James McAtee showed Pep Guardiola he was a Man City player through and through – Stuart Brennan
Pep Guardiola’s throwaway line about James McAtee after Manchester City’s win over Fulham was a telltale indicator of where the 19-year-old Salfordian is in his career.
Guardiola said after the match, when asked about his academy skills in general: “Look at McAtee today, he played exceptionally, he was moving in the right places and every touch he made was better.”
For a coach who is always careful when it comes to extolling the virtues of young players, urging patience and being down-to-earth at all times, that was a heck of a compliment.
And it’s not just the manager throwing off-the-cuff praise for the hugely promising midfielder who has 14 goals and four assists in 15 Premier League 2 appearances this season.
Last October, Joao Cancelo was asked by a television interviewer to discuss the virtues of Phil Foden and Cole Palmer, who had just made his mark in the Champions League by scoring a superb goal at Club Brugge.
Cancelo duly expressed his admiration for the two youngsters who had played, but then said, without any prompting: “Cole is a special player, I really like him, but I also like James McAtee, for example – he’s a great player.”
McAtee has clearly impressed the senior pros, and the fact City signed him for a further three years last week proves they are confident he has what it takes.
Now Guardiola is looking for signs that he can turn his youthful talent into a true City player, Foden-style.
Foden was destined for Manchester City greatness almost from the first day he walked through the door of the club’s former Platt Lane academy complex.
It was clear from the start that this little kid had a rare talent, one that shone even among the cream of Greater Manchester football culture – and he continued to shine even when they pushed him with older children and much larger.
The star never faded, it just got brighter – he was player of the tournament when England won the Under-17 World Cup, and 24 days later Pep Guardiola made his debut in a Champions League clash with Feyenoord.
He never seemed to doubt he would succeed, but there are crucial moments in a young player’s career where he proves that, to go along with the undoubted talent, he has the confidence and confidence to play in the same way in front of a large crowd. as they did when destroying opponents in the Academy Stadium.
Leading a game when you’re surrounded by your age group peers and facing young and inferior opposition is one thing, but doing it when you’re thrust into a squad of experienced world-class footballers and facing gnarly old pros , with a large and critical observation of the crowd, is entirely different.
When Foden took this leap from high-potential youngster to central figure is debatable.
One moment that stands out is an FA Cup draw in Newport County two years ago. This may seem strange, as it was a game against Ligue 2 opposition.
But Foden started, in a side that included Fernandinho, David Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Leroy Sane, on a muddy pitch in front of a hostile Welsh crowd in a small, narrow pitch with no hiding places.
Despite Silva’s presence, it was the 18-year-old who grabbed a tough game by the scruff of the neck, scoring twice and barely mistaking a foot on treacherous box as the Blues lost 4- 1.
James McAtee is now six months older than Foden on this fetid afternoon, still getting drops and drops from matches.
Eighteen minutes on his debut against Wycombe, three more in his only Premier League appearance to date against Everton, 24 at Swindon in the FA Cup third round and 16 more on Saturday as a substitute in the 4-1 fourth-round win over Fulham.
Not much time to pass judgment, but the fact is the Salford lad slotted effortlessly into this well-oiled City machine at every opportunity.
And on Saturday, Guardiola tasked him with running the show for the final 15 minutes – as he prepared to continue, the manager held him firmly by the shoulder, making a gesture that would indicate he wanted him in the middle, in the gap between the Fulham lines, the positions where David Silva excelled for a decade.
He replaced Foden, who had operated in those areas, and is already a master of the role.
In a short time, McAtee did just about everything that was asked of him. His first involvement was a clever link-up with Ilkay Gundogan on the edge of the box which saw him fouled, with Raheem Sterling unnecessarily throwing the free-kick over the bar.
As soon as Fulham restarted, Guardiola shouted “Macca! Macca! as the youngster was slow to shut down the defender as he took the ball out after a short goal kick.
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Lesson one – he should be on the press instinctively, regardless of City leading 4-1 with little time left. Bernardo Silva or De Bruyne aren’t letting their ravenous instincts diminish, regardless of the score or time remaining, and McAtee must follow suit.
He swung into action to force an early pass that got City going again, and again showed excellent control and awareness in tight space to keep the ball from two Fulham defenders and feed Gundogan.
Drifting through space with little effort was a trait of Silva, and McAtee showed the same natural football intelligence.
But playing for City means being smart and aggressive on the ball as well as on it, and when the next attack, again unleashed by McAtee, broke down, he immediately sprinted to cover Kyle Walker, who was on the overlap when Bernardo lost. possession. This quick action stopped a Fulham counter. Details matter.
Holding back the powerful physical unit that is Nathaniel Chalobah for a moment, playing one-two with Walker to create another City chance, then advancing to create the opening from which compatriot Liam Delap saw a header disallowed for off- side game.
He did so much good and virtually nothing wrong, bringing this gem of praise from his manager.
Guardiola has been criticized for refusing to hand out match shorts to young players simply as a reward for doing well in the youth ranks.
Roberto Mancini was free and easy to hand out games at times – he even gave Chris Chantler a game against Juventus after hearing it was his 21st birthday.
Guardiola’s mantra is that a player will only get minutes when he has earned them, showing he can fit in without dropping his impeccably high standards.
This led to clamor for Foden to reach deafening proportions at times, but the manager knew what he was doing and City are reaping the results.
If you’re playing for City these days, you can be sure you’ve earned it and the manager thinks you’re good enough. It’s a huge thing, and McAtee has it.