When Manchester City named Tosin Adarabioyo, Aleix Garcia, Manu Garcia, Bersant Celina and David Faupala—five teenagers making their full debuts—in their starting lineup for the FA Cup fifth-round tie against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, they did so knowing criticism would follow.
And it duly did. BBC pundit Alan Shearer, according to Anthony Jepson at the Manchester Evening News, was unhappy. City, he said, disrespected a proud competition, exiting English football's most prestigious cup on a whim.
The fact Manuel Pellegrini was working with a squad reduced in number by seven because of injuries in a key week for the club was disregarded. With no Bacary Sagna, Eliaquim Mangala, Samir Nasri, Fabian Delph, Jesus Navas, Kevin De Bruyne and Wilfried Bony to call upon, it was impossible to rotate. And the BBC's decision to make City, who face a four-hour flight to Kiev on Monday, play on Sunday at 4 p.m. gave them even more problems.
When put in that context, Pellegrini's decision suddenly becomes more understandable.
City have suffered a mind-boggling number of setbacks this season, yet they had remained in four competitions. The pressure of that situation finally told on Sunday. With City facing Dynamo Kiev in Champions League, a priority in the boardroom, and a League Cup final against Liverpool in the seven days following the Chelsea match, they had to make changes. But doing so meant a serious drop in quality because so many of their senior stars are on the treatment table.
If he went ahead and played the same players in all three games, by the time the League Cup final (City's best chance of silverware this season) came around on Sunday, they'd have been dead on their feet. Wouldn't that have been disrespectful to that proud competition?
What happened at Stamford Bridge wasn't irreverence. It was pragmatism. If City had wanted to disrespect the competition, why did they play strong sides in the third and fourth rounds and batter Norwich City and Aston Villa 3-0 and 4-0 respectively?
Ideally, Pellegrini wouldn't have included so many debutants at once. A slower, more gradual integration is preferred. But with a squad as stretched as his, with a packed fixture schedule ahead, prioritising became a priority.
Pellegrini will be desperately disappointed to have exited the FA Cup. His time at City will end in June. He had four chances to add further trophies to the two he won in his first season—a chance to make history. He wouldn't throw one of them away wilfully. But Pellegrini will leave City with a poor FA Cup record.
Beaten 5-1 and criticised widely, to some it'll feel like a failed exercise. But the quality of the displays from their youngsters will have pleased many inside the club who have dedicated the last six years of their lives to ensuring City have an academy that fits their ambitions.
Both Garcias, Manu and Aleix, were superb. The desire of Brian Marwood, who leads the club's academy, and Txiki Begiristain, the sporting director, is to see every player at every level play the same style of football. An attractive, attacking type of play, in which players enjoy possession and are comfortable on the ball.
The two Garcias are fine examples of the kind of players City want. Manu, 18, had made just three senior appearances prior to Sunday's game. Aleix, also 18, was making his debut. Both constantly wanted the ball and used it intelligently, displaying vision and awareness beyond their years.
It was exciting to see two young players, lacking physically but with the talent to make up for it, so keen to try neat passes in tight spaces and get the ball on the ground. It was fearless stuff and suggested City have two young midfielders with real potential.
Very happy for my first team debut, not about the result tho, time… https://t.co/G75xseFbYY— Aleix Garcia (@97_aleix) February 21, 2016
Adarabioyo was perhaps the standout performer, though. His reading of the game is immaculate, even if his distribution let him down on a number of occasions. The timing of his tackles and his sheer natural attributes make him another real prospect. Here is an imposing and quick young man who clearly has an acute understanding of the game. Centre-back is the most difficult position to debut in, yet he looked solid for much of it.
City started the game superbly, moving the ball quickly and with purpose—better, some would say, than the kind of football their first-choice XI has served up in recent games. They deserved their equaliser, scored by David Faupala and made by Kelechi Iheanacho, and went in at the break level. It was a genuinely absorbing 45 minutes for the City fans. Here was a team containing six teenagers, with an average age of 24.5, more than holding its own against a side full of quality and experience.
The second half was a different story, as Chelsea's strength and superiority told. City shipped two goals in the first eight minutes after the restart, meaning the game was over as a contest.
But this was about more than the result. It was about extremely young but well-drilled youngsters taking their chances on the biggest day of their careers to date.
With such sweeping, wholesale changes, they were never going to progress, but City saw a lot of the hard work that has gone into their academy begin to bear fruit. The defeat can't ruin that.
The likelihood that all of the youngsters who started this match will go and become regulars for City is remote. The level needed to achieve that kind of status has become extremely high; it's never been more difficult to break into the first team at the Etihad Stadium.
But the game against Chelsea proved City's approach to developing youngsters is the right one. They teach them to enjoy the ball, with technical quality and tactical awareness their primary concerns. That showed throughout much of this game. If they don't make it at the Etihad, a long career in the game elsewhere beckons.
Outsiders will see it as disrespectful. The club will see it as sensible—as the day its sharp focus on the academy began to be justified.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2015/16 season. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard_.