Thinking back to the days where Stuart Pearce or Kevin Keegan were managing Manchester City – and the days where the club had little money to spend after the latter’s splurge during his early time in charge – the squad was, at times, paper thin. Throughout there were gaps; the so-called ‘star’ names needed to play week-in week-out and there was little rotation. Strength in depth was a foolhardy dream.
Equally, players that had graduated from the youth academy heavily supplemented the team – though, in truth, many weren’t ready for the step up on a regular basis. It was hardly a surprise that the likes of Lee Croft, Willo Flood, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Ishmael Miller or Stephen Jordan didn’t forge a career at the top level. Many still amassed a fair few appearances for the club, however.
That’s because, for a brief time, they did a job and played their part in seasons where – however desperate it got at times – City stayed in the Premier League.
Things have changed. City’s squad is now full of that world-class talent it previously missed and, of course, places for the youth products are few and far between. There’s no longer the necessity to bring them in. It’s not a case of needing to fill places on the bench any more. Equally, the club has fewer dead rubbers at the end of a season to blood the youth; settling for 40 points is City in 2006, not 2016.
However, there’s an increasingly vocal section of the City support that seems desperate to see youngsters given “a chance”. I use quotation marks because that’s the phrase so regularly uttered when Manuel Pellegrini names a starting line-up of 11 senior players and a bench of seven further senior players. The insinuation is that the manager is being a blockage in the route to the first team for the legions of talented youth players that are currently plying their trade in the Elite Development Squad.
In the games against Arsenal or Chelsea or Liverpool, the mood is much more understanding – they’re tough opposition. But when the other team is a Premier League struggler or it’s a match in one of the two domestic cups and the manager has chosen to rotate a little, but still use only senior players in the starting line-up, the disappointment can turn quite vitriolic.
The Chilean was rightly criticised for his subs bench when City crashed out – unexpectedly – of the League Cup in 2014-15 to Newcastle. He’d named perhaps the strongest starting line-up he could, save for swapping first choice goalkeeper Joe Hart with back-up Willy Caballero. Yet his bench was still made up of experienced pros.
At the time, it was entirely possible that City could have been 3-0 or 4-0 up mid-way through the second half and he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to introduce any of the club’s EDS players. As it turned out, they were awful and lost the match 0-2 – so it was, in the end, immaterial.
Roll forward a season and there was widespread annoyance, tipping over into anger, that Pellegrini’s starting 11 for the trip to the Stadium of Light in the League Cup third round contained only senior players. Kelechi Iheanacho, who had made fleeting appearances by that stage and was being hyped up by many who had seen him play at younger levels and in preseason, was injured and it seems likely the boss would have given him time on the field for that match.
Leading 4-0, Pellegrini brought on Patrick Roberts, Manu Garcia and George Evans for their debuts. The evening probably couldn’t have gone better, despite how some were feeling before kick off.
@EsteemedKompany Typical Pellers. We need Pep.
— John (@Citizens_) September 22, 2015
@MCFC Pellegrini was partially brought in because of his attitude towards promoting youth and he starts none vs Sunderland in the LC… 😂😂
— Rob Farrell (@Rob_Farrell) September 22, 2015
It all started at the end of last season. Jesus Navas became the focal point for the anger and disappointment at the whole of the first team under-performing in 2014-15 and, with the rise of the EDS side and the £200m investment that had gone into opening the new academy in East Manchester, many seemed to assume that the step to the first team was now smaller than it had ever been. It would be a simple task for Brandon Barker, for instance, to come in and take over form the Spaniard based on how he’d done at youth level.
In truth, the jump has probably never been bigger – Barker couldn’t hold down a place at Rotherham, under Neil Redfern who once headed-up Leeds United’s academy fairly successfully. This isn’t to say Barker never will be good enough for the City team, but clearly there is a reason for him to be still yet to be given a run in the side as many wanted.
Jesus Navas should be made to clean Brandon Barker boots…. Give him a shirt Saturday!!! #MCFC
— Lee Thurkettle (@45_Thurkettle) April 20, 2015
Brandon barker looks better than Jesus navas his crosses are 10x better
— mark keohane (@markmcfckeohane) April 8, 2015
I’ve watched Brandon Barker a few times this season, he’s already a better option than Navas for me. Get him involved in the 1st team!
— Liam Hudson (@fessitwentyfour) April 8, 2015
Tosin Aradibayo> Mangala
Brandon Barker> Navas
George Evans>Yaya Toure
Kelechi Iheanacho> Bony
Jason Denayer> Demichelis
— RichMansMartial (@DanDmbooth) December 21, 2015
Pellegrini pulled the same trick he did at Sunderland in the next round against Crystal Palace. The original line-up was strong (and contained a start for Iheanacho), then at 3-0 he threw in Roberts and Garcia. The latter scored City’s fifth of the evening.
It’s a habit the Chilean has fallen into. He takes all matches in all competitions seriously as he clearly sees them as an opportunity to give the fans something to celebrate – it might “only” be the League Cup, but who didn’t enjoy the 3-1 win over Sunderland at Wembley in 2014?
City struggled against Hull, only scoring the second in the 4-1 win with 10 minutes left to play. Reflecting this, Pellegrini’s changes were far less risky. He didn’t bring on Cameron Humphreys or Manu Garcia; instead Raheem Sterling and Kelechi Iheanacho left the bench, with Martin Demichelis shoring things up too.
With Wembley in sight and a tough draw against Everton, few are complaining that he went full strength for the two-legged tie and did enough to progress to the final. There won’t be many who moan when his line-up for the match with Liverpool is full strength, too – in fact, it would likely be that he’d be heavily criticised for not taking the game seriously if he rotated and started some youth players.
Pellegrini pulled exactly the same trick in the FA Cup this season. At Norwich, when 3-0 up and coasting, Bersant Celina was given some first team experience. With the side 4-0 up and cruising at Villa Park on Saturday, Angelino and Humpreys made their debuts, with some more time being given to Celina as well.
Indeed, one of the youngsters that Pellegrini has been keeping on a tight leash all season benefited from leading the line in the FA Cup fourth round. Iheanacho exploded on the scene with a goal at Crystal Palace and the hat-trick at Villa Park has many saying he’s now arrived in senior football. The “treat them mean, keep them keen” principle could have been one of the biggest factors in his display.
Fans have been increasingly frustrated that Wilfried Bony – who isn’t a bad player by any stretch of the imagination, though clearly he’s never settled at City – continued to be named ahead of the Nigerian. Iheanacho’s slow introduction will be doing a lot for his development, keeping him hungry, desperate to play and not complacent. This isn’t the time where the manager looks at his options and he’s got Bernardo Corradi and Georgios Samaras to pick from; he can play a longer game with a player that’s clearly got a lot of time on his side.
That hat-trick may be both the result of that slow process and the reason why he’ll be given a hell of a lot more playing time from now on, perhaps even to the point of being swapped into the Champions League squad. After weeks of sitting on the bench, waiting for his chance, he’s gone on to the pitch desperate to show what he can do – and it’s worked.
City’s position in 2016 isn’t one where they need players to fill in from a young age. They have a squad designed to deal with injuries and suspensions, so Roberts is better served going on loan to Celtic as is reported – it would be madness to throw him into first team duties to deputise for Kevin De Bruyne while he’s out injured.
Fans love players like Micah Richards, who graduate and perform well in the first team to nail down a place. But those examples are few and far between – other than him, only really Shaun Wright-Phillips excited supporters on a consistent basis. Perhaps for a brief spell so did Joey Barton, Stephen Ireland and Nedum Onuoha, but to nowhere near the same scale.
City haven’t invested £200m into the academy for nothing, but the truth is the majority of players there aren’t going to make it to the first team. Speaking to the Blue Moon Podcast a few years back, former academy head Jim Cassell talked about creating well-rounded human beings who had a career in football, rather than a set of skilful wonder-kids that would light up the City first team. It’s entirely possible that the Blues will have a starting line-up that came through the academy, but it’s about as likely as winning the National Lottery jackpot – it’s expecting too much to think that’ll happen in the next few years.
Some players might not be up to Premier League standard until later in the careers. There are examples of late developers, who trawl the football league until getting promoted a couple of times and end up being a hit in the top flight. Others may be up to helping a team stay in the Premier League, but be well of the pace when it comes to helping a team win it.
The majority of youngsters at City won’t be the next Wright-Phillips, Richards, or even Iheanacho. But some will – and they will get a chance in the first team. So calm down on the youth football front – they don’t all need to start in every cup competition going when there’s the slightest hint of an “easy” draw and Pellegrini doesn’t need to bring them off the bench every time he’s winning a match 3-0 when he’s got other, first team players to keep interested, fit and in form.
Just because £200m has been spent on the academy doesn’t mean it will bear fruit immediately. Fans need to stop pinning all of their graduate hopes on certain individuals, then being baffled when those dreams are misplaced.
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Written by David Mooney.