There is no place on the planet better equipped to nurture the development of young players both on and off the field. The facilities, as you will have doubtless heard, are unrivalled in their quality and quantity, with a ridiculous 16 football pitches and six swimming pools simply the tip of a rather expensive iceberg.
The primary intention of Manchester City was to begin snatching the most impressive young footballers in the surrounding areas from United’s grasp. For too long, they felt, Sir Alex Ferguson had had his pick of the finest, with City left to sift through the scraps and salvage what they could. Sheikh Mansour, understandably, wanted his own iteration of the Class of ’92.
While the calibre of player in City’s academy has no doubt increased since the opening of the campus—not just because of greater pulling power in youth recruitment networks, but also because every player’s metaphorical ceiling has been lifted due to enhanced coaching, medical treatment and education—the quality of the imports has dramatically risen, too. They have the overseas allure that United boasted when they poached Paul Pogba from Le Havre (among many others).
And so, enter Brahim Diaz: a player City very likely wouldn’t have been able to entice five years ago. The 16-year-old was fast-tracked into the under-18s this season and has made waves every time he has taken to the pitch for Jason Wilcox’s side; there are extremely high hopes for the young Spaniard.
Since August, it’s been all-action for him; he’s been a regular for the under-18s, developed a reputation as one of, if not the most exciting prospect in City’s ranks and become a firm part of Spain’s under-17 setup.
He’ll very likely contest the Under-17 European Championships under Santi Denia’s tutelage this summer. The significance of this cannot and should not be overlooked: the Spanish Football Federation broke their own rules in order to include him, as typically speaking, youth players outside of Spain aren’t considered for selection.
During his short time in the Manchester limelight, he’s developed a player comparison in the form of Lionel Messi—only the best player in the world and perhaps the best player ever to have graced the game. Often these comparisons are thrown around willy-nilly without much thought, possibly to enhance the clickability of a YouTube video, but this one...well, astonishingly, it rings true in certain places.
In the grand scheme of things, Brahim is as diminutive as they get. He’s lightweight, his limbs offer no traditional “power,” and his skill does not derive from any form of athleticism. He’s quick but not fast, in no way strong compared to his peers, but he does possess outrageous technique, close control and cunning of mind.
His confidence in his own touch knows no bounds, and he can at times be seen chipping balls over markers’ heads in order to get away from them, or instigating one-touch passing sequences with team-mates in tight areas. In this sense, he brings more out of his colleagues than anyone else can.
When he traps a ball it stops dead, right on the end of his toe. The consistency of it is unerring, although the pass/drop-off immediately following one of these miraculous takes could use some work; he appears to take his mind off that final task ever so slightly at times, occasionally leading to misplaced or heavy balls.
He can embark on mazy dribbles, wriggling free of markers and attempted challenges by manipulating the ball with several touches in quick succession. He might be slight, but his balance and centre of gravity is David Silva-esque, and he’s able to continue dribbling even if he’s knocked off-balance by a tackle.
That, possibly, is where the Messi comparison emanated from, but there’s no doubting in which moment it was rubber-stamped.
On March 5 this year, he scored a truly ridiculous goal against Chelsea, beating two markers and firing home from just inside the box. The agility and change of direction used to dodge the defenders was indeed Messi-esque, as was the cleanliness with which he reorganised his feet and regained his balance before shooting.
As an advanced midfielder who looks most at home in a roaming No. 10 role, moments of trickery and goals such as these will be what he’s judged on; the most tangible impact a playmaker can make on a match is in the goals or assist column. But Brahim also shows exceptional off-the-ball anticipation, allowing him to seize on errors and punish them.
He’s constantly switched on, even when his team are out of possession, and closes down angles to prevent passes being made. He expects errors, tries to force them and has a habit of nipping in and stealing weaker passes that have been made under duress. His team-mates play half the part in pressuring, and he mops up the rest.
City’s under-18s manager Wilcox hasn’t overwhelmed him this season, tempering his playing time. Given he’s 16 years of age, extremely light of build and tussling with players up to three years older than him, that’s wise.
Again, a look across the city reveals what mismanaging a youngster’s fitness can do, as 18-year-old Marcus Rashford—despite his undeniable brilliance—has played 11 consecutive games and pulls up in most with cramps or strains; he’s being pushed to his limit. Wilcox and his staff understand Brahim’s temporary physical limitations.
But that hasn’t stopped City fans envisaging Brahim becoming an instant world-beater under Pep Guardiola, who will arrive in time for the 2016-17 campaign.
The Spaniard obviously has an excellent track record with players of his ilk and has shown no hesitation in dolling out debuts to promising youngsters before: he gave Thiago Alcantara his debut at Barcelona, then at Bayern Munich, he started 17-year-old Gianluca Gaudino against Borussia Dortmund in the 2014 DFL Supercup.
The thought of Pep coaching Brahim, even if it’s just for the three years, is incredibly enticing. City may not even have to hit the market to replace David Silva, should the time come; they have his heir apparent in their own ranks already.