Phil Foden deserves Man City chance and could break club's youth drought
Manchester City have had a youth problem of late. A club once so strapped for cash that it was reliant on its academy to fill gaps in its wafer-thin first-team haven't been able to get a graduate into the senior squad on a consistent basis for some time.
Micah Richards was the last youth player to nail down a regular place. Having been introduced by Stuart Pearce in 2005, he was a mainstay until his move to Aston Villa a decade later. Since then, 39 others have been given debuts, 29 of which have moved on or retired from the game, and 10 are still with the club -- five currently out on loan.
In that time, Kelechi Iheanacho came the closest to being a regular, but his two campaigns in the senior team -- mainly on the bench and used sparingly as a substitute -- came to an end with a £25 million sale to Leicester last summer.
The lack of opportunities for youngsters is what drove England under-17 star Jadon Sancho to turn down a professional contract with the club and instead sign for Borussia Dortmund -- where he made his Bundesliga debut in a 2-2 draw with Eintracht Frankfurt last week.
It's up to City's fans to decide how much they care about the makeup of the side. Some aren't bothered if there are no youth products playing, providing the club is winning trophies with entertaining football, while others will be disappointed if it continues.
However, having spent in the region of £200m setting up the new facilities at the Etihad campus in 2014, the club will be hoping to develop young talent that is first-team ready. The name that looks the most likely to buck the trend is 17-year-old Phil Foden.
The Stockport-born youngster helped England to a 5-2 comeback victory over Spain in the U17 World Cup final on Saturday. Despite his club side winning 3-2 at West Brom to take the record for the best ever start to a Premier League campaign, it was Foden who was catching the eyes of City fans -- scoring twice and taking the honour of player of the tournament.
He looks like the real deal, able to take the most important game he's played in during his fledgling career by the scruff of the neck and lead his team to victory.
But the stumbling block in the way of Foden's development at City is what drove his England teammate Sancho away. The pressure is on for Pep Guardiola to win trophies and make his side the best in both the Premier League and the Champions League, which leaves little room for manoeuvre. When nearly every minute of every game is crucial, there are often few games that mean nothing.
That restricts opportunities for young players to Carabao Cup games and the closing stages of matches that have already been comfortably won. However, because of the depth of City's squad in recent years, those minutes have been given to senior fringe players to keep them fresh, happy, or give them an opportunity to impress.
What's different for Guardiola, though, is that youth development is part of the remit he was given when he signed for the club. He was brought in to win trophies and turn City into one of the best teams in Europe, but he's also tasked with the development of academy players. With that in mind, it's understandable why fans are getting excited about Foden's potential.
As the midfielder danced through Spain's defenders in the World Cup final on Saturday -- having done it time and again throughout the previous rounds of the tournament -- there were renewed calls for Foden to be given a chance when he returns to his club. Though competing with players like David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne for the No. 10 role at City, opportunities for him won't be as easy to come by as some demand.
Yet to make an appearance for the senior team, Foden will more likely be given minutes from the bench when he's back in Manchester. Guardiola felt the U17 World Cup was crucial experience for the youngster, more so than his inclusion in City's 4-1 penalty shootout win over Wolves would have been, and he says he's eager to work with the midfielder when he returns.
The more cynical supporters will suggest that it's all talk until Foden actually gets experience in the team. After all, history suggests youth players may be involved in one or two matches before getting lost or forgotten in a myriad of loan deals.
But with Foden, something seems to be different -- Guardiola singled him out for praise in the club's preseason tour of the United States, noting how his display in the friendly with Manchester United left him speechless.
Given how his team have been playing so far this season, Guardiola should have spare minutes in the closing stages of games to give the youngster the minutes he needs to compete. Before Saturday, City have been miles ahead of their opposition in five of the last six Premier League games by full-time.
He may only be 17, but Foden already looks like he can cope with anything that's thrown at him and he could be the first to break through from City's new-look academy.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney