“We are building a structure for the future not just a team of all-stars.”
The words of Manchester City’s distant owner, Sheikh Mansour. His vision, and dream for the club he swept in and took over in the latter days of the summer transfer window in 2008. It’s been repeated in every article that’s been written about that takeover, and even adorns the walls at the Etihad Stadium. It’s what the club has strived for since that takeover, and what it continues to strive for in its actions off the pitch.
Much has been made of the combination of Pep Guardiola and City “changing” English football irrevocably. But what does that actually mean? Certainly, he brings a level of tactical innovation and attention to detail unparalleled on these shores since Arsene Wenger went to Arsenal and mooted the idea of a scientific approach to training. Another obvious example are the players who will want to come and play under such a special coach. City’s capture of İlkay Gündoğan, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sané are early examples of exciting footballers eschewing the draw of the usual European giants to ply their trade at City.
Tactical systems come and go, star players grow older and retire – but the real key to the mooted change of English football – the structure for the future – will come from those youngsters currently learning their craft in the ranks of City’s junior teams, who will already be feeling the influence of Guardiola’s philosophy and winning mentality, even if they don’t make the grade at the Etihad.
Since the opening of the £200 million City Football Academy, countless words have been written about how it would help realise Sheikh Mansour’s vision. And that’s been intensified tenfold since Pep was announced and rocked up in the east of the city. Guardiola has been long seen as the key component in turning that vision, that dream, into a reality. He was the golden goose, and the courtship was a long term ambition of the club. His approach to football and ability to spot something in young academy players turning them into world class talents.
City’s widely held ambition for the CFA is to replicate the success of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, where players are brought up in a footballing tradition, indoctrinated into a system and style of play that becomes so intuitive, that they slot straight into the tactical demands of first team football, once they’ve developed physically. And it works. Iniesta, Messi, Xavi and Pep himself all developed with the fundamentals put in place by Johan Cryuff. Sergi Roberto is the most recent benefactor, capitalising on the void left by Dani Alves and the uncertainty over Aleix Vidal at right full back.
Even those who started out in that school and left to find first team football elsewhere, Cesc Fabregas and Jordi Alba for example, returned to slot somewhat seamlessly into the first team, having developed at Arsenal and Valencia.
Look around the Premier League and other top European leagues and you’ll find of examples of players who learned their footballing fundamentals at La Masia – Bojan at Stoke City, Victor Valdes at Middlesborough, Héctor Bellerín at Arsenal, Alex Grimaldo at Benfica, Thiago Alcântara at Bayern, Marc Bartra at Dortmund and of course (albeit briefly) Nolito, now at City. Barcelona’s influence is even being felt in developing leagues like Qatar with Xavi. Look at the impact Yaya Touré had when he joined City, and that was without being steeped in that tradition from a young age.
And it’s those potential stars who don’t make the increasingly higher grade and break into the first team at City who will disseminate throughout the rest of the Premier League and the world, carrying with them the winning mentality they’ve gained having been schooled at what looks to become one of the finest academies in football. City’s structure will permeate, it will infiltrate into other clubs who look to snap up top players who didn’t make it at the Etihad. A little bit of City and their philosophy that started with Guardiola will head to all corners of English football.
Like their predecessors at Barcelona who left in search of first-team football, they’ll take that unique level of tactical awareness, a confidence on the ball, in receiving and moving on possession, an ability to play in more than one position having been brought up in the belief that to truly become a complete footballer, they must understand how their role affects that of their teammates. Their versatility will drastically increase their chances of finding a home in a starting XI somewhere.
Just imagine, in five, 10 or 15 years, looking through the squad lists of Premier League and Championship clubs, seeing supremely talented footballers who learned their craft at the CFA. Of home nations going into international windows with a side composed of born winners. Of players who can match their European peers in a level of technical and tactical brilliance. Of the bar of football in this country being raised from the ground upwards. Think of the success of Spain’s golden generation, of decades of underachievement being blown away with a style of football that originated at Barcelona, that could only have been implemented by players already steeped in that philosophy.
Think of the Premier League, with its millions, nay, billions being pulled up to a level of sophistication currently on display in La Liga – a blend of our much loved blood and thunder approach blended with home grown magicians in the mould of those like Iniesta; of graceful, ball playing defenders like John Stones no longer needing to cost almost £50 million because they’ve become commonplace, found in sides up and down the country, in all divisions. And of City’s sky blue bloodline running through all of it.
That will be Pep Guardiola and Manchester City’s structure for the future, their great revolution.
Written by Josh Stead
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