The next Lionel Messi could light up Hyde when an exciting new youth football venture kicks off in September.
Manchester City are one of 16 top clubs from around Europe taking part in the new NextGen Series tournament aimed at showcasing some of the world’s brightest young football talent next season.
And the Blues kick off their group with the best possible fixture, against the legendary Barca youth team, on September 15.
City will also face Celtic and Marseille in their group in the new tournament, with group games running until November, and then the top two from each group going forward to the last eight.
That will either be played as a normal knockout or as a mini-tournament, based in Abu Dhabi in the new year.
City’s participation in the Under-19 competition had led to a rumour that they were about to scrap their reserve side, which is nowadays called the elite development squad.
But, while they have withdrawn from the Barclay’s Premier Reserve League, the club insists it has simply shaken up its fixture schedule to attune it more to the differing development levels of their 18-21-year-olds.
The City team will consist mainly of academy players, augmented by players like Harry Bunn and Joan Roman, who were promoted early to the elite development squad.
City academy boss Mark Allen says the young Blues, currently away on their summer break, are already excited about the new challenge, which also involves Liverpool, Tottenham and Aston Villa as well as big European names like Inter Milan, Sporting Lisbon and PSV Eindhoven.
“Fans who go along might just see the next Lionel Messi – and the Barca fans might get to see a future great Man City player,” said Allen, currently overseeing a revamp of the City academy.
The Blues, along with the rest of the Premier League, are aiming to close the gap between English players and those from top football nations like Spain and Holland, in the next few years.
And Allen sees this tournament as a good gauge of how big that gap is, and what needs to be done to close it – with Barcelona as the perfect yardstick.
The Catalan giants’ nursery – known as the Cantera, or Quarry – has been producing golden nuggets for years.
The current European Cup-winning side is built around home-grown stars like Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Not only have they made Barca the best side on the planet, they have done it without a penny in transfer outlay, an attractive proposition with UEFA’s financial fair play rules forcing City to revise their transfer spending policy.
Said Allen: “The group we are in will put us against three different styles, which is what you expect to get in senior European football, so it’s another part of the development.
“The first team is now hoping to have European football, and hopefully Champions League, every season, so we are building a European element into our development programme.
“We will do it the same way as the first team, flying out the day before, training the night before, playing and then flying back after the match.”
He strongly refuted the suggestion that the reserve side is being scrapped. “Far from the reserves going away, it is actually getting stronger and more focused, and what the fans will see is more relevant football for that development stage,” said Allen.
City have studied Barcelona’s youth development, as well as those of other successful set-ups around the world, and are hoping to become a category one Academy under the Premier League’s elite player performance plan.
That would allow them to significantly step up the amount of time they get to spend with young prospects, which has been identified as a key area in which England lags behind more progressive nations.
The latest inquest began after England Under-21s’ poor showing at the European Championships last week, with the FA’s director of development Trevor Brooking blaming a flawed education system.
At the moment the average elite English player spends 3,760 hours training or playing between the ages of nine and 21. That compares to 4,880 at Barcelona or 5,940 in Holland.
New rules may allow the top clubs to cherry-pick the best young prospects and take young players as boarders, opting out of mainstream education.
That would ape Barcelona’s La Masia, the converted 18th century farmhouse which sits in the shadow of the Nou Camp and accommodates their 13 and 14 year olds.
“Barcelona’s set-up is the talk of the town at the moment,” said Allen. “We have looked at their set-up from the outside, and a little bit from within as we have a good working relationship with Barca.
“What they do really well is that they do a lot of simple things repetitively so that they become ingrained, and stay ingrained right through the system.
“That is what is bringing them success right now – they have a very clear philosophy and style of play, and a very clear technical strategy in terms of what they do. It is not rocket science.
“Where they excel is on the technical side, as Trevor Brooking has been saying.
“They don’t move on until they are technically adept, and that is the big thing to learn for everyone in football, not just at City.
“It’s about finessing the technical game, and that is why in our younger age groups, from six to 11, we are very much geared to a technical programme where they get time on the ball.
“It’s less about what position they play, how big they are and so on. It’s more about feeling comfortable with the ball, feeling comfortable turning with the ball, shooting, passing and dribbling.
“Those things are a pre-requisite to moving on to the other aspects.”