Manchester City’s renowned Elite Development Squad have won Premier League 2 for the last three seasons, but now find themselves bottom of a revamped league table at the midway point.
Manchester City are bottom of the Premier League.
That is not a sentence that is uttered often, but in the case of City’s academy, it is absolutely true this Christmas. At the midway point of the Premier League 2 season, Brian Barry-Murphy’s Elite Development Squad sit 26th out of 26 in the table. A fourth successive title seems a long, long way off.
Strangely enough, though, they could still win the competition. As long as they finish in the top 16 of the revamped competition, they still have a chance of being crowned Premier League 2 champions via the end-of-season knockout format. This was a major overhaul of the way academy football is played and it took the City bosses a while to adapt to.
So how have City got here, after dominating the academy scene for the last three years? It is not purely because the PL2 is arranged slightly differently that the young Blues have gone from top to bottom in six months.
Over the summer, City made more than £45m from academy players. Carlos Borges left for Ajax for £13m, potentially rising to £17.3m, while captain Shea Charles joined Southampton for a fee of £10.5m which could rise to £15m. Prolific winger Dire Mebude joined Westerlo for £1.75m, while James Trafford bumped the coffers when he joined Burnley for an initial £15m – although he wasn’t in the squad last season.
That helped City go out and spend good money on the likes of Mateo Kovacic, Jeremy Doku, Josko Gvardiol and Matheus Nunes, but it did leave a considerable hole in Barry-Murphy’s squad. Between Borges, Mebude and Oscar Bobb (prompted permanently to the first team), City lost almost all of the goals that led them to last season’s title. Charles was their versatile captain, and other exits on loan (like Jadel Katongo, Alex Robertson and Kian Breckin) weakened the squad further.
That is the nature of academy football, and City are proud of their record of selling their best youngsters for good money – but it has a knock-on effect on the squad who remain. The result has been a young group of inexperienced players, mostly promoted from under-18 level. It takes time to adapt in different age groups, and even though Pep Guardiola said there were no academy players ready to step up back in September, he took six EDS players to the Club World Cup, and handed debuts to two of them.
As ever, injuries have the potential to disrupt any side, and the academy are no different. Nico O’Reilly was set for a big role for the under-21s, but has been out all season, while others including Will Dickson, Tai Sodje, Susoho and Isaiah Dada-Mascoll have also spent time on the sidelines.
That has forced the academy to change plans. Jaden Heskey, for example, was appointed under-18 captain and expected a full year in the youth team to play his football. But with injuries in the EDS, Heskey has split his time across under-21, under-19 and under-18 football depending on where he is needed each week.
Recently, with six players in Saudi Arabia, some international call-ups, and an FA Youth Cup game two days later, City lost 6-0 at home to Norwich with a thin squad limited by the decision not to use any under-18s who were eligible to play in the cup. They were then reduced to 10-men in the 45th-minute. Norwich also used experienced professionals Grant Hanley and Adam Forshaw to give them some fitness, making a tough afternoon even harder. As well as the loss of last year’s key players and the change to the PL2 format, some issues are simply out of City’s control.
All change at the top
As well as a number of players leaving, academy director Jason Wilcox also departed after an impressive spell in charge at the CFA. He became Sporting Director at Southampton, taking Charles with him permanently and Taylor Harwood-Bellis on loan, to join the growing number of ex-City faces at St Mary’s.
City announced Thomas Krucken as the new Academy Director in August. He joined from Stuttgart, although he was still serving his notice period at the German club for the first few months of the season. That sort of disruption adds to the feeling of change at all levels of the academy. The new year offers some stability and a chance to kick-on after a turbulent six months.
Premier League rule change
Having previously dominated format of the Premier League 2 which crowned a traditional champion at the end of the season, City are struggling with this year’s major rule change. The two divisions of the PL2 have been combined into one 26-team league, with each side playing 20 games in the regular season.
Those teams are divided into five seeded pots based on performances over the last three years, with each side playing the other teams in their pot once. For the other fixtures, City play three to five teams in other pots either home or away to make up 20 fixtures.
Barry-Murphy and other academy figures were unsure over how the new format would play out in the summer. The head coach said the changes would result in a more ‘random and unpredictable’ league, but admitted the chance to play a wider range of opposition was a positive.
Speaking to MEN Sport at the start of the season, he said: “We are a much younger team now than we were before. I always thought by Christmas last year we would gather momentum and go on really good runs but I think it’s different this year due to the nature of the league and the nature of our squad.”
After 10 games, City have just one win in the PL2 – a 4-0 success at Newcastle away in September. They have conceded 22 goals in six home games, including 5-0, 6-0 and 3-0 losses and a 4-4 draw. Shoring up that home form will be a good place to start as City look to climb back up the table in the new year. Despite having just six points from their first 10 games, City are within touch of the play-offs.
“In itself that will be really exciting,” Barry-Murphy said in the summer. “We’re trying to give ourselves opportunities to do that while understanding how difficult it is.”
How to turn things around
There are still positives. Guardiola is once again looking to the academy for players, with Micah Hamilton and Mahamadou Susoho the latest to earn a debut. Max Alleyne was in the Club World Cup squad and has plenty of admirers at City. Jacob Wright, Justin Oboavwoduo and Joel Ndala travelled to Saudi Arabia, while Tom Galvez and Lakyle Samuel were in first team training this week.
In the UEFA Youth League, an under-19 competition, City topped their group and won four of their six games, scoring 17 goals in the process – 10 coming at home. They should have players returning from injuries and when the injury list in the senior squad improves, there will be less need to call up the likes of Hamilton – with Guardiola already saying his place is still with the EDS.
There is no reason why City can’t use momentum in the Youth League and Premier League 2 competitions to try and defend their Premier League 2 title against all odds. There is certainly a determination inside the academy to improve and an acknowledgement that the current position is not good enough.
In previous years when City have played down their title chances they have eaten their own words by lifting the PL2 trophy for the last three seasons. This year the nature of the revamped competition made a fourth title unlikely.
However, the knockout phase could offer a chance to save the season and potentially win another trophy. It feels a long way off but even for the bottom side in the new 26-club league there remains hope of winning the competition in the new year. They will just have to do it the hard way this time.