Khaldoon Al Mubarak’s 2019 verdict on £75m mistake shows new Man City transfer strategy is working – Joe Bray


When Liam Delap was introduced for Manchester City in the FA Cup win over Fulham, he became the 12th academy graduate to get first team minutes this season.

Five more have featured on the bench as City have increasingly turned to the academy to make up matchday squads when Covid, injuries and fitness issues have hit the first team. It’s an impressive figure that reflects a change that has been coming at City since 2017.

Pep Guardiola said last week that his ideal squad composition was around 15 senior players, with academy players making up the rest of the available players. But only if they are good enough, he added, making clear he won’t use youngsters just for the sake of it.

So far this season, he’s stuck to that approach, using the aforementioned 12 players who have graduated from, or been regulars for, the academy. As a result of the improved integration between under-23s and senior team since Project Restart in 2020, City have given new contracts to the likes of Delap, Cole Palmer, Tommy Doyle, Taylor Harwood-Bellis, James McAtee, Finley Burns, Josh Wilson -Esbrand and Oscar Bobb among others.

Maybe that deliberate contract drive, coupled with the increased game time for EDS players, came from City being burned by the exits of Jadon Sancho in 2017 and Brahim Diaz 18 months later.

Sancho wanted a better guarantee of game time, despite having not made his debut, while Diaz had featured on a handful of occasions but also left for a chance at more games. City made a decent amount on both players, Sancho leaving for £8m for Borussia Dortmund and Diaz for Real Madrid for £15m.

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Speaking in May 2019, chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak reflected on those high-profile exits, particularly with Sancho impressing in the Bundesliga and earning attention from other clubs for a transfer fee potentially ten times the amount City sold him for.

“I don’t look at that as a negative, it’s a positive,” he said. “Brahim is a player we’ve developed in the organisation. We hoped he would pursue his career here but he made a decision, as it is understandable when a Spanish player gets the nod from Real Madrid it’s hard to resist.

“He’s been a great part of our organisation, no hard feelings, he brought us very good financial and commercial value back to the club so it’s a win for us, it’s a win for him and hopefully a win for Real Madrid. Good for him , I’ll follow his career.

Diaz and Sancho both left City in search of more game time.

“The same with Jadon Sancho. I would have loved to have kept Jadon, there’s no question about that but from our perspective it would have been very hard for us to provide for Jadon at that age what has been provided for him at Borussia Dortmund.

“We’re a team competing in every single competition with the squad that you know we have. For Jadon to have played the same number of minutes that he’s played for Dortmund at 19 at this club would have been impossible for us to guarantee.”

So City got as high a fee as they could for the inexperienced duo, albeit a pair with huge potential, and moved on. When Sancho left Dortmund in 2021 for £75m, City may have regretted letting him leave, even if they got around £10m of that in sell-on clauses.

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However, it could be one of the best transfer mistakes City make, as in the following years, City have increased efforts to develop academy players, improving the pathway to the first team and giving talented players senior minutes if they deserve it.

Look at McAtee, reportedly close to leaving before penning a new deal last week. By using him in first-team training every day and rewarding him with cameos under Pep Guardiola, he has been persuaded that there is a pathway to following the likes of Phil Foden that Sancho and Diaz just didn’t see.

As the chairman explained in 2019: “On the flipside, you have a player like Phil Foden who accepts that and accepts the evolution of his role. Phil Foden will be a top, top superstar for this club. He will be one of the most important players of this new generation of players we’re developing and the future of Manchester City and the best thing he’s done is taking the decision of being patient, learning with the best manager in the world who will help him reach his potential.”

Now, as well as Foden, there is McAtee, Delap, Palmer, Doyle, Harwood-Bellis and maybe a few more all convinced that they can see a future at City that Sancho and Diaz couldn’t.

Pep Guardiola summed up the new academy strategy after the Fulham game, when McAtee and Delap had come on, while former Blue Tosin Adarabioyo played for the visitors.

“The academy is working for that reason, to develop players and look, for example, at Tosin,” he said.

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Jadon Sancho joined Manchester United in the summer for £75m, four years after leaving City for £8m in 2017.

“Tosin played an exceptional game, but why? Because he was able to play 100 games in the Championship and a few games in the Premier League and every weekend he is playing. The problem is that young players cannot give them 100 games to play. 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.”

City may always regret losing out on Sancho’s potential (and his £75m value), but it might be a lesson they needed to take. Since then, the club’s strategy has taken a clear change in direction to ensure youngsters are given every chance to succeed at the Etihad.

After Khaldoon’s comments, Txiki Begiristain’s contract drive and Guardiola’s commitment to integrate the academy, the next time a young player complains about a lack of opportunity, they can’t say they haven’t been given every chance they need to succeed.




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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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