldoon’s yearly post-season interview, Sancho, along with team-mate Phil Foden, was singled out as somebody who would be fast-tracked into the first team. Despite such assurances from the chairman of the club no less, it appeared not to make much difference. July 2017 came and Sancho was no closer to signing a contract due to a dispute over potential playing time, presumably demanding far more assurances than Pep was likely to give. Sancho was omitted from the pre-season tour and he went on strike, eventually signing for Dortmund.
The departure of Sancho hurt, especially after seeing his impact playing in a league where he was effectively a year or two junior to his fellow competitors. The way he went about his departure, first complaining of home-sickness when refusing to train with the club before signing for a German club, didn’t sit right with me, and still doesn’t, yet anybody who’s watched Dortmund play in the last couple of months will find it difficult to argue that he didn’t make the correct decision as he now finds himself regularly involved in the first team. With Sancho being made well aware of the transfer plans of City, particularly the plan to sign another left-sided forward in Alexis Sanchez, he considered this to be yet another high-profile signing providing an obstacle between himself and first team football. Dortmund, not exactly a small club, were willing to offer him the playing time he craved and he made his decision to leave.
Of course, Sanchez would have been a signing who would be effective for three years, four at best, by the end of which Sancho would be 21-years-old, hardly at the end of his career. Many City fans, myself included, questioned Sancho’s mentality when he decided he would rather not fight for his place in one of the top teams in the Premier League whilst working under Pep Guardiola, however it’s difficult to question the bravery of a young English player who has taken it upon himself to move to a new country, one where he doesn’t speak the native language, taking a huge gamble on his career in the process.
When these kinds of players leave, citing a lack of guarantee of playing time as the reason for leaving, it’s easy for City fans to become emotional and claim the players are ‘bottling it’ or simply lack the desire and the hunger to play amongst the truly elite, but deep down we’re all well aware that the last decade speaks for itself. Sir Alex Ferguson was blessed with the longevity he had at the club, but he wasn’t waiting for the next potentially world-class player to come through the academy when he included them in the squad. He had the likes of Danny Welbeck, John O’Shea, Jonny Evans and Darren Gibson padding out the squad, these weren’t great players, they were never going to be great players, but they gave the fans the connection to the academy whilst relieving themselves of the need to spend more money on squad rotation players. He took a lot of gambles during his time at the club and many would argue, rightly so to an extent, that he had earned the right to take those gambles where Manchester City managers would rather not.
This is why the emergence of Phil Foden, known by Blues as The Stockport Iniesta, is so important for the club going forward. Held up by Pep Guardiola in a way that no youth product from the club has been before, he has been in and around the first team squad for the whole season at the age of 17. He’s one of us, he was born and raised about twenty minutes from The Etihad, that means something to the fans. He’s made the required number of appearances, along with Diaz, to be recognised as a Champion this season and with David Silva’s game time set to be reduced next season there’s no reason why his game time shouldn’t increase next season.
Foden doesn’t have to actually be the Stockport Iniesta. He doesn’t have to be the Mancunian David Silva. He just has to be solid. A rotational option in a spectacular team. There are high hopes for the Under-17 World Cup Golden Ball winner, understandably so, and he hasn’t looked hugely out of place within the squad when he’s been made appearances but this isn’t about uncovering the next Lionel Messi, it’s about having that connection to the academy and the pride of seeing locally-born players wearing the shirt.
Khaldoon said that he wanted the club to bring through as many academy products through to the first team as possible but that isn’t possible if the bar of quality required is continuously raised higher. Expecting players of ages 17, 18 or even 19 to become first team regulars is unrealistic but showing them that there is a pathway to the first team is the first barrier which must be overcome. The likes of Brahim and Foden are beginning to chip away at that particular wall and we can only hope that the next couple of years will prove the likes of Sancho wrong.
We aren’t asking for the Class of ’92. We’re just asking for a couple of prize students.
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