Txiki Begiristain and Pep Guardiola shape Man City U23 thinking more than ever
When swapping the battles of lower league football with Rochdale for Manchester City’s academy last summer, two things Brian Barry-Murphy thought or had been told were quickly proven to be untrue.
The first was that Pep Guardiola has a big first team squad. It is spoken about as vast because of the quality running through the squad, but the manager prefers a small, versatile group to be able to solve problems in multiple ways and avoid as many awkward conversations with players about not getting picked as possible.
Secondly, linked to the first point, the idea that moving away from a competitive league towards a development project would make Barry-Murphy’s life breezier than before was very much mistaken.
“I would say that the perception from the outside in academy football is people say to you that it’s great having a break from results,” the coach told the Manchester Evening News. “I’ve never felt more responsibility to deliver the results both individually and collectively in terms of preparing the player for the next game, the next part of what they’re working on, providing players for the first team in an elite environment.
“I feel as if the expectancy and demands on ourselves as staff in this building is really high. That’s part of what I’ve enjoyed the most really, working the way we do and providing results individually and collectively is a brilliant challenge. The more you win and do things as a group speeds that process up.”
Taking a step away from first team football has left Barry-Murphy feeling more visible than before thanks to the constant presence of academy director Jason Wilcox and sporting director Txiki Begiristain. As well as Begiristain needing to keep tabs on the academy as he plots the best squad for Guardiola to achieve success with, the Catalan greatly enjoys youth football and is an underrated influence on the academy at City.
Much is made – fairly – on the £200m training complex that houses the City teams from Under-9s right up to the Under-23s, boasting facilities that few clubs in the world can dream of. As Barry-Murphy settled in during his switch from Spotland though, it was the experience of Begiristain that helped pull him through the difficult moments of his first year in charge of the Under-23s and convinced him that he didn’t need to worry as much about talking how to do things as much as he did just getting on with doing them.
Ultimately, if you are trying to get players through to the first team at City you need to be listening to the person who is in charge of it – but there can never be guarantees that they will listen.
“Txiki is obviously an amazing man. When you think of what he’s done in his career and where he has been, he never portrays that on to you,” said Barry-Murphy.
“He is always there for you and he’s the one that is always there in our building. In the academy building we see Jason as our boss and his boss is Txiki. Those guys are two of the guys who probably do have to be judged on results when we’re losing games and have injuries so we want to do our jobs well to make sure those guys are protected. The support Txiki gave me in every part of the season – when it was going well, when the results were difficult – for me was an insight into what real support and outstanding leadership looks like.
“He was always there for me, any question you could ask him any day. One of the most satisfying parts of the year for me is you get that from him and then get back to the academy building and Jason is always there or Stephen Torpey working under Jason. I don’t know if anyone will care but they have to deliver for us coaches.
“The advice from Txiki, Jason and Pep has helped me to understand the different experiences I’ve had and put me into a more efficient way of working. I used to spend a lot of time speaking about the way that I did things or we did things as a group, almost trying to convince you of the values of that.
“I think it’s fine being judged on results from the outside world but that is judging you on individual growth of a player or results. For us, inside the dressing room we have to have a way of working that is clear. Improving every day and being the best we can just gives great clarity to me and feels really good to the players. From my experience, you can spend too much time talking about that and people think bored and think what’s the point, but I was guilty of that.”
Just as many coaches and players do when they first get to City, Barry-Murphy needed time to adjust to the way such a club operates and his day job was not made easier by a string of injuries in the opening months of the season that left him with a threadbare squad. With the best youngsters either sidelined or asked to help Guardiola’s thin first team squad, last season’s Premier League 2 champions just about held their own in the league but limped out of the Uefa Youth League and EFL Trophy at the group stage.
Thanks to the support of Begiristain et al, Barry-Murphy was convinced his players would come good and everything really began to click after their Christmas break. Ultimately romped home by six points to win the Premier League 2 for a second consecutive year as top prospect James McAtee won the prize for the best player in the competition.
As the academy celebrates another successful season, the Under-23s coach has reiterated to his players the importance of the lower points in the season. Not only did some youngsters thrive in the opportunities handed to them by the adversity of others, but in a club that wins more than most the value of knowing how to respond to defeats is a significant lesson for these youngsters at the beginning of their careers – and also meant the coach could talk less because the results were speaking for the work going on.
“My staff and myself were very clear when the players were disappointed or felt they were being judged on results that this was the moment to remember what it looks like because we were certain that when we did start finding some results we would win games really quickly and really efficiently,” he said. “It’s nice when that actually happens because they’re very young lads, they won’t have experienced much adversity in the academy because our teams can be so dominant.
“To get really tough games in Europe or be in the EFL Trophy and have heavy losses, it’s brilliant learning as long as the lessons are taken on board and applied for the rest of the season. That’s what we did and once we got on a roll the players could look back to those moments and say that we did say this would happen.
“To deliver on it gives real belief and substance to what you’re trying to do. To see them play the way they did in the second part of the season is rewarding and gives them a lot of tools to use again if it happens again to them in their career. A lot of players will go on to have careers elsewhere and it’s important for them to understand they will have tough periods in their career but individually in teams that they play that aren’t as dominant as Man City they have to have those coping mechanisms.
“Wherever and whenever we can create these lessons in the academy where the players are finding it difficult or facing opposition of a high level that are going to challenge them, we have to treasure those moments and show the lads that this is what it is like when the level goes up. If we do that, we’re creating players that will survive and in the EFL or abroad whatever the next step of the journey is.”
If Begiristain has helped the coach, the players are being shaped by Guardiola more than ever before. Not only do they treasure every opportunity to train with the first team but hang off every word from his press conferences so know exactly what it takes to make it to the first team.
The statistics would suggest the strategy is working, with more young talent than ever considered ready for the challenge of breaking into Guardiola’s first team squad. When the young players are starting to talk like the first team manager, that can only be a good sign.
“Sometimes you can spend too long talking about the process and people just want to say whether you won or lost games. I think that’s one of the clear messages that the manager has spoken about in the press conference that I mean,” said Barry-Murphy.
“That’s something that our players have started to use in their language. Everyone here is so influenced by the way that Pep speaks that it can only be a great thing because it provides reference to the way they work. Everything he says is a very clear message and consistent. He speaks to the players generally when they’re over there training and all of his messages are built on the same values and that obsessive improvement is something that we all feel.
“It’s great to be part of, you know that whatever is happening you have to improve every single day and our job is to make sure that it does reach that obsession to improve all aspects of our game all the time. That sits very well with me.
“You don’t want to portray yourself as being over there every day having these great conversations with him because he’s a busy man. But again, you can feel him everywhere we go and he’s always got this amazing ability to feel like you’re contributing to what he needs.
“That personal touch, that gentle touch isn’t always evident but he’s got an amazing way of making us all feel valued as if we’re all contributing to the one cause. From the football side of things his job is to push everyone really hard and we all want to please him and provide him with what he needs. We don’t take that for granted and there’s a big opportunity for us to do even better and push even more players into his eyeline for whenever and wherever he needs.”
As if there wasn’t enough expertise on hand to learn from, the Under-23s have also been able to witness first-hand experience of what is required to win a Premier League in this modern era. With their league title wrapped up, the young Blues trained in the final weeks of the season with at least one eye fixed on the training pitch containing Guardiola’s squad as they pushed to stay ahead of Liverpool.
Even the coach was inspired by the standards that he saw, and having seen what it looks like the next challenge for the Under-23s is to lift themselves up to that level to give themselves the best possible opportunity of reaching that senior squad at the Etihad.
“Txiki’s passion for the younger players is so genuine and the way he expects to see them behave and act when they’re in the Man City shirt with us or in the first team. He’s on site there all the time. It’s good to have that and you very much feel as if Jason is delivering that message for us that when they do go over there [to first team training] they have to behave,” said Barry-Murphy.
“How they play is a natural process for the players but I think that link between the first team is an academy shouldn’t be taken for granted because it’s not normal, it’s a great privilege to have and gives everyone in this building incredible access to one of the most successful environments in world sport. We want to mirror that in the academy and push our standards higher and higher. That’s our aim as we move through the summer.
“To have someone like Txiki available on the pitch every day can blow your mind. We almost forget about what he is or where he comes from I don’t even think about it now, just pulling him over and asking him stupid questions and he gives you the time of day that you shouldn’t get.
“It’s an amazing experience to be around those guy sand they do make you think about what you’ve done before and the way you can do things better and be more efficient and open your mind to new ways of working. That’s without going into watching the first team and the way that they behave and their mentality in training and how they’re so hungry after all they’ve done.
“It’s blown me away and taken me right back to the start reminding you why you’ve played. I know Liverpool are known as the mentality monsters but our guys every day the way they train and are so focused on what they do and are so competitive must be why they can do what they’ve done. That’s a great blueprint of what I want to see in our environment as the players progress.”