It’s fair to say the arrival of Nicolás Otamendi from Valencia has been greeted with mixed emotions by the City faithful this week.
On the one hand, there are those who’ve hailed the signing of the 27-year-old Argentina international as a huge positive for the club, it being an acquisition of an elite central defender in the prime of his career who will hopefully adapt quickly to his new surroundings and contribute to what we’re all hoping will be a successful season both domestically and in Europe.
But on the other hand, there are many who’ve expressed concern about what this particular transfer says about City’s attitude to youth development, most-pertinently the development of 20-year-old Jason Denayer, who appears to have slipped further down the central defensive pecking order as a result of Otamendi’s arrival.
Denayer spent last season on loan at Celtic and did extremely well, his spell north of the border earning him a call-up to the Belgian national team and culminating in him winning the SPFL Young Player of the Season. His return to City this summer saw him feature prominently in the squad during pre-season and many were excited by the prospect of him challenging Vincent Kompany, Eliaquim Mangala and Martín Demichelis for a first team place during the 2015/16 campaign.
The signing of Otamendi appears to have cast doubt over Denayer’s immediate future however, with his agent publicly expressing disappointment regarding his client’s role at the club earlier this week and a large portion of City’s fanbase following suit. It would now seem that the best and most likely scenario will see the player sent out on loan for another season, although there are genuine fears City could well have alienated a very decent prospect and increased the risk of losing him permanently to a club willing to give him a chance sooner rather than later.
One of the finest things you can witness as a football supporter is a young player coming through the ranks at your club and developing into a top class professional. It’s what every fan loves to see and with that inevitably comes a degree of unjustified fervor surrounding young players who show promise early in their careers.
City haven’t exactly had a terrific record in terms of inducting homegrown youngsters into the first team since the club’s takeover in 2008, but that doesn’t mean players such as John Guidetti, Denis Suárez and Joan Àngel Román haven’t generated huge amounts of feverish hype based on little more than glimpses of talent while playing for the club’s Elite Development Squad.
The inauguration of City’s East Manchester state-of-the-art training and academy complex last year has significantly upped the ante where youth development is concerned, the message coming loud and clear from the club that the current model of buying in talent from outside is unsustainable and not part of the long-term plan, but rather that the production of homegrown world class talent will be the focal point of the Manchester City of the future.
This is undoubtedly a major step in the right direction for City, but the club must also now live with a great deal of pressure both from outsiders and its own supporters as a result. If the club is unwilling or unable to begin introducing players from the academy into the first team soon, they are inevitably and perhaps understandably going to attract criticism from those who will be beginning to wonder why so much money was spent and such a song and dance made about the new academy facilities last year.
It is for this reason that the Otamendi transfer has furrowed the brows of many City supporters and one can understand why it doesn’t appear to be the act of a club with a commitment to youth development but more in tune with the “moneybags Manchester City” of recent years.
Of the three players it was announced had officially graduated from the EDS to the first team at the beginning of this season, the aforementioned Jason Denayer is unlikely to find himself usurping the established players above him anytime soon, Kelechi Iheanacho is at best the third choice striker in a team currently only playing with one at a time, and Rony Lopes is so far away from a matchday squad he might as well be in a different time zone. You have to admit, it doesn’t look great.
More than one detractor has laid the blame for this situation squarely at the feet of manager Manuel Pellegrini, the maxim that the Chilean is stubbornly unwilling to give young players a chance in his team appearing to be a reasonably popular one. Although this does seem to be a rather simplistic viewpoint, (and ignores the fact it was Pellegrini who handed a full-debut to José Ángel Pozo last season, for example) one could perhaps understand why a manager at a club like City would be reluctant to put his livelihood on the line by selecting untested youth players in favour of more established and theoretically more reliable senior pros.
City are a club that cannot afford to stand still for even a moment anymore. After finishing last season empty handed, the pressure to win a major trophy and progress in the Champions League would appear to be greater than ever this year and they are surely more likely to do so with ready-made talent like Sterling, Otamendi and De Bruyne than they are with Lopes, Denayer and Iheanacho. It may be a sad reality, but it’s a reality nonetheless.
In 1995, the then BBC Sport pundit Alan Hansen infamously remarked that “You can’t win anything with kids” and, barring the anomaly of Manchester United making him eat his words that season and for many years thereafter, he probably had a point. The examples of top teams winning major honours throughout Europe with squads packed full of homegrown players in recent years are few and far between and though there have been instances of “wonderkids” coming through the ranks at top clubs, it generally seems to be the case that young players tend to make a name for themselves at lesser clubs before making the step-up once their raw talent has begun to solidify.
The problem, from City’s point of view, is that there simply aren’t any youngsters in the EDS at the moment who would be considered prodigious enough to slot straight into the first team and it is likely to be at least five to ten years before the academy will begin to bear fruit of that calibre.
Someone on Twitter was heard to remark earlier this week that City must begin to be more inclusive to players like Jason Denayer because, more than anything, they need send a message to other young players that they do have a chance of making it at this club. Though this is true to an extent, perhaps the most realistic and important message the club should be sending to young players is the one being sent at the moment: that to make it at City you must be hard-working, dedicated, patient and most of all, bloody good.
There are strong arguments being presented on both sides of the fence when it comes to City’s current youth policy. If you ask me, the simplest solution to the predicament would be to take a leaf out of Chelsea’s book and take greater advantage of the loan system. We know more about Jason Denayer than we did a year ago thanks to the season he spent in Scotland, and we’ll know even more about him a year from now if he’s loaned out to another team in the Premier League.
People might suggest that farming youngsters out to other clubs on the off-chance they’ll turn out to be good enough is unfair to the individuals in question, but if these players don’t end up being good enough for City, they’ll surely find another club more befitting of their talent once they eventually move on. Clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid have produced and subsequently rejected a plethora of players over the years who weren’t good enough for them but have gone on to make other clubs very happy indeed, players like Javi García and Álvaro Negredo to name but two.
Though the disappointment surrounding what would appear to be the temporary stifling of Jason Denayer’s progression is understandable, it’s more important than ever for City fans continue to be patient with the club when it comes to the academy. We can’t expect things to change overnight, especially if we want the first team to continue being successful, and these things really do take time.
Written by Dan Burke