It was in May 2017 that Manchester City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak predicted a bright future for the exciting trio of youngsters coming through the club's highly impressive Academy. Winger Jadon Sancho, forward Brahim Diaz and midfielder Phil Foden were to be the first of the homegrown products to make the grade under Pep Guardiola in a replication of the steady stream of talent (Sergio Busquets, Pedro, Thiago, Gerard Pique) that progressed to stardom during Barcelona's best years under the Catalan coach.
"These are players that if you ask Pep today, he will tell you they can and will be first-team players at Manchester City," Al-Mubarak said, predicting them to make the step up that summer on the preseason tour to the United States.
A little less than 18 months later, the excitement over their quality remains, but the chances of any of them making the grade at the Etihad Stadium have seriously dipped. Two, Sancho and Brahim, have already left, and there is concern from some that Foden's future is being held back by his decision to stay and put his trust in the expert tuition of Guardiola.
Foden's fellow academy graduates have decided to shine somewhere other than Man City, but there's no reason to panic about the 18-year-old midfielder. After all, there are a number of reasons to believe that his breakthrough isn't far away.
His future has seemed in jeopardy, given the successes of Sancho and Diaz away from the Etihad. In the final game before the Bundesliga winter break, Sancho played 89 minutes and scored his sixth goal of the season as Borussia Dortmund maintained their six-point lead at the top of the table. Brahim, meanwhile completed his £22 million move to Real Madrid on Jan. 6 and seven days later was an 82nd-minute substitute as they chased, and ultimately got, a late winner at Real Betis. That's already more league minutes than he achieved this season at City.
Meanwhile Foden, who has just signed a six-year contract with the club, was left out of the squad altogether for City's 3-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers on Monday night and watched from the touchline in his club tracksuit as Guardiola's team warmed up before the game. He has made five starts and 11 sub appearances (all competitions) this season, but despite the obvious contrasts with the relative success of his former teammates, huge optimism remains among club insiders that he will buck the trend and become the homegrown, first-team regular they have been craving.
Those close to the coaching staff point out that Foden is still young: He doesn't turn 19 until after the season has ended and is younger than both Sancho and Brahim. Fulham's Ryan Sessegnon and Wolves' Morgan Gibbs-White are the only 18-year-olds to make more appearances in the Premier League this season. People inside Man City insist that there are few players at leading European clubs getting as much game time. The obvious exceptions are Sancho, Paris Saint-Germain's €180 million superstar Kylian Mbappe and 18-year-old Vinicius Junior, who reportedly cost Real Madrid around €45 million.
Guardiola could have sent Foden out on loan to get more minutes on the pitch but sees more value in embedding the Stockport-born City fan in the first team squad, and sources says he has a clear pathway of progression planned for him. The City boss wants four attacking midfielders, which he currently has. But David Silva has just turned 33 and is in the final 18 months of his contract, as is Ilkay Gundogan.
It's also worth noting that the pathways for Brahim and Sancho to reach the first team weren't so clear-cut, with Raheem Sterling, 24, and Leroy Sane, 23, ahead of them along with club record signing Riyad Mahrez.
"I looked at who they have right now and the path," Sancho told the Sunday Times. "A lot of young players come to Dortmund and become top, top players. I thought to myself, 'Wow, that could be me.'"
Brahim, who was part of virtually every 20-man pre-match squad and was generally the outfield player axed from the final 18 lineup and squad, had similar concerns about his route to the first team. He was not involved in a Premier League squad this season, and some close to the player believe Foden was favoured because of his connection to the fans as a local-born supporter who has been with the club since he was 8 years old. Madrid's decision to pay a large fee, rather than wait six months for him to become available on a free transfer, was seen as proof that they were serious about making Brahim part of their future.
There is no doubt that Sancho's decision to quit has sharpened minds at academies across the Premier League, including City's. Sources have told ESPN FC that a number of European clubs are watching City youngsters, including 18-year-old winger Rabbi Matondo, who has already made his debut for Wales, while elsewhere, Chelsea are fighting to keep promising youngster Callum Hudson-Odoi away from Bayern Munich.
City's investment in the Academy has been offset by recouping more than £135 million from sales, including £30 million for Sancho and Brahim, £25 million for Kelechi Iheanacho and £13 million for Angus Gunn, with some also having sell-on clauses, which could net them further profit in the future. But there is a danger of it becoming a breeding ground rather than a hoard of homegrown gems similar to the one that Guardiola mined during his time at the Camp Nou.
In Spain, emerging players such as Pique, 21, Busquets, 20, Andres Iniesta, 24, and Pedro, 21, were more ready for the step up to Barcelona's first team at the time. The view was that of the older Academy products pushing to make it into the first team squad, most were not considered good enough for a club that has ambitions of being the best in Europe.
Iheanacho, 20, made seven appearances in Guardiola's debut season, and Spanish youngsters Aleix Garcia, Pablo Maffeo and Angelino were given sporadic opportunities in the League Cup that season. (Of those three, Garcia is still in the City system but on loan at Girona. The others were sold to VfB Stuttgart and PSV Eindhoven, respectively.)
City believed they would have to wait for the real stars to come through, and Guardiola insists he has no doubts about the quality of Foden. "Few 18-year-olds could play regularly, competing with Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and David Silva," he said in December. "He's special, he has had minutes, and in the future, he will have a lot [more] of them."
While Sancho and Brahim's decisions to move were understandable, it adds to the ongoing concerns about whether City will achieve the primary objective to produce homegrown players for their own first-team. Foden and promising defender Eric Garcia, who has since been picked up from Barca, are seen as the pioneers who can stop the Academy from being viewed as a staging post on the way to success elsewhere.