It would appear that City Football Group are trying to take over the world. From a volcano hideout somewhere on a remote island Dr. Evil raised a pinky to his mouth in approval as the holding company expanded their club network once again. This time it was in a rather peculiar country: Bolivia. The country in the heart of South America has lagged far behind other CONMEBOL nations, only ever reaching the World Cup three times in one of the most difficult qualifying groups in the world.
Such a head-scratching location for CFG to invest makes it reasonable to assume that City Football Group are laying the groundwork for a global network of clubs that employ similar methodologies for player development, ultimately funneling talent to City and, once MLS catches up, New York City FC, the other heavyweight of the CFG conglomerate. Their devotion to long-term success seems genuine and thoughtful. CFG is moving chess pieces and building an infrastructure that will foster success 20 years from now. But in another vital aspect to club success and more importantly, community respect, they have been anything but patient: player development.
Manchester City have churned out some fantastic talent from their youth academy but for one reason or another, they have almost never featured consistently for the first team. City’s inability to include academy graduates might be one of the reasons the Etihad Stadium still has empty seats at home games. At City, the flagship team under the CFG umbrella, they spend big in order to win. The sums of money tossed around are so vast that it’s easy to forget the blue half of the city actually has a quite respectable academy system. Nevertheless, whether it’s the player’s choice or the club’s choice, their graduates have headed for the exit repeatedly and perhaps a bit too easily.
That’s how much money City have spent on defenders since 2015. José Mourinho accurately goaded City by saying “they buy fullbacks for the price of strikers.” Some of these purchases were staggering—Aymeric Laporte for $79.5 million, Rúben Dias for $74.8 million, Benjamin Mendy for $63.25 million and so on—but it’s also true that Pep Guardiola needed these players if he was to realize his vision for how City should play football. It’s a stunning amount of money, but ,as the trophies started to roll in, the cost seemed validated. When the Spanish manager arrived at City his fullback options were Aleksandar Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta, Gaël Clichy, Bacary Sagna and Jesus Navas. In Pep’s first season City finished third in the Premier League. The next summer they spent $154.2 million on Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo and said goodbye to all five of the aforementioned. City would immediately go on to be crowned Premier League champions after finishing with 100 points, beating out the previous record of 95 points set by Chelsea in 2004/05. The next season City retained their crown, winning the league with 98 points. Back to back league titles, two League Cups, and one FA Cup in two seasons. It’s impossible to make a valid argument that City did anything wrong. But what if they had? Could they have reached the same levels with the products of their own academy? I’m not saying that. But… I’m not not saying that either.
While City directors had initiated bank transfers and new signings had smiled for the cameras, hovering over their contracts, a cohort of City academy graduates (defenders specifically) had begun to prove themselves elsewhere in Europe. These included the likes of Kieran Trippier, Jason Denayer, Dedryck Boyata, Karim Rekik, Angeliño and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. Whether they left by their own choice or were released/sold by City, they all moved away from the club early in their careers, never having seen significant playing time for the first team.
If club executives read this article they will roll their eyes, knowing that such a simplistic thought was never an option for reasons far out of their control. But when the bill rises to $595 million, it’s worthwhile to just ask: what if? What if Dedryck Boyata and Jason Denayer had stayed at City under the mentorship of club captain and legend as well as Belgian countryman Vincent Kompany? What if Kieran Trippier had never left for Burnley then Tottenham then Atlético Madrid, establishing himself as a regular fixture in the England team in the process and even scoring for his country at the 2018 World Cup? Did City really need to spend $44 million on Ederson when Kasper Schmeichel was busy becoming a Premier League champion with Leicester City? And after left back cameos from Fabian Delph, Benjamin Mendy and Oleksandr Zinchenko, Angeliño has proven to be one of the most exciting left-sided defenders in world football for RB Leipzig (on loan from City with his future unclear). We can ask all those questions and yet, it’s impossible to argue with a season that yielded 100 points and a totally mesmerizing brand of attacking football. What City are doing is working and it’s likely only a matter of time before City lift the trophy they have been after for so long, the Champions League.
But as City continue to grow into one of the most well recognized clubs in the world, something still seems to be missing. It’s on show almost every time they take the field at home, arguably the only European mega-club that manages to have empty seats in its stadium (pre-Covid obviously). For all City’s efforts in the community (which are significant) they couldn’t hold on to any of their academy products except for the world-class talent that is Phil Foden. One of the most exciting young talents in Europe, Foden carries the torch for the academy on his own. In recent years, the club has let the following players leave the club: Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City), Denis Suarez (Barcelona), Rony Lopes (AS Monaco), Brahim Diaz (Real Madrid), Tosin Adarabioyo (Fulham), and Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund). In just the last week, City’s promising young center back Eric Garcia has left the club and returned to FC Barcelona. Next up is 18-year-old Dutch winger Jayden Braaf, another electric wide player who is incredibly promising but is rumored to be interested in a move to Borussia Dortmund. More often than not it appears that the academy players are the ones making the decision to leave, but it’s not quite that simple. They are forced into this decision as they risk missing out on important minutes during some of the most formative years of their development. City’s standards are set so high that there is hardly time for patience. And when you want trophies, why wait for Brahim Diaz to grow in confidence and develop in the background of a top class squad when you can sign Bernardo Silva for $60.5 million? This is the mindset of the club and, like we stated above, it’s working. But if this success comes at the expense of local support, then who are they even winning trophies for?
It’s crucial to note here that I’m not arguing that Boyata, Rekik or Denayer are better players than Dias, Stones and Laporte, but if given the opportunity to develop alongside those kinds of high-quality signings, they might have been good enough to play important roles in City’s fortunes. To take just one example: is Nathan Aké, signed from Bournemouth in the summer, really better than Denayer? When young players are allowed to train and learn from superstars, which City’s squad is full of, whilst also getting enough game time to develop and mature in a comfortable and supportive setting, you can see startling improvement over time. This is where City probably should be more patient before players are sent away. The issue with City, and indeed most European mega-clubs, is that there is never time. The immediacy is suffocating at times, and that hurts the potential for young players to be allowed to bed in and feel comfortable enough that making mistakes is a part of learning.
I know it’s easy to believe that it’s absolutely necessary to spend big in order to compete for the Champions League and, frankly, it is. Whether it’s on a consistent basis or not, all clubs vying for the most prestigious trophy will spend big eventually. But it’s the ones who do it intelligently while at the same time cultivating their own talents that seem to be the most successful. The right mixture is the recipe for trophies while also stirring pride in the local community for the homegrown talent that fans have seen play for the youth teams. So City should still spend. The $74.8 million spent for Ruben Dias is beginning to look like a bargain as he has forged the strongest centre-back partnership in the Premier League with John Stones. But there’s a tremendous and incalculable value in having players who were produced in-house. Playing for a team and family that has literally been feeding you meals alongside your fellow academy products gives a player a sense of comfort that can render them completely unrecognizable compared to what kind of player they are when they leave their parent club. Just take a look at Real Madrid striker Luka Jović. The Serbian arrived from German club Frankfurt in 2019 for $70 million. 37 appearances and only two goals later, Madrid loaned Jović back to Frankfurt where he scored 2 goals in his first game. Even though Frankfurt isn’t his first club as a senior player, it’s clearly where he feels the most comfortable and, therefore, confident. Comfort and familiarity counts for a lot. Community respect counts for even more. City spending half a billion dollars on defenders might have been the right thing to do, but I believe they could have arrived in the same positions and lifted the same trophies if they had maintained a defensive nucleus of homegrown talent and added quality to it meticulously.
After several loan spells, Karim Rekik has gone on to play for Marseille, Hertha Berlin and Sevilla. Belgian international Dedryck Boyata is currently captain of Hertha Berlin after spending time in Scotland with Celtic and compatriot Jason Denayer starred for the Lyon side that knocked City out of the Champions League last year. Kieran Trippier is currently top of the Spanish league with Atlético Madrid after several years in England with Burnley and Tottenham. And, as I mentioned before, Angeliño has been one of the brightest stars of the Bundesliga this season as City have been feigning for consistency at left back, highlighted by the signing of Benjamin Mendy for $70 million. The one point of endless local City pride and deserved boasting is Phil Foden. The 20-year-old academy midfielder is currently valued at $72 million and is a reminder of what the City faithful have felt is missing from the mega-club. Had City prioritized holding onto a handful of these players, whether they had become important players or just dependable role players for the club, City could be doing it all: winning trophies, saving hundreds of millions of dollars and filling those unsightly empty seats. The power of a prolific academy can never be underestimated.
Eddy Prugh is an American football writer and former professional footballer. Follow him on Twitter here.