What are the development options available to Manchester City academy products under Pep Guardiola?
James McAtee is the latest player in the CFA production line to make the step up to Pep Guardiola’s first team and sign a new contract, but the 19-year old’s extension comes with a bit more hype than usual.
The 'Salford Silva' has agreed a 3-year extension to his current deal, which was due to expire in July 2023, taking his stay at the club up until 2026. McAtee’s contract situation has been looked at with a fine-tooth comb ever since the first rumours of talks broke in May 2021.
Since then, the attacking midfielder has been a talisman for the EDS, made his maiden senior appearances, and scored a heap of goals. This has led to an increasing demand from the fans to get this contract over the line, the type of demand expected for a Kevin De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva, not a 19-year old EDS player with 3 appearances to his name.
The contract debacle has finally reached its conclusion, and we can forget about the prospect of McAtee leaving for a rival club in the near future – but the focus now turns to how he goes about succeeding at the club in the future.
The pathway to the first-team squad at Manchester City is one of the most debated aspects of academy football. It is a complicated situation; Phil Foden is still the only academy graduate to truly establish themselves in the senior setup at the club, while others like Eric Garcia have tried and failed.
Even after signing long term deals with the club, other youngsters have struggled to impress and ended out on loan as a result. Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Tommy Doyle both recently penned long term contracts with the club, but since doing so have seen limited game-time – resulting in the pair of them out on loan this season.
Cole Palmer and Liam Delap committed their future to the club in the summer, and while the latter has seen his chances hampered due to injuries, Palmer certainly looks like he’s following in the footsteps of Foden.
With McAtee opting to stay and work alongside Guardiola’s first team for the remainder of the season, we look at the different pathways on offer to City’s academy stars.
PERMANENT MOVE AWAY
Let’s get the option we all fear and hate out of the way first. Leaving on a permanent transfer was an option that faced McAtee and worried plenty of City fans. There was interest from all over Europe and an £8million Brighton bid was rejected as contract expiry loomed. The midfielder could have easily looked back at some of the players who have left the club and pushed for a move himself.
Jadon Sancho and Eric Garcia rejected new contracts to move to Dortmund and Barcelona, respectively and are enjoying some form of success at the top of European football, having both represented their countries in the final four of the European Championships. Brahim Diaz on the other hand felt a move away was better for him but has struggled to reach the potential he showed glimpses of with the Blues.
With Foden still the only player to stay at the club and make it here, the option of leaving for a more 'youth-friendly' club will continue to attract some of the academy's best talent.
LOAN MOVE AWAY
The loan option is certainly the most difficult one – as Tommy Doyle, Morgan Rogers, Taylor Harwood-Bellis, and Alexander Robertson have proved this season, going out on loan can so easily result in little to no playing time and can sometimes signal the end of your City career.
There is still yet to be an academy player that has headed out on loan and returned to a role in the first-team squad. City’s approach to bridging the gap from EDS to senior football has always been along the lines of, 'if you are good enough you stay with the first team', and 'if you aren’t good enough you head out on loan'. With that still mainly being the case, there seems to be a slight change.
Callum Doyle, for example, at 17-years-old in the summer, went out on loan to Sunderland – after essentially having only experienced half a season at EDS level. There is no doubt that the central defender is a player identified as good enough for City’s first team, but for a player to go out on loan so early in their development is intriguing given the historical eventualities of a loan move.
Goalkeepers Gavin Bazunu and James Trafford are currently receiving rave reviews in League 1, and they both look like players very capable of at the very least becoming a permanent understudy to Ederson at the club.
STAYING AT THE CLUB
Often coined 'The Foden pathway', this is typically the favoured route of development within the club. The best talent from the EDS are seen as good enough to make a difference within the first-team squad and transition to senior football smoothly. As a result, Guardiola and his staff find it to be the best environment for their development.
Training in the best facilities, with the best players, under the best staff, what could go wrong? There are currently only three players under Guardiola’s tenure to adopt this path: Phil Foden, Eric Garcia and Brahim Diaz. Foden has succeeded with aplomb, while the other two struggled to nail down a starting spot and became tempted by offers from back home.
According to Sam Lee on The Athletic’s ‘Why Always Us?’ Podcast, this pathway is set to be followed by James McAtee, Cole Palmer and Romeo Lavia. The journalist revealed that his sources at the club have told him Guardiola has promised the 'Foden pathway' to these three players, saying:
"They have said to him [McAtee] if you stay and do this you will have, basically what Phil’s got, basically what Cole Palmer’s going through, that route to the first team, and I think Lavia has as well."
With the club extending Liam Delap’s contract in the summer and turning down multiple loan offers for him, it can be assumed that he may also be on this pathway. Only time will tell if this option becomes a success for the likes of McAtee and Palmer or whether Foden will remain the only player to break into the first-team squad.
Each pathway results in a different end goal. Staying at the club reaps the best rewards, but requires bundles of dedication and patience – exemplified by Foden who at 21-years-old has already made Ballon D’Or lists and won a bunch of trophies. But the temptation of leaving to rack up minutes and hype at such a youthful age will always exist for these top talents.
With the talent being produced at City now being at an incredibly proficient level, it will be interesting to see if the pathways on offer change over time as more exciting prospects like Samuel Edozie, Luke Mbete and Josh Wilson-Esbrand emerge to the fringes of the first team.
In recent weeks, Academy players Finley Burns (2027), Shea Charles (2027), Josh Wilson-Esbrand (2027), and Oscar Bobb (2026) have all put pen to paper on extensions with the club. Burns has since joined Swansea City on loan for the rest of the season, whereas the other three have stayed with the Blues.
Wilson-Esbrand had loan offers turned down, namely Swansea City, as Guardiola wants to keep him as left-back cover for the first-team squad. Charles and Bobb, being a year group behind, will continue with the EDS as they look to retain the PL2 title.
It will be intriguing to see which pathway option these players follow after signing long term extensions.
Written by: @_TJ9320
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