Manchester City are increasingly happy to shout about their progress in youth football as their academy produces some of the most exciting young talents in the game.
This past season has been the time to shine for playmaker James McAtee, an attacking midfielder who thrives in tight spaces and relishes the challenge of scoring big goals. As well as being named as the Under-23 Player of the Year, he also has a new contract to his name and the confidence of Pep Guardiola.
McAtee won the league’s annual award from Liam Delap, the City striker who scored on his first-team debut in September 2020 and then went onto smash the goals record in Premier League 2 in a devastating series of performances. Those two can expect to feature this summer in pre-season to give themselves every chance of contributing to City’s future success and are part of a remarkable batch of academy players who have come onto Guardiola’s radar.
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Anyone who watched City’s U23s play the season before Delap’s breakthrough may be surprised to see that Jayden Braaf is not part of the rich crop; instead, he has quietly departed on a free transfer for Dortmund.
Braaf arrived from PSV in 2018 and, while the 16-year-old saw his first season with the Under-18s blighted by injuries, he still showcased his ability for taking players on and beating them down the left wing whenever he got an opportunity. It was the following year where he really kicked on though, having built his fitness up and bulked up to add power and stamina to his electric pace and tricky feet.
Nine goals in 16 Premier League 2 appearances brought him the U23s Player of the Year award at City, and the attention of first team coaches. Despite earning comparisons with Leroy Sane and Jadon Sancho for his direct, exciting style, Braaf was keen to tell fans: “Everyone is thinking about Sancho No.2 but I’m just myself, I’m not the new Sancho or something like that . “
Unfortunately for player and for club, things went downhill rapidly after such a promising season. Whereas City did everything they could to keep Sancho, they had been ready for Braaf’s departure for almost two years. Ultimately, not only could the club offer Braaf the first team football he wanted at his pace, after seeing him in training they decided that they did not want to.
It remains incredibly difficult for any young talent to break into one of the best first teams in world football, and the ambition to do it should never be discouraged. Braaf was initially spurred on by the progress of his friends at other clubs – including Ki-Jana Hoever at Liverpool and Brian Brobbey at Ajax – but that developed into a source of frustration when they were getting opportunities that he was not.
The pandemic did not help either; Braaf’s nose was put out of joint when he was not invited back to train with the first team squad during the first lockdown. The club insisted that they were only using local academy players to fill out the first team squad so as to avoid flying people back in the middle of a pandemic, but the message had not been received back in the Netherlands where Braaf was stewing.
When he did arrive back, the player once again showed his quality. The winger came off the bench to score in City’s FA Youth Cup semi-final win over Blackburn in October 2020 before making a match-winning turn as a substitute in the final a few days later as the Blues won the competition for the first time in 12 years.
And yet, by the end of November everything had gone irretrievably wrong: Braaf was fuming when he was left out of an U23s game that month and exchanged some frank conversations with coach Enzo Maresca about why he was not picked. Maresca, with the full backing of his bosses, made it clear that the winger would not be selected again while he was in charge.
A January loan move to Udinese followed, where Braaf was made to work for his opportunities but notched his first senior appearance and first senior goal. However, more misfortune was to strike as he suffered a serious knee injury in April 2021 that took a year to recover from.
City sent Braaf to their specialist doctor in Barcelona for the surgery, and also allowed him to complete his rehabilitation with a fitness coach at the training ground this year. There was never any chance of a happy reunion though, and the prevailing opinion within City that the player did not have the right attitude to make it at the Etihad was only entrenched by what they saw as problems with his individual work over the last few months.
That isn’t to say that Braaf cannot have a successful career elsewhere, and there was considerable interest in him despite his year-long absence. The 19-year-old was set to join a Serie A side, only for Dortmund to swoop in and poach the Dutchman for their fourth youth signing from City in five years after Sancho, Denzeil Boadu, and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens.
Dortmund are adept at turning prospects into players who command huge transfer fees and will hope that Braaf proves to be their latest rough diamond. As the teenager looks for a clean break, City have not looked back since deciding long ago to move forward without him.
With McAtee, Delap and a host of others all pushing their case to be in Guardiola’s plans, the club and its academy have not been short of success stories to shout about instead.