James McAtee scored his 20th and 21st goals of an ever-improving season to cap a fine week that has seen him extend his Manchester City contract and add another first team appearance to his collection.
When he stepped up to fire in a free kick at St George’s Park for City under-23s against Derby on Monday night, it would have been the most impressive feat of the lot.
It’s been quite the week for McAtee, who seven days before this game was being tipped with a January exit away on loan. He stayed at City, and two days later ended speculation about his permanent future by signing a new contract until 2026. His reward for that was a cameo in the FA Cup on Saturday at the Etihad Stadium, where he looked bright and lively against Championship leaders Fulham.
An under-23 fixture might have brought him back down to earth on Monday, then, with no big contract announcements or 50,000-strong crowd watching on. But this is McAtee’s bread and butter, and it’s where he will do most of his talking about him for the rest of the season.
When Darko Gyabi was pulled down midway through the first-half against Derby, there was only going to be one outcome as McAtee, brimming with confidence, hit the set-piece into the back of the net and celebrated like he’s just scored at the Etihad .
It was a strong City side at St George’s Park, with Liam Delap making his first start since October in an injury-interrupted season and going close twice early on. Kayky was denied one-on-one, while Gyabi was causing problems.
City were without three regulars, though, as Finley Burns has headed out on loan, and there was no sign of Josh Wilson-Esbrand or Romeo Lavia. That meant a defensive shakeup, with CJ Egan-Riley moving into centre-back, with Kwaku Oduroh and Juan Larios at full-back. Shea Charles replaced Lavia as some of the under-18s regulars got the call-up.
Derby, bottom of the league, had the ball in the back of the net but saw the goal ruled out for offside, and Gyabi doubled City’s advantage two minutes after the break.
Delap was replaced on the hour mark, presumably a pre-planned change given his return from injury and his first team outing on Saturday. His replacement, Micah Hamilton, did not take long to get involved as he set up McAtee for his second as he unleashed a powerful shot that went in at the near post.
Hamilton was impressive, and he got a goal of his own when he latched onto a good Larios through-ball to score ten minutes after coming on. Oscar Bobb, another player who signed a long-term contract last week, added City’s fifth soon after.
After their FA Cup appearances, Pep Guardiola said Delap and McAtee’s next steps would depend on them, challenging the pair – and any other ambitious youngster – to be ready when they are needed.
“The plan, he will dictate to me,” said the manager of Delap. “The plan depends on his behavior and his performance.
“Now he is a player who is training every day with us. You cannot imagine the improvement from him, Romeo (Lavia), (Luke) Mbete, Macca (McAtee), and of course Cole Palmer is already with us for the last season so with these players, with the intensity we play, if they are open and humble and they are OK I am here to improve and do it then after it depends on them.
“The plan depends on what they do on the pitch and off the pitch. Today there are a lot of distractions off the pitch. It’s just as important as on the pitch.”
Referring to Fulham’s former City defender Tosina Adarabioyo, Guardiola admitted the Blues cannot give these young players regular games to develop, so they must find the benefits for the youth team or out on loan.
“The problem is that young players we cannot give them 100 games to play,” he continued.
“Why? Because this team has to win everything, we try to win everything. It’s not easy. That’s why they have to be patient. That is why sometimes they have to go on loan and come back but loaned to the right clubs and the right managers where they are able to play and to come back.
“That’s good but look at McAtee today, he played exceptionally, he was moving in the right spots and every touch he made the action was better, we have a few of them.”
If Guardiola was watching McAtee and Delap at St George’s Park just two days after those comments, he will have been delighted to see their eagerness to play, their application for the club, and their ability to quickly put the distractions of a senior appearance behind them to put a shift in for the U23s.
Thanks to that commitment, the young Blues are now four points clear at the top of the Premier League 2, looking to defend the title they won last season.