City have adopted Chelsea’s strategy of selling children for millions to fund first-team success, writes Daniel Storey
“If we could spend that amount of money it’s because we’re selling for almost £60m,” said Guardiola. “We’re selling young academy players for £60m.” The math was a little lopsided (Lukas Nmecha, Angelino and Jack Harrison were sold for just over £35m) but Guardiola’s admission wasn’t. Manchester City had developed a unique strategy: an academy recruitment model that indirectly drove first-team improvement and also helped sign Erling Haaland.
Shortly after Jack Grealish’s club record signing was announced last summer, Pep Guardiola explained how Manchester City could afford the signing without risking financial fair play difficulties.
Chelsea were the first English club to adopt a ‘loan farm’ strategy. Her policy was to recruit large numbers of children into her academy at a young age. Those who progressed through the club were then loaned out – usually to a handful of clubs with which Chelsea had developed a mutual understanding – to enhance their development.
The ultimate goal was to produce players for the first team, and those that weren’t quite up to the task were sold for good money. The success stories are clear: Mason Mount was loaned out to Vitesse Arnhem and Derby County, Reece James to Wigan, Andreas Christensen to Borussia Mönchengladbach. Also the sales: Nathan Ake, Dominic Solanke, Patrick van Aanholt, Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori. All came to Chelsea aged 16 or younger.
The city model is different. They focus part of their recruitment at a later age (17-19). They’re not averse to these players making the first team (although Oleksandr Zinchenko is the only one so far), but that’s not necessarily the goal. Instead, City buys to loan them out immediately. These credits then increase the players’ financial value and facilitate their profitable sale.
All of this is being handled smoothly by the merger of clubs in the City Football Group, with Manchester City at the helm. Instead of the unofficial arrangements Chelsea had – Vitesse or wherever a former player managed – is a formalized arrangement through membership in the same financial family. Last season alone, City loaned four players to Troyes in Ligue 1; Lommel and Girona are other options. Buying Palermo means CFG have clubs in four of Europe’s five major leagues.
Since 2018, Manchester City have sold 14 players (Angelino, Harrison, Nmecha, Pablo Maffeo, Arijanet Muric, Brahim Diaz, Angus Gunn, Jason Denayer, Bersant Celina, Olarenwaju Kayode, Pedro Porro, Gavin Bazuna, Romeo Lavia, Ko Itakura) for fees of around 120 million pounds. These 14 players together started six league games for Manchester City. Issa Kabore could be next; Nottingham Forest had rejected a £17million bid before looking elsewhere. Kabore has never played for City either but was on loan at Troyes last season and played at the Africa Cup of Nations.
As with Chelsea, there will be criticism for the moral aspect of the model. Chelsea has been accused of industrializing – and even dehumanizing – academy kids by using them as mere commodities. It always felt a little one-eyed; Chelsea merely organized and formalized strategies that already existed. If your argument is against the commercialization of young footballers to pursue a capitalist vision, welcome to 21st century football.
You can decode it as another branch of football’s money tree. You can poke fun at Guardiola’s insistence that the sale of three players last summer funded the Grealish purchase. But you can not doubt the success of the model and this success is likely to only increase. It works for them, it works for the clubs in their network and it works for the players who use their loan farm as a stepping stone to an elite career.