It’s a mid-summer evening in Rome, 27th May 2009: Xavi Hernandez picks up the ball forty yards from the Manchester United goal twenty minutes from time following a hurried clearance from Patrice Evra. Gifted possession and devoid of pressure, the opposition hurries to restore to their defensive line. Barcelona’s pass master, their exquisite number six, is invited to take aim. His team-mate of choice: Lionel Messi; the 21-year-old forward, recent recipient of his first Balon d’Or, finds himself in ample space after ghosting in behind Rio Ferdinand. Xavi’s cross seems destined to glide over the Argentinian’s shoulder, but La Pulga (the flea) leaps and connects with an arching header to put his team two goals ahead and on the verge of history. An unprecedented treble for a peerless side.
Stood on the side-lines, in the stifling heat of the Stadio Olimpico, is Pep Guardiola: ignorant to the rapturous celebrations surrounding him, instead frantically and repeatedly gesticulating his instructions for Seydou Keita, the oncoming substitute.
In 12 months, Pep, the former pivote (holding midfielder) of Johan Cruyff’s fabled ‘Dream Team’ had revolutionised Barcelona B and transformed the senior side using the crux of a footballing philosophy passed down from his former coach. Indebted to Cruyff for the quality of his teachings, Guardiola candidly admitted, “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel and Barcelona coaches since merely restored or improved it”.
At the centre of Cruyff’s ‘chapel’ was his visionary La Masia, Barcelona’s lauded academy. A production line of talent, primed to move seamlessly through the club’s age groups and to the first team; specifically moulded to Cruyff’s interpretation of Dutch total football. Guardiola, an ardent Cruyffista, with both his playing and coaching careers stemming from the great Dutchman’s vision, sought to use La Masia to its fullest potential during his time at the Nou Camp.
That night in Rome, eight of the thirteen players used were home-grown; by the end of his four years at the helm, the Catalan had used twenty-three former academy players in La Liga.
The club, whose identity had been shaped by Cruyff, was undoubtedly enhanced under Pep.
So as the manager of Manchester City, he was immediately assigned with bringing a similar philosophy to a club that sought to emulate the Spanish giants. The scale of his task however was underlined by City’s dismal end to the 2015/16 season. A squad almost debilitated by an affliction that had taken hold mid-season: post-Pep fever. After it was confirmed in February 2016 that Guardiola would be replacing Manuel Pellegrini, the side won just four of their remaining fourteen league games. The subtle laissez-faire attitude that underpinned the squad soon became all-encompassing, as City slumped to a 4th place position in the league.
Eagerly awaited, Guardiola’s arrival sparked fierce optimism, amongst fans and the media alike. After an underwhelming end to the prior campaign – encapsulated by their abysmal performance in the semi-finals of the Champions’ League – the Catalan coach embodied the change City desperately needed.
It was expected that Pep would completely remodel his inherited squad, the oldest in the Premier League, during the summer transfer window. Throughout the 15/16 season, aside from Raheem Sterling, the club’s record-signing at the time, the only young player not solely restricted to cameo appearances was Kelechi Iheanacho, who, despite coming off the bench to a degree of almost clockwork regularity, also enjoyed seven league starts.
It was hoped that Guardiola, following on from his exemplary use of La Masia, could reverse this trend. The club had high hopes for Iheanacho, Patrick Roberts, Aleix Garcia, Tosin Adarabioyo, and numerous other of their potential stars. Their academy was coveted; their facilities were of the highest standard and their new coach was renowned for promoting from within.
City were positioned to become innovators, proof that elite Premier League clubs could make the most of their academies. In his opening press conference, Guardiola admitted to loving working with young players, and being “really impressed” with the club’s talent. “Chelsea and Manchester City have the best academies [in England]”, Guardiola continued. It was now his job to ensure that these players became first team regulars. It was expected of him.
However, much of the ageing nucleus remained for the 2016/17 season even if Pep did succeed in adding a more youthful edge to his City side. John Stones, Leroy Sané, and Gabriel Jesus: all were part of the Spaniard’s new-look team. Young, developing players were a clear priority although, like his predecessors, when faced with the untold riches of Sheikh Mansour, his success at injecting some much-needed energy into the team came at the expense of the club’s academy.
Once again, aside from Iheanacho, who was further restricted to five league starts during the 16/17 campaign, the only other academy player to feature in the Premier League was Aleix Garcia: his playing time, after four appearances, totalling a derisory seventy-six minutes. A Mancunian La Masia, this was not.
Simply, faced with a furious scramble for superiority in the aftermath, not only of Leicester’s success, but also the big clubs’ failure to perform during the 15/16 season, City needed to improve, to reinvent, and to do so instantaneously. An environment not conducive to the development of the untried and untested. An estimated total of over £100m was spent on Stones, Sané, and Jesus. The club’s big ideas, and long-term plans, for the likes of Ihenacho and his peers were shelved, if only momentarily.
This supposed pause has remained in place, purposely prolonged by the club and its hierarchy. As Pep continues to build his City side, young players remain at the centre of his plans. Though, the club’s development remains solely reliant on its indomitable ‘warchest’: A new goalkeeper, 23-year-old Ederson, provided courtesy of Benfica, and the work of their academy, for a fee of £35m; 22-year-old Bernardo Silva, starlet of last season’s magical Monaco side, another Benfica graduate, for a potential €60m.
Both are players of undeniable talent, possessing unquestionable skill, but though they may help bring the club success, both in the long and short-term, if this trend is to continue, it will be doing the club, and Guardiola’s potential legacy at Manchester City, a disservice.
The Cruyffista was set the strict brief of bringing a specific philosophy to Manchester City, in the style of Barcelona; a philosophy not just limited to playing style, but also to the sustained success of the club. The evolution of Manchester City, in its current incarnation, has been invariably achieved through the power of the club’s finances. City have spent over £400m in the last three years. This method, successful or otherwise, should now be abandoned to help better the club in the long-term.
The coach that made his name leading eight academy graduates to European glory in Rome, less than a decade ago, should want more than shop-bought success, plucking the best of the best from their clubs at will. Pep is a highly-devoted, obsessive coach, first and foremost. His principal objective is not winning trophies, but the constant development of his players.
The infrastructure for continual success is something that needs to be created, something that needs to be built. Guardiola, emulating his idol Johan Cruyff, has a unique opportunity to build his own “chapel”, to which all future City managers could aspire to “restore or improve”. And by swapping the extravagant spending, for an exuberant academy embedded in the specific stylings of his Manchester City side, Guardiola could lay its foundations.