Although Pep Guardiola’s immediate brief at Manchester City is to deliver levels of success akin to his Barcelona days, the Catalan coach was also recruited as a man who can help bridge the gap between the club’s hugely-impressive academy and the first team.
City have invested considerable money in transforming their academy into the best in England but the pathway into playing for the club in the Premier League has been narrow with precious few actually making the step up.
Sean Dyche was critical of Guardiola in February, claiming he had abandoned his coaching principles by not investing enough faith in youth. While the Catalan’s decision to field six substitutes at Turf Moor invited ridicule and accusations of deliberately disrespecting his academy.
Guardiola batted that all away, but it remains an issue.
So much so that one of their best prospects, Jadon Sancho, moved to Borussia Dortmund last summer and is thriving in the Bundesliga, while another looks set to follow him to Germany in Javairo Dilrosun who is in talks with Hertha Berlin.
It’s a desperately difficult balancing act as such are the huge pressures on Guardiola to deliver silverware, any misstep in selection could be catastrophic in the overall season picture.
However, with the Premier League and EFL Cup secured and with their exit from the Champions League and FA Cup, the remaining three games of the season represent an opportunity for the City boss to give his best young talent a proper taste of first-team action.
There are league records at stake but here are four teen tyros who could make their first top-flight starts between now and May 13.
Since winning the Golden Ball at the Under-17 World Cup, English football’s great teenage hope has played a grand total of 37 Premier League minutes and 195 in the Champions League after Guardiola blocked any loan moves for the attacking midfielder.
At 17, he remains at the very beginning of his career and managing his minutes is as prudent as limiting that of a veteran’s, such is the burnout suffered my many wonderkids in their late 20s.
Foden could effectively play either side of Gabriel Jesus or Sergio Aguero in a 4-3-3 which would provide Raheem Sterling or Leroy Sane with a timely late-season breather, as both will be headed to the World Cup.
He did enjoy 19 minutes off the bench during the 5-0 victory over Swansea on April 22, completing 21 of his 23 passes, including one key passes, and delivering two successful dribbles while earning two free-kicks.
While it’s right to get excited about Foden could offer in the future, it’s easy to get too carried away by what kind of player he is in the present. Guardiola, more than anyone, is mindful of that.
There’s also the small matter of earning a Premier League winners’ medal as Foden, having come off the bench four times, needs just one more appearance to qualify for one.
Another young English prospect who came into this season following a highly fruitful summer as he scored the winning goals in both the semi-finals and final for the Young Lions to claim the European Under-19 crown.
Like Foden, he’s been with the club throughout his childhood but is a vastly different type of player to his fellow academy graduate.
Standing at 6ft, the teenage striker looks comfortable playing with his back to goal and makes best use of his physical attributes, holding off defenders and linking up the play.
However, while his rangy stature stands out, especially given he is only 19, the Hamburg-born forward is also partial to a dribble on the turn and attacking defenders on the front foot.
Nmecha, whose younger brother Felix is a midfielder in the academy, has been given experience of the first-team with appearances in the EFL Cup and he made his Premier League debut off the bench in the rout of West Ham on Sunday.
He replaced Jesus with ten minutes remaining and had just three touches of the ball, completing two passes. Although he did show a hunger to press, making two tackles and an interception which, given the game was over as a contest, would have perked Guardiola’s interest.
There is only one place for him in the side, unless Guardiola radically alters his approach and fields two central strikers, and it’s unlikely to see him supplant Jesus or Aguero from the start but we should expect at least one more cameo from the frontman.
The Spaniard has been generating considerable excitement since arriving at the club from Malaga in 2013 with footage of his mazy, Messi-like dribbles shared across social media.
Guardiola has adopted a similar approach to Foden, keeping Brahim around the first-team environment without actually playing him that much.
The 18-year-old did start in the EFL Cup against Leicester on December 19 and made his Premier League debut a month latter but his minutes have been minimal, with just 31 in the top flight.
Unfortunately, he operates in a position where most of City’s best players dwell and if it’s not Kevin De Bruyne restricting his progress, then it’s David or Bernardo Silva or Ilkay Gundogan when he’s fielded in an advanced role.
That said, Brahim is the sort of tactically-flexible skilful midfielder who’s good enough to play anywhere in an offensive role and his three substitute appearances have been for Sterling, De Bruyne and Sane, on both the left and right.
It’s a touch optimistic to see him starting, especially as Foden looks the most likely of Guardiola’s teen talents to play from the start, but the Catalan will surely give him the two substitute appearances to earn his winners’ medal.
Unlike the above trio, Dele-Bashiru is not an overtly attacking player and instead tends to play in a defensive midfield role, albeit with the sort of long stride that may lend him to one day becoming more of a box-to-box presence.
He made his first-team bow in that EFL Cup game against Leicester in December, a tie that one day could be seen as pivotal in the overall growth of this crop of youngsters, so it won’t be a considerable stretch to see him named in one of the next three matchday squads.
In terms of where he would fit in Guardiola’s XI, Fernandinho’s hunter-gatherer position in front of the back-four would suit but, given his rawness, entrusting the 18-year-old with that responsibility, even in games of little consequence for City would be a big leap.
He could therefore play alongside the Brazilian instead of Gundogan, who’s had his fitness problems and both he and Guardiola are surely mindful of unnecessary risk at this stage of the season.
That would afford Dele-Bashiru the protection of being able to express himself while having the security and experience of Fernandinho to guide him.