Pep Guardiola may have gone by the time Manchester City’s academy flourishes

Guardiola may have gone by the time Manchester City’s academy flourishes

19/02/2016 at 15:27Updated 20/02/2016 at 11:36

As Manchester City prepare to unleash their youngsters against Chelsea in the FA Cup, their fans would be wise to remember their academy is far from the new Masia, as James Dutton explains…

With Manchester City fighting for silverware on all four fronts this season, Manuel Pellegrini is set to take the unprecedented step of playing a weakened side in the FA Cup fifth round tie against Chelsea.

City face the Premier League champions at Stamford Bridge on Sunday before travelling to Dynamo Kiev for a Champions League Last 16 tie on Wednesday.

The schedule doesn’t let up as Pellegrini then takes his injury-hit side to face Liverpool in the final of the Capital One Cup on February 28, before a league game at Anfield on March 2.

“If we have to play Chelsea Sunday, we will play with a young team because we have to travel to Ukraine,” the 62-year-old said.

Kelechi Iheanacho celebrates scoring the first goal for Manchester City

Kelechi Iheanacho celebrates scoring the first goal for Manchester CityReuters

A number of the Elite Development Squad were rested for their clash against Leicester on Monday and have instead trained with the first-team squad in preparation for the trip to London.

Though Pellegrini has handed debuts to 19-year-old midfielder Bersant Celina, 17-year-old defender Cameron Humphreys-Grant and 19-year-old left-back Angelino in the FA Cup already this season, none started in the wins over Norwich and Aston Villa.

The only teenager to start either game was Kelechi Iheanacho, who has become a first-team squad player this year thanks to a return of nine goals in 20 appearances.

In the early rounds of the Capital One Cup Manu Garcia, George Evans (who has since joined Reading on a free transfer) and the £12m Patrick Roberts all featured, but only in cameo appearances off the bench.

Possessing such a big squad as City have since the Sheik Mansour takeover in 2008, the club have traditionally used the cups as a way of rotating the first-team and giving the fringe players minutes on the pitch. Before the arrival of Iheanacho, Dedryck Boyata was the last academy graduate to gain regular first-team action.

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney tackles City's Dedryck Boyata in their Carling Cup semi-final second leg

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney tackles City's Dedryck Boyata in their Carling Cup semi-final second legReuters

In fact the last time you could accuse City of ‘playing the kids’ came in the 2-1 Carling Cup loss to West Brom in September 2010. Even then the likes of Javan Vidal, Boyata, Ben Mee, Greg Cunningham, Abdisalam Ibrahim and John Guidetti were flanked by Shay Given, Patrick Vieira, Roque Santa Cruz and Jo, as then boss Roberto Mancini cited fixture congestion for the decision to heavily rotate his squad.

Five-and-a-half years later and the kids have barely been trusted since, but the club is in the grip of a cultural flux, and not just in the managerial dugout.

The emergence of the exciting prospect Iheanacho heralds a new age for City, who are slowly moving away from making big money statement signings to growing their own young talent from within.

As the era of Yaya Toure and David Silva slows down, so City hope that the academy can provide the bulk of the squad’s regeneration – though the significant outlay on Raheem Sterling, Nicolas Otamendi and Kevin de Bruyne last summer suggests City have little intention of slowing down in the transfer market quite yet.

Headed by former Nou Camp officials Txiki Begiristain, Ferran Soriano and Rodolfo Borrell, the fruits of City’s labour and millions will not become apparent for some time, but the signs are that the club’s hierarchy is willing to be patient with the long-term approach following the wide-scale restructuring.

It is an admirable and ambitious approach from a club who could continue to plunder the market and cherry-pick the world’s elite. The Under 21 side are fourth in their league, while the Under 18s are top, but Sunday will be the first opportunity for many to see the finest crop of City’s next generation in action.

The likes of Bersant Celina, Manu Garcia, Aleix Garcia, Cameron Humphreys-Grant and Angelino are likely to start, but will this one-off dip into the first-team picture amount to anything tangible between now and the end of the season? And will the exposure grant them a future at a club linked with yet more big money moves for Paul Pogba and Ilkay Gundogan among others.

The youngsters who play on Sunday will have been too far into their development to have truly benefited from the purpose of the new academy. Those footballers moulded from a young age and kept in the system that the club are cultivating will not emerge for another 10 or 15 years.

It is imperative that City don’t lose sight of the academy’s purpose. Iheanacho, who joined the academy in January 2014, should not be held up as the standard-bearer or the norm. The 19-year-old striker can be a standout player for the club but the academy is not there to turn ever youngster into a world beater.

Barcelona’s La Masia has a conveyer belt like roll call of talent because it has been unified in purpose sinec its founding in 1979, but its influence is now being undermined by the needs of the first-team. Though it provided eight first-team players for the club’s 2009 Champions League win, the numbers are dwindling after developing Xavi, Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Pedro, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets into world stars.

Lionel Messi avec Xavi et Iniesta en 2010.

Lionel Messi avec Xavi et Iniesta en 2010.AFP

Of Barca’s current side Sergi Roberto and Munir are the only academy graduates given regular game time, while stars of its recent past - Christian Tello, Bojan and Isaac Cuenca - have failed to deliver on their rich promise. The club’s pursuit of a home-grown nucleus has taken a back-seat in recent seasons, with the big-money signings of Neymar, Luis Suarez and Arda Turan the most obvious manifestation of a shift in strategy.

The pathway to the first-team for the 20-year-old Munir has been blocked by the trio. While Messi’s talent would always have seen him surge into the first-team in any era, Pedro and Busquets were only afforded a chance because of Guardiola. Though the Spaniard may take a similar approach at City, his relationship with the duo from his time in charge of the B team helped immensely. The 45-year-old has not developed any first-team players from the Bayern Munich academy.

The deification of Manchester United’s ‘Class of 92’ has lost sight of what an academy truly provides. A Ryan Giggs will come along once in a generation and the academy will make very little difference to their growth because they have the talent and application to make it. Instead it is there to bring the nuts and bolts players into the first-team, Gary and Phil Neville, for instance.

Liverpool have Jon Flanagan, Arsenal have Hector Bellerin and Tottenham have produced a group headed by Harry Kane, but there are precious few other examples at the Premier League’s top clubs. City are hoping to buck a trend, but as top-flight football has so consistently shown, long-term planning is so rarely successful in such a cut-throat short-termist industry.