A significant part of Pep Guardiola's remit as Manchester City manager is to make the team more youthful and vibrant than it was before his arrival.
Not only does he have to sign younger players to help bring the average age of the side down, which he has done this summer in a shrewd manner, he also has to bring young players through from the academy and turn them into first-team stars.
Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the City chairman, said as much in his post-season interview for the club's website. "That's one of the reasons why Pep was so highly considered," he said. "He has done that with Barcelona, he has done that with Bayern Munich.
"Even with the abundance of talent he had with both first teams, Pep always has a knack for talent and he loves to find young players that have incredible talent."
City’s transfer policy this summer has underlined the need to add younger players to their ranks. Oleksandr Zinchenko and Marlos Moreno have both signed and immediately been loaned out to continue their development elsewhere. John Stones, 22, is the club’s now annual big-money defensive signing. Leroy Sane, 20, and Gabriel Jesus, 19, two of the game’s brightest young stars, have also signed, although the Brazilian won't link up with the squad until January.
They have significantly changed the dynamic and makeup of the squad.
And on Wednesday, with City 5-0 up from the first leg in Romania, Guardiola chose a squad heavily supplemented by academy players to finish the play-off tie with Steaua Bucharest. City won the game 1-0 and completed the formality of qualifying for the group stage of this season’s UEFA Champions League, with 19-year-old Pablo Maffeo making his senior debut at right-back.
Kelechi Iheanacho, 19, made his first start under Guardiola and was superb before injury brought his night to a close, and Tosin Adarabioyo, 18, and Angelino, 19, came on as second-half substitutes.
Even in a dead rubber, which this essentially was, that commitment to giving youngsters first-team experience would have been unlikely under former manager Manuel Pellegrini.
Far sterner tests than this lie in wait for those players, but they acquitted themselves superbly and gave further evidence of their ability to handle senior football.
Iheanacho is already established after playing 35 times last season and scoring 14 goals. Against Steaua, he was arguably City’s best player. Bright, quick, technically gifted—he gave the Bucharest back four a torrid time all evening.
He played a crucial part in the build-up to City’s goal, showing superb awareness to produce a first-time layoff into Jesus Navas’ path before the Spaniard produced a fine cross to pick out Fabian Delph, who headed home his first Champions League goal. It’s the kind of unselfishness and impudence that has come to define the young Nigerian’s game.
Maffeo showed why he has been hailed as one of City’s most promising academy prospects with a solid display, and Angelino gave City some additional thrust down the left.
Adarabioyo, who has jumped ahead of Eliaquim Mangala in the space of a few weeks under Guardiola, gave another assured display, just like he had in pre-season against Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
There was a telling moment not long after Adarabioyo had come on. The ball came to the young centre-back, and rather than clear it hurriedly, he stopped for a moment, took a touch, looked up and picked a pass into midfield. It was a simple piece of play but one that fits neatly into Guardiola’s idea of how the game should be played.
The City manager screamed to get Adarabioyo’s attention and gave an effusive clap in his direction. This is the new Manchester City, encouraged to play passing football from the back at all times.
Which is exactly why Stones was brought in from Everton, a player with remarkable ball-playing ability. The 22-year-old has been hand-picked by Guardiola to lead his City revolution. He's started every game since he arrived and cruised through them all, demonstrating a superb reading of the game and an ability to start attacks with his passing quality.
It's interesting that, after three of those games, he's stepped in front of the cameras and faced media questions. Clearly, he has an eye on establishing himself as an important player off the field as well as on it.
The Kompany-Zabaleta-Hart generation is fading, and City need a new set of leaders. Stones, clearly a favourite of Guardiola's, is young enough and good enough to assume that mantle and could be capable of helping fill the void.
And his style is capturing the imaginations of the City supporters. The Etihad Stadium was awash with youngsters wearing "Stones 26" shirts before Wednesday's game, a clear sign his arrival has excited the fans. It's unusual to find a defender so thrilling and entertaining to watch, capable of inspiring a younger generation, but in Stones, City may have found one.
The big story of the night, though, concerned one of City's elder statesmen. Joe Hart has played a huge role in the post-takeover rise having spent 10 seasons at the club, largely as the undisputed No. 1 'keeper.
But his time at the Etihad Stadium appears to be drawing to a close. He sat on the bench for City’s first three games of the season, with Guardiola harbouring reservations about his ability to distribute the ball in the way that he likes, and a deal for Claudio Bravo, who watched from the stands on Wednesday, has been struck, the club announced Thursday. Hart now seems likely to leave.
He started the game and was given the captain’s armband. The fans sang his name repeatedly throughout the match. At the final whistle, he waved goodbye in an emotional farewell, the end of an important era in this club’s history.
He told BT Sport afterwards:
“That was a really special night for me. I’ve had a lot of good nights in football.
“We all know there’s a situation going on, but I feel that inside, outside of all the circus, we are handling it well as a good team with a good management staff.
“This is a special place for me, there’s never been any secret made of that. It’s the place I’d love to be, but situations occur in football but we’re men and we get on with it.
“Tonight was really nice and I really appreciate the people at Manchester City and it turns out they appreciate me.
“It’s a situation, we’ve got a top manager that the club’s wanted for a long, long time and he’s going to have his opinion on things.
“Outside of the charade and all the rubbish that is talked, we are dealing with it like men and we are going to come up with a solution.”
Through it all, Joe Hart has managed to keep his sense of humour 👏 pic.twitter.com/eajBnUpbkq— Bleacher Report UK (@br_uk) August 25, 2016
Football is ruthlessly unforgiving, and Hart has been a victim of the game’s harsh realities. But as one player’s time at the club draws to a close, it seems the door is opening for others. With Guardiola as manager, the club’s youngsters have never had a fairer shot at establishing themselves in this team.
On the evidence of this game, they may just have what it takes.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and follows the club from a Manchester base. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard_.