Pep Guardiola has long admitted that Manchester City have lost touch with Chelsea in the Premier League title race. But on Tuesday night City have another swing at Chelsea, not in first team football but in the academy game, where the two clubs contest the FA Youth Cup final yet again.
This is the third year in a row when City have met Chelsea in this two-legged showdown. Chelsea have cracked academy football long ago, and are chasing their fourth win in a row and their fifth in the last six years.
But for City this is a bigger test, a chance to show whether years of hard work have been vindicated with the most important trophy in the youth game. City last won it in 2008, a completely different era. Since then, especially in the last few years, they have spent millions on their academy, and upset plenty of people along the way. So has it all been worth it?
To watch a City academy team play, especially this side that has made it to this final, is to see a youth team with a rare understanding of the tactical demands of the elite game. Most other academies, even Chelsea’s, rely on training the best, biggest, sharpest players, whereas City’s teams play with the structure and detail – pressing as a group, covering each other – usually seen in the senior game.
That is why City win as much as they do at youth level. Last season they won the Premier League’s Under-18 professional development league, the Under-15 Super Floodlit Cup and the Under-13 international tournament, as well as losing the FA Youth Cup final. Their success is a testament to what can be achieved with enough investment in the right facilities, coaches, scouts and players. They try to win every competition they take part in. As one source in academy football puts it, “no-one should underestimate City’s desire to dominate at youth level.”
That has been one of Txiki Begiristain’s priorities since he arrived at City back in 2012. In March 2014 he appointed his old colleague Rodolfo Borrell, previously of Barcelona and Liverpool, as international technical coordinator. Borrell made sure that every age group at the academy had two specific full-time coaches, with no more part-timers, as well as bringing the coaching into line with a philosophy closer to Begiristain’s. And, of course, Guardiola’s.
Borrell was promoted last summer to work with his old friend Guardiola with the first team and he has effectively been replaced by Jason Wilcox, the head of academy coaching, who is in charge of coaching the coaches. He is another excellent operator, ensuring a quality of coaching better than anywhere else in the country. The £150m City Football Academy, opened next to the Etihad Stadium in December 2014, helps with that too.
But no appointment has been more important than that of Joe Shields. The youth scout, who had previously worked for Crystal Palace and Fulham, joined City to find players in the London area in 2013. Last September he was promoted to be their chief academy scout in the UK. Shields is rated by those who have worked with him as a brilliant talent-spotter who has helped City to identify the best young British talent, not just in their Manchester catchment area but beyond.
The poster boy of these youngsters is Jadon Sancho, the explosively brilliant young attacking midfielder signed from Watford in 2015. He has been the star of this run to the youth cup final, embarrassing opponents even when he steps up into Under-23 football. He is on the brink of signing a professional deal that would be one of the most lucrative ever signed by a 17-year-old in England.
Sancho has been a great success and City have been working hard to find other youngsters from all over the country to follow him. Taylor Richards from Fulham and Ian Carlo Poveda from Brentford followed, both from the London area. They are proud of their Manchester roots too, with Phil Foden, the creative central midfielder thought to be the best local player City have brought through in years. Brahim Diaz, a Spanish number 10, has been another star of the FA Youth Cup run.
One view at City is that there is jealousy from rival academies towards City because of City’s success
But City’s recruitment operation has not always gone down well with their rival academies. There is some resentment towards City, mainly in the north-west but not limited to there, concerning their pursuit of youth players. One view at City is that there is jealousy from rival academies towards City because of City’s success.
The Premier League take these matters very seriously. Liverpool were given a two-year ban, the second year suspended, and fined £100,000 earlier this month for illegally approaching a Stoke City youngster. The Premier League is currently investigating three recent academy signings made by City, going through the five-step process they follow to look into all signings between two Category One academies. This means examining phone and bank records to examine the details of how transfers came about.
No charges have been brought but if the Premier League found City guilty of breaching the rules, the club would have the opportunity to agree a sanction, as Liverpool did in their case. If they could not do that then they would face the prospect of an independent tribunal and potentially harsher punishments.
But what if all of this is an arms race for a war that will never be fought? One of the surprises of Pep Guardiola’s first season at City is that of all the talented youngsters he has, only Kelechi Iheanacho has made a real impression on the team, with nine starts in all competitions and seven goals. Pablo Maffeo made three starts and was loaned out, even as City used Fernandinho and Jesus Navas at right-back instead. Aleix Garcia has made three starts and Tosin Adarabioyo just one, and he has not yet signed a contract for next season. Manu Garcia, Brandon Barker and Bersant Celina, three of the stars of the last few years, are all out on loan in Holland.
That should not be held against Sancho, Foden and Brahim, though, City’s representatives tomorrow night. They have a historic chance to win the Youth Cup for City, to cap off years of hard work and investment and to make a case to Guardiola for their involvement in the first team. And even if they do not, City will trust that they can still recruit and coach youngsters better than anyone else.