Jadon Sancho left for Borussia Dortmund. Brahim Diaz left for Real Madrid. Rabbi Matondo left for Schalke. Who will be next? No one knows… but who are we to blame them?
At the time, it seemed harmless. When push came to shove, Jadon Sancho was not happy with his future at Manchester City. Somewhat unimpressed by his attitude, Pep Guardiola was content to let him go.
Yet that was July of 2017. In the months and year or so to come, what once seemed a footnote on Manchester City’s youth structure would come to be its current defining act. Now an emerging global talent at the top of the Bundesliga, Sancho’s £8m move to Borussia Dortmund didn’t just put him on the continent. It put Manchester City’s academy on the map.
As Sancho’s star rose, the media attention grew exponentially. First, there was the possibility. Might this young Londoner be the Ronaldinho to our Rule Brittania, the creative spark that could set England on a path for global football conquest? But secondly, and far more urgent, was the reality. Now still only on the cusp of his 19th birthday, the young Londoner has become the precocious new prototype of ‘English Export’, his growing stats and highlight reels the exact validation that young players have been longing for.
Warming the bench was not going to cut it any longer.
For City, Sancho has proven to be the first in a mini-exodus over the last 18 months. Following him, Brahim Diaz, another shining talent in City’s academy, pined for and eventually found a £15m move to Real Madrid when he deemed the climb to the first team to be too steep. Spare a thought for silent colossus Aymeric Laporte, a Basque Iron Giant whose friendship was cut short too soon.
Interestingly enough though, Diaz was the second of a supposed golden generation to leave the club. With Sancho being the first, Phil Foden is the only surviving member of a crop of young talent who the club clearly believed in.
Pictured above in a promotional campaign for City’s 2017-18 home kit, the three young Blues had made it to the 2016-17 FA Youth Cup Final and given enough time, fans and club alike believed that they all could have made it into the first team given time. Now only one, Foden, is left to prove that theory.
It is for this reason that the transfer of Rabbi Matondo to FC Schalke 04 bears so much weight. Though there is nothing to say that the young Welsh international could not have been a future star for City, his relative lack of first-team involvement and muted departure has confirmed the trend that Sancho started.
Manchester City sell youth players. Yet the question remains… is that such a bad thing?
If Rabbi Matondo were to line up against his former side come Wednesday night in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, then fair play to him. To be playing European football before you’ve even turned 20 is something very few across the planet could dream of. Would he come close to making Manchester City’s squad (yet alone team) for the same fixture though? Not a chance.
As things stand, each player to leave City for greener pastures has either become a better player for it or had opportunities that the club could simply not provide them with. Likewise, City have made a steadily tidy profit from their outgoings, which can be happily invested into further youth developments or even quality first-team signings.
With no grey area between generational brilliance and unfathomable bottling, it would be all too easy for an agenda to spread regarding youth prospects at Manchester City. Fancy a guarantee of first-team football? Off you pop, son. Show promise in your rare cup involvements? Don’t expect to be starting, mate. Win a youth World Cup? Take a seat on this bench over here, lad.
However, whilst the likes of Mark Ogden and James Ducker wait in the wings, eager to crucify Pep Guardiola’s champions for abhorrent crimes such as scoring goals or winning games, it’s important that we clarify a few things from a City perspective:
Would the landscape of Manchester City Football Club look different had young players not left in search of first-team football?
With Sancho the only difference to the 2017/18 squad, the events of that year would have likely played out the same way, albeit with a few more domestic cup involvements.
Have any young players shown they could have significantly impacted City’s first team?
Phil Foden has looked more and more like a future starter with every game he plays, yet this is as a result of a year firmly nestled under Pep Guardiola’s wing. In contrast, Jadon Sancho has done remarkably well in different circumstances, yet only with the freedom to develop in the Bundesliga. Even now, his consistency has only come a year on from his transfer in a less competitive league, and is still not at the level to displace Raheem Sterling or Leroy Sané from their starting positions.
Have both City and their former youth stars benefitted from parting ways?
In short – absolutely. In addition to recouping a good amount of money for (at the time) unproven academy players, City have proven that their youth system can produce certified global talents, able to draw interest from the some of the world’s biggest clubs whilst keeping their own squad size manageable. Likewise, these young players have secured better immediate playing opportunities, vital in their personal development.
Despite all this though, don’t expect to see anything other than an increasing slew of media articles looking at how City don’t develop young players, or sell off all of their best talents.
The fact of the matter is that the old path remains the same. Breaking into a team’s starting line-up takes patience. In Manchester City’s case, with a squad superior to almost any in world football, it also takes a phenomenal amount of talent. Patience and persistence are qualities hard to come by in many young players, but Phil Foden is becoming a testimony to the fact that it is possible.
Until he starts every game for the Blues, it will likely remain a smear tactic from the likes of United fans, whose tradition of blooding youth players comes with a storied history of success, one that City will hope to match in time.
For now though, whilst Manchester City hold the nation’s gaze as the dominant force in English football, it is worth considering what we hope our youth legacy to be. As just mentioned, United’s core identity rests on the continual development of their academy players. Meanwhile, Chelsea, the first of the new money elite, have pioneered a different approach with their infamous loan system.
City must find their own way of doing things, in a fashion that proves sustainable and beneficial for the years to come. United have come to learn in recent years just how hard it is to balance teenage talents with proven quality signings. Likewise, Chelsea have yet to find a true diamond in the rough of their loanee army. It’s hard across the country for teenagers to prosper.
We could talk all day as to if there is a genuine problem with English youth football. But whether it’s the step up from academy football to the Premier League, a lack of first-team integration, or something far more fundamental, there has been an undeniable seismic shift surrounding young players and their future prospects. The question has changed. No longer should England’s top clubs be worried about producing promising talents. Now they need to work out what to do with them.
On the blue side of Manchester, the current answer is to sell… unless you are good enough. Yes, Sancho and Diaz might have been. The signs show that Matondo might not have been. Yet whatever the case, as long as City’s squad remains as solid as it is currently, the standards are exceedingly high, a necessary criteria of having a squad equipped to win all trophies possible.
It is unlikely that Phil Foden will start for the Blues on Wednesday night in Schalke, though Rabbi Matondo may well grace the pitch against his old club. City are more than entitled to sell their youth players if they feel it is right, but they won’t throw in teenagers to starting line-ups as an act of sympathy either. The CFA will continue to produce brilliant talents such as Aro Muric, Eric Garcia or Felix Nmecha – if they are good enough, then they will have the opportunities they crave in due time. If they aren’t, it would be unfair to restrict their development as an act of sanctimony; they will be allowed to leave for greener pastures for their own development.
Rest assured though, when the time comes for Phil Foden to start a league game, he won’t just be thrown in to appease ravenous journalists or eager fans. He will have earned it on his own merits as a footballer, able to compete regularly with the very best whilst serving as a shining example to those who watch and wait behind him. We truly are Super City now, but we have to make peace with the standards that come along with that.
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