“That’s one of the reasons why Pep was so highly considered,” said Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak in May 2016, before Guardiola had even found a home in Manchester. “He has done that with Barcelona, he has done that with Bayern Munich.
“We have that at our club,” he continued. “We have incredible talent today. This is an organisation that has won the under-10 national championship, the under-13s under-15s and the under-18s this year. We are competitive with a lot of talent across all age levels going all the way to EDS [Elite Development Squad] and Pep, I think, will enjoy that and will find a lot of gems we are going to produce. I think that has always been the objective and the premise behind the investment we have made in the City Football Academy and the infrastructure we have in place today.”
This, after all, was why Al Mubarak, Sheikh Mansour and Txiki Begiristain had courted Guardiola for so long, stretching back to their critical assessment that one of his predecessors, Roberto Mancini, had failed to “identify the need to develop a holistic approach to all aspects of football at the club”. City had invested £150m in an academy that covered an 80-acre site, and Guardiola was both the headmaster and the chaperone. In their minds, Guardiola was the one coach who guaranteed success in the short and long-term.
You wonder what Al Mubarak thought of Guardiola’s assessment of City’s young players last month. “They will come to the United States on our pre-season tour so we are going to see how they are,” said the manager. “They are 16, 17 or 18. The quality is there, but maybe not in the next year.” We can safely translate ‘maybe’ as ‘almost certainly’.
In Guardiola’s first Premier League season, the manager gave 464 minutes to teenagers. Of that number, Gabriel Jesus (signed for £27m) accounted for 203 and Kelechi Iheanacho accounted for 186. The Nigerian will soon depart Manchester City on a permanent basis. The other 75 minutes belong to Aleix Garcia, signed at the age of 18 from Villarreal.
If the argument in response is that the next generation will come through, that requires a leap of faith. So far this summer, City have spent approximately £210m on six players. While that total is significant in itself – already the record for a single club’s spend in one window – it is the ages of four of those signings that is most crucial: 19, 22, 22, 23. And five of their signings from last season: 19, 19, 19, 20, 22. City, with their £150m academy, are parachuting in players at the start of their careers. This is double-bagging, Premier League style.
There are examples across the board, but think of Pablo Maffeo. He joined from Espanyol in 2015, bided his time and shone on his second start against Manchester United in October last year. Will the departures of Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta give him his chance to shine? The arrival of Walker and Danilo for a combined £80m is the immediate answer to an obvious rhetorical question.
If a highly-rated player in a problem position who impressed on debut cannot get a chance, who can? That is the question that Jadon Sancho is currently pondering having shone for England at the Under-17 World Cup. Sancho is a supremely talented left winger, potentially the best player of his age in Europe. Should City suffer injuries to Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Bernardo Silva, Patrick Roberts and Kevin De Bruyne, Sancho might get a chance in the first team. Recent reports suggest that Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham and Arsenal are hoping to take advantage of that blocked pathway.
Guardiola is not the only coach causing academy players such headaches; not by a stretch. In April, Antonio Conte criticised the Manchester clubs for spending rather than improving what they have, but Chelsea have already spent £130m on three first-team players and most reports suggest Conte still wants at least four more. Chelsea’s summer 2017 list of the damned includes Nathan Ake, Dominic Solanke, Mukhtar Ali and Nathaniel Chalobah. Ola Aina, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lucas Piazon, Marco van Ginkel, Kurt Zouma, Tammy Abraham and others are merely in purgatory. Antonio Conte did not give a single league minute to a teenager last season.
At Manchester United, Jose Mourinho began his tenure in charge by producing a list of 49 players he gave professional debuts to, but should he get the winger and central midfielder he still wants he will have spent around £350m in the 14 months since taking over. United gave the most minutes to teenagers of any top-six side last season (1,924), but 1,702 of those were by Marcus Rashford, the boy wonder who was presented on a silver platter to the new manager.
Even away from the academy pathway problems, player improvement has become a rarer pastime among elite club managers (Mauricio Pochettino is the obvious and honourable exception). This summer has been an arms race of squad improvement, a queue of vultures queuing up to pick off the over-achievers (Monaco, Benfica, Roma) or the reserves of elite clubs (Real Madrid). Buying what you need rather than improving what you have is the new norm.
In late July, last season’s top six have already spent around £530m on new players. Premier League broadcasting revenues provide the resources for quick fixes. European clubs are only too happy to apply the premium; English clubs are only too happy to pay it. Again, Tottenham are the exception.
This is not to blame these managers, merely explain the near-impossibility that elite clubs face in blooding academy talent and the challenge fringe players have in forcing their way into first teams. In June 2015 the League Managers’ Association calculated that the average tenure of a manager in English professional football is 1.23 years. Amidst that cycle of impatience and perma-pressure, putting faith in youth is the pursuit of the foolish or the brave.
There is another, very simple, explanation: The Premier League has too many good teams. Or, to be more exact, it has six teams for whom a top-four finish is the expectation for 2017/18. The obvious inequation has created the desperation for instant fixes.
If revenues, transfer budgets and the demand for instant success remain at the same level – and there is nothing to say any of the three will decrease in the short-term – developing homegrown talent and winning trophies will near the point of mutual exclusivity. Even if a coach is promised by a club that long-termism will win out, media pressure still pushes down from on high. Any one of Klopp, Wenger, Guardiola, Conte, Mourinho or Pochettino’s job will be questioned should they finish below fourth.
In that reality, transfer market success becomes the key component of a manager’s reputation at the expense of coaching. The term chequebook manager is no longer a criticism. It is merely a reflection of reality.