Why City are so good at selling: Admired academy, coaching alumni, top talent

Why City are so good at selling: Admired academy, coaching alumni, top talent

James Trafford’s £15million move from Manchester City to Burnley has caught the imagination in recent days.

The 20-year-old could command another £4m in bonuses, too, which would be a pretty good haul for City, considering he has ‘only’ played two seasons in League One.

In reality, 78 first-team senior games for a goalkeeper of that age is pretty good, but given Burnley are hoping to re-establish themselves in the Premier League it is easy to see why there are questions about his suitability to the top level.

And controversy is never far away when City are mentioned in the same breath as income, which is understandable given the 115 Premier League charges hanging over them for alleged financial irregularities, which City deny.


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They will probably never escape that cynicism no matter the eventual verdict, but when it comes to transfer fees that other clubs are willing to pay for their young players, it takes a certain level of mental gymnastics to conclude that something is awry.

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Burnley did have another target but Bart Verbruggen joined Brighton instead. Trafford himself is also an England Under-21 international, his style of play suits what Vincent Kompany wants to do at Burnley and his career is clearly heading in the right direction.

Above all, it cannot be overstated just how much the City academy seal of approval means within football these days. It is a point that Kompany will know very well, and was underlined again today after it emerged another youngster, Shea Charles, was close to a move to Southampton. City will receive £10.5million, potentially rising to £15m, the latest instalment in a lucrative relationship for the reigning champions – but more on that later.

On Thursday, The Athletic published an analysis of the spending and selling of the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’ since 2013 and it showed that City have made the third highest amount from player sales in that period, behind Chelsea’s whopping £1.16billion ($2bn) and Liverpool’s £606m.

City’s £568m is made up of all sorts of deals, like receiving £16.4m for Alvaro Negredo in 2015, £25m for Kelechi Iheanacho in 2017 and £48m for Ferran Torres in 2022. With £10m to £15m here and there for players as varied as Enes Unal (youngster), Edin Dzeko (title winner) and Douglas Luiz (City Football Group import), things quickly add up over a decade.

Over the past year, though, the role of City’s academy has caught the eye when it comes to sales: last summer City paid fees for Erling Haaland, Kalvin Phillips, Manuel Akanji and Sergio Gomez and still made a profit.

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Part of the reason for that was because they sold Gavin Bazunu, Sam Edozie, Juan Larios and Romeo Lavia for a combined £38million, plus add-ons. They all moved to Southampton, and City were fortunate in that respect that their former head of youth recruitment, Joe Shields, had just arrived at St Mary’s to oversee transfers.

Shields knows those players inside out and after being given a brief to sign young players, he had no doubts about going back to City to bring in those he trusted. The fact that Lavia, 19, has immediately stood out as an incredible prospect and could already be on the move again this summer shows that there was certainly logic in that, even if Bazunu had a tougher year in goal, and Edozie and Larios made less of an impact than expected in their first season.

Lavia was signed at the age of 16 and was extremely highly rated at City, but they recognised that they could not deny him regular first-team football at Southampton. They did put in sell-on and buy-back clauses to offer protection in the future, as they did with the other three sales — something that brought the transfer fees down.

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Those kind of clauses have brought in funds over the years, for example £7.2m when Pedro Porro (another CFG buy) moved from Sporting to Tottenham and just under £10m when Jadon Sancho (another top youngster) moved from Borussia Dortmund to Manchester United.

Uefa recently had talks regarding multi-club ownership in football, something that City have spearheaded through their CFG model, but those talks are thought to centre on clubs under the same ownership playing each other in the same competition. City identify top players who are not quite at the high level required for their own first team and place them at sister clubs around the world to develop individually and contribute to those teams. The best, like Luiz and Porro, can then be sold on for a profit.

Those players have demonstrated their ability at the top level but when it comes to City’s youngsters there are other reasons why they are attractive to buying clubs.

Last summer, Darko Gyabi, 19, joined Leeds — their under-23 squad, initially — for £5m despite no first-team appearances at the Etihad. He was identified as one of the brightest midfield talents in the country when Shields signed him for City from Millwall as a 15-year-old and Leeds spotted an opportunity to have him for themselves, especially after a few years of City coaching.


James Trafford (Photo: George Wood/Getty Images)

Charles, for his part, has been at City since the Under-9s, so has also benefited from a lifetime immersed in the club’s coaching culture. And he will not be the last young player who will bring in a significant amount this summer. Tommy Doyle (21), Taylor Harwood-Bellis (21) and Callum Doyle (19) could all fetch seven figures as well, and it would be no surprise if there was interest in Josh Wilson-Esbrand (20), Luke Mbete (19) and Finley Burns (20) given their Football League loans in recent seasons and their general reputation in youth football circles.

If those players averaged £10m each that would bring in £60m without even including Trafford and Charles.

That is not something that will change any time soon because City’s academy is, alongside Chelsea’s, up there as the best in the country.

The quality of the players coming through is born out in trophies won: City’s under-23s and under-18s have won their respective leagues for the past three years in a row, and 38 of the club’s youngsters have been called up by England at various age groups from under-15 to the seniors.

It is also evident in how they play: it is no exaggeration to say that some of the football played even by the club’s under-11s resembles Guardiola’s first teamers. This is being seen up and down the country and across Europe, leaving an impression on scouts and coaches.

Simply put, City’s youngsters now have a reputation similar to those that came through Manchester United’s academy, particularly during Sir Alex Ferguson’s time in charge.

A decade ago, as the CFG expanded, City’s idea was to bring in top youth prospects from around Europe, and sometimes beyond, and the best of those have helped bring in a few quid down the years: as well as Iheanacho to Leicester City and Unal to Villarreal, Rony Lopes moved to Monaco for £9m and Brahim Diaz joined Real Madrid for £15.5m, plus a sell-on clause.


Rony Lopes (Photo: KURT DESPLENTER/AFP via Getty Images)

But more recently there has been a pivot towards developing homegrown youngsters, either recruited at under-9 level from around Greater Manchester or signed by the club in their early teenage years, like Trafford, who joined from Carlisle at 12.

Players like Trafford, Harwood-Bellis and Tommy and Callum Doyle, as well as first teamers like Phil Foden, Rico Lewis and Cole Palmer, all came through the ranks while the academy had different aims and approaches (including before the takeover in most cases) but they have all been coached to a high level throughout the system regardless. There are high hopes for those who joined the club at a young age in the recent past because, City feel, the coaching structure is as strong as it has ever been and the players will get better and better.

There is an element of fortune in the sense that Shields and now Kompany are in positions at other clubs to move for players that they know and trust. Even that, though, shows how highly rated City’s non-playing staff are.

They are constantly being headhunted, with head of physiotherapy Lee Nobes leaving for Liverpool in 2019 and sports science lead Sam Erith moving to New York midway through last season.

In the past month alone City have lost both assistant managers this summer, with Enzo Maresca taking charge of Leicester City and Rodolfo Borrell becoming sporting director at Austin FC, while Jason Wilcox left his role as the head of the academy to become Southampton’s sporting director (Shields has since left for Chelsea). Maresca spent a year as City’s under 23s manager and is keen to bring in academy products: Callum Doyle, who has had two seasons on loan at Sunderland and Coventry City, is one option, and there have been links with Shea Charles, the under-23 captain and a full Northern Ireland international.


Callum Doyle (Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

There are more and more former City staff members landing top roles at other clubs, like Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, who moved for Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus, and those deals make up the bulk of City’s transfer incomings over the years.

Top players move for top money: Leroy Sane would have gone for more than double his fee £37m upfront fee had he not suffered a serious knee injury the previous summer, and nobody would argue with the fees paid for Jesus (£45m), Zinchenko (£32m) and Raheem Sterling (£47.5m) last summer.

With Joao Cancelo and Aymeric Laporte on the market this summer, Kyle Walker in Bayern Munich’s sights and Saudi Arabian clubs eyeing up Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva in particular, City could easily bring in another £100m from just one or two sales.

First teamers like that will command fees to reflect their proven quality and experience, but more and more clubs will be looking to City’s academy in the hope of securing a star of the future. Trafford is the latest example of that, and Lavia has already proven the value in it.

(Top photo: All Getty Images)

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