How Will Man City Improve An Already Successful Academy?

It is part of our 10-year strategy for long-term, sustainable success …we talk about sustainability and that [paying large transfer fees] can’t be sustained, so we have to develop within. That is something that is paramount to the future of the club.”
So said Brian Marwood last week to the gaggle of journalists present at the full unveiling of Manchester City’s plans for their new academy and campus.

City’s project team visited 30 elite sports development centres in nine countries across four continents in the course of their research. The result is a proposed home for 400 young players to train alongside the senior squad, 15 full-size pitches, on-site sleeping accommodation for 40 youngsters plus 32 members of the first team, a rehab centre and a 7,000-capacity stadium for youth-team games.

“We have a proud history of bringing through players from our academy and that is something we want to enhance. What we have tried to do at every level is make it better, and develop it in a different way. We are trying to bring through young players that can play in the Champions League. That is what we are aiming for.”

This may seem strange however considering the success that City’s academy has experienced in bringing youth players through to the first team. Shaun Wright Phillips is one obvious example, along with Micah Richards. Joe Hart has been developed from a slightly older age, but youth products continue to break through. Mancini has given playing time to a whole raft of academy players.

At times, the club was dependent on the academy, under the brilliant guidance of Jim Cassell (from 1998) – at times of dire financial straights, it may well have saved the club – not just from the £21m received for Shaun Wright Phillips from Chelsea, but the odd £1m+ fees received for the likes of Willo Flood or Ched Evans.

The academy of old was thought to cost £1m a year to run – thus it was one of the only profitable and successful areas of the club for over a decade, having recouped £31m in sales by the autumn of 2007. At the current Academy, behind the serving counter is a blue board named  ‘Academy Graduates’ which shows the 34 players who have progressed to City’s first team in the last 13 years.

The inference from Marwood and the owners though is clear. City’s academy may well have had a brilliant track record of academy products getting first team football (Richard Keys said today on Talksport that 70 ex-City academy players currently play professional football) – but he seemed to suggest that the standard was not good enough. They were after all breaking into first teams that were far inferior to the current product. How many of those academy products would get in the first team now? How many would you consider top class?

Patrick Vieira, City’s new football development executive spoke of another problem at the unveiling of the plans. “I don’t think England produces enough talent, certainly in relation to the number of people who love the game and play football,” he said. “I don’t know why, maybe it is the facilities, but it is disappointing England has not produced more. This football club wants to give people the opportunity to play for the first team and for the national team.”

So City hope to attract not just specifically young English talent, but local talent. City’s academy hasn’t brought through many Mancunians, but the talent has to be there in the first place – maybe it’s the case that other areas of the country just produce more players.

And it seems that Marwood sees parallels with the Barcelona set-up via their style of play too. He wants to develop players totally comfortable on the ball, a group of youngsters all brought through with the same ideals and expectations – though there’s a long way to go to get close to what Barcelona have produced over recent years (which may never be matched on British shores).

As he added last week: “”Our under-19s played against them (Barcelona) last week. You could close your eyes and see a young Iniesta or a young Xavi and that is something on which we need to work very hard here. What the coaching team has tried to do is develop a philosophy but also a consistency in terms of the way we play at every level right up to the first team. In the last Champions League final Barcelona had eight players that were home-grown, which is an incredible statistic.”

Barcelona are helped by the wealth of Spanish talent that has emerged over the past decade – these players still have to be nurtured and developed of course, but can an English academy ever produce English versions of Xavi or Iniesta? Only time will tell, but at least Manchester City’s academy players of the future will have the best possible facilities available to them, and the close proximity to the first-team that should provide ample incentive to break through and improve even further. The big academy hope of the last decade, Shaun Wright Phillips, has had to leave the club for first team football – suddenly the bar has been raised a whole lot higher.
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