The striker left the Etihad in 2009 after being stuck behind the likes of Jo, Benjani and Felipe Caicedo, and represents the last jewel to have emerged from the club’s academy
In December, Manchester City opened the €275 million City Football Academy. It features 16.5 pitches, 10 of them with undersoil heating, allowing 450 players to train there every week. It includes the biggest artificial indoor pitch in England, a hydro-therapy area with water at six different temperatures and four-star hotel-standard accommodation. They went through 19 design variations after studying 70 training facilities in several continents.
But despite all those numbers, they only had one real aim: to produce world-class players. On Sunday, City encounter the last superstar to come through their ranks. Daniel Sturridge plays for Liverpool now. It is almost six years since his final City game, when he scored in the last minute of a 4-2 win over West Bromwich Albion. He is the one who got away, the sharpshooter who could have been leading their line. Instead of combining profitably with Luis Suarez last season, he could have paired another prolific South American, Sergio Aguero. Sturridge and Sergio, the alternative SAS.
The bare facts are that City have spent around €870 million on transfers since Sheikh Mansour’s 2008 takeover. They recouped an initial fee of just €4.8 million, with the price set by a tribunal, when Sturridge signed for Chelsea in 2009. Meanwhile, City have just paid €36 million for Wilfried Bony, a fine footballer with a formidable physique and a terrific scoring record, but arguably still inferior to Sturridge.
The Ivorian is the 12th forward to cost City at least €19 million in the last seven years. Nine of them were priced at over €27 million. But, Aguero apart, how many are better than Sturridge now?
So City have had years to rue their reluctance to pay Sturridge the €82,000-a-week contract Chelsea awarded a player with the grand total of five league starts, and to regret their short-termism in Mark Hughes’ chaotic first year in charge.
Robinho was the brilliant wastrel who was the constant in the attack. The damning detail was where Sturridge ranked in the pecking order: Benjani, Felipe Caicedo, Jo, Craig Bellamy and Darius Vassell all began more league games. Ched Evans started as many. View it that way and no wonder Sturridge left. There were times he seemed the eighth-choice forward in what was, Bellamy and Robinho apart, an undistinguished band.
A dynasty ended with Sturridge. Micah Richards and Nedum Onuoha were still at City, but he was the last of the graduates of one of the most envied academies in England to break through. City developed talent then. Aided by the millions from Abu Dhabi, they soon started buying it. They imported expensive, often excellent, players. The one in the current squad who is classified as “club-trained” by Uefa is Dedryck Boyata, the second-string centre-back from Belgium. But for the quota, he would surely be gone by now.
In December, before the precocious Matija Nastasic was loaned out, City’s squad was named the oldest in Europe’s major leagues. Liverpool have one of the youngest in England. At 25, Sturridge is one of their senior players. Put him in the City side and, if Eliaquim Mangala did not figure, he would be the youngest starter.
City have an ageing team and a need to rejuvenate. Yaya Toure, Frank Lampard, Martin Demichelis, Willy Caballero, Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta have already entered their thirties. Over the next 14 months, Vincent Kompany, James Milner, Edin Dzeko, Fernandinho, Aleksandar Kolarov, Gael Clichy and David Silva will join them. Recent attempts to produce their own players have fired. The youth system has fewer locals and is more cosmopolitan, but Denis Suarez and Abdul Razak did not prove the new Silva and Toure respectively. John Guidetti will probably never feature in a Premier League game for them.
Hence a €275 million statement of intent. And, after a fallow period, there is the hope the next generation will fare better. Perhaps the teenagers Marcos Lopes, Jason Denayer, Jose Angel Pozo, Thierry Ambrose, Bersant Celina, Brandon Barker and Angelino will prove Sturridge’s belated successors.
They need to, both to justify the construction of the world’s best training complex and to realise the “holistic” objectives of chief executive Ferran Soriano and sporting director Txiki Begiristain who aim to bring the Barcelona ethos to the Etihad and look to recreate La Masia in east Manchester. That is only possible if City, like Barca, produce their own players.
The left-back Angelino may the likeliest to progress, simply because his competition will come from Kolarov and Clichy. But City’s model of two first-team players for every position limits the chances for the up-and-coming and a look at his fellow Spaniard Pozo shows the logistical difficulties emerging talents at the Etihad face. He figured as a striker when he made three Premier League appearances in December, and then City signed Bony. He is really more of a No.10, a position Silva, Toure, Lampard, Samir Nasri and Stevan Jovetic can play in. Sturridge was never given an extended opportunity in an era of Caicedo and Jo, Benjani and Evans.
Now his current employers provide the role models. Brendan Rodgers parachuted Jordon Ibe into a Merseyside derby when he gave a teenager just his second Premier League start. He was justified, just as he was when promoting Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan. Jonjo Shelvey and Suso got their chances two years ago. Perhaps Jordan Williams and Jordan Rossiter will be next. They are the kids who will make Sturridge seem old. Put him next to Manuel Pellegrini’s senior citizens, however, and he remains the last youth