Jon Mackenzie and Josh Hobbs explore the loan systems used in the modern game and assess how clubs have created different pathway models for their players. Most of these models focus on player development in some way but each have a very different methodology and some have very different end goals.
In the first article in this series, we looked at the first of four different loan pathways for player development used by football clubs in the modern game: the Academy Model.
Our topic today is another loan pathway model, something we’re calling the Portfolio Model. We’ll begin by outlining the broad brushstrokes of the model before moving on to look at a specific example of this kind of model: Manchester City.
Unlike the Academy Model, the Portfolio Model of player development buys youngsters towards the end of their academy development, bringing them into the buying club’s academy for the final development process. In doing so, the buying clubs are able to filter out academy players whose development doesn’t match their early promise.
As in the case of the Academy Model, if these older players don’t make the grade, clubs can still sell them on for a decent sum and fund their academy system. In this model, then, player development is treated more as a form of speculation, picking up assets whose stock is set to rise and selling those whose value could be about to drop off.
Manchester City are a good example of a club that uses this approach. In the 20/21 season, the Manchester club brought in around ten players from other academies and moved on around twenty players from their own. This is a trend that can be mapped across the last half-decade:
Interestingly, over the current transfer window, Pep Guardiola has spoken about how Manchester City’s investment in the academy has been able to fund some of the club’s movement in the senior markets (albeit with a level of exaggeration regarding fees…):
Let’s have a look at the Manchester City loan pathway model in greater detail.
The Manchester City Model
It’s important to note at this point that no one club will implement a single pathway for player development. Over the last few years, Manchester City have begun to invest heavily into their academy and are aggressively recruiting the best young players in the UK. In recent weeks, they have been pushing to sign Brooklyn Nfonkeu from Leeds United, considered by some to be the best under 15-year-old in the country.
However, through their City Football Group network, the Citizens have largely operated a different model of player development and revenue generation. Primarily, they have bought breakout academy talents from around the world, immediately sent them out on loan to continue their development, before later selling them on for a significant profit.
We can see this in action by focusing on their loanees from the 17/18 season. That season, City had 47 loans in this particular season, including players from the first-team and the U23 squad. This also includes some players who were loaned to one club in the first half of the season and another in the January window.
Joe Hart and Eliaquim Mangala were included in this cohort of loans but these two were in different positions to the rest of the loanees. They were the only two players to have been previously established members of the City first team and they were being loaned out because they were unable to be sold at this point. They would almost certainly have been sold in the summer if a deal could have been agreed.
Fourteen of these loanees played over 1000 minutes in the season, meaning they had important development seasons. However, it’s notable that some of the players that played very few minutes on their first loans in 17/18 had very successful loans in the next few seasons and were sold for high fees.
Preferred Destinations and the Beginnings of a Network
The 17/18 season saw City beginning to develop the City Football Group (CFG) network. Going into the 21/22 season, CFG now consists of 10 clubs from 5 different continents. In this sense, the Manchester City loan pathway model shares considerable overlap with the Multi-Club Model that we will cover in the next article in this series.
CFG utilise their network in a couple of ways. Firstly, it enables them to buy high-performing youngsters from more obscure leagues who would struggle to gain work permits to play in top European leagues. They can then place them in one of their clubs where they could gain enough points to gain entry into other leagues where they could demand higher fees.
In the most recent season, they had nine players on loan at CFG clubs. In 17/18, they acquired Girona as part of their group and sent five players on loan to the La Liga club (they have since been relegated to La Liga 2). They also had Yangel Herrera on loan at New York City Football Club—another club in their network—with Jack Harrison being bought from the American club and subsequently loaned to Middlesbrough in the January window. Anthony Caceres and Luke Brattan were loaned to Melbourne City, another of the CFG clubs already acquired by this point.
Also, City had six players on loan in the Eredivisie at NAC Breda. This was also an official partnership but the Dutch club did not come under the CFG umbrella. One of these players was Angelino, who had a successful loan at Breda before moving up to one of the top teams in the league in the next season, PSV Eindhoven. His next step was a loan to RB Leipzig where he completed a permanent move the summer after.
Sending players out on loans to CFG clubs is preferable as it’s easier to control the player’s playing time and subsequent development and the club can be confident in the playing style. However, there were plenty of players sent to non-network clubs. The rest of the loans were spread across a broad spectrum with the Eredivisie (3 additional players on top of the 6 NAC loans), League One (6), Championship (3) and SPFL (5) the other primary destinations for loanees.
Players Bought and Loaned Straight Out
Angelino is not the perfect example of a player that Manchester City bought and immediately farmed out on loan before selling. He was bought back in 13/14 and was sent on two previous loans to City Group clubs: NYCFC and Girona (although the Spanish club wasn’t officially acquired until the season after his loan there). He also played a small number of games for the City under 23s side.
After his two seasons in the Eredivisie, he was given a chance at City in the first half of 19/20 but he struggled to establish himself and was loaned to RB Leipzig in the January window, where he spent the next season and a half before signing for the German club permanently for a fee of just over £13m.
Douglas Luiz and Jack Harrison are two better examples of players who were bought that summer only to be loaned out and subsequently sold without making an appearance for the under 23s or senior sides.
In the case of Luiz, there was an issue with his work permit when he was first signed, so he would have had to be sent out on loan regardless of what the club’s original plan for him might have been. However, after he qualified to receive one to play in England he was immediately sold to Aston Villa for £15m.
Harrison spent the second half of the 17/18 season at Middlesbrough but this was a very unsuccessful loan as he barely featured. However, in the next season, he was sent on loan to Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United and the Englishman flourished, showing strong development season-on-season.
Leeds have recently completed his permanent signing for a fee believed to be around £11m after three consecutive years of loans. Considering Harrison was a post-draft trade for NYCFC in the MLS draft with City paying less than £4m to their partner club, this is a great example of how City utilise loans to generate good fees for players they pay small amounts to pick up.
The Development of Jack Harrison
As we’ve already suggested, Harrison’s first loan to Middlesbrough was unsuccessful. He played only 76 minutes in a half-season loan. This loan was a fairly surprising choice for him given that Tony Pulis was manager of the Teesiders at the time and his style of play differs hugely from what Harrison would have been used to from NYCFC.
In 18-19, his parent club were a lot more careful with his choice of destination as Harrison went to be coached by new Leeds United manager, Marcelo Bielsa. This season was much more successful and saw Harrison play over 2500 minutes in the Championship. He scored at a rate of 0.13 per 90 and assisted 0.06 per 90.
As his TransferLab profile from 18/19 shows, Harrison ranked over the 60th percentile for most metrics in the classic winger profile compared to forwards in TransferLab’s Tier 2 leagues:
Passes into the box was his outstanding metric but other than that he was above average but not spectacular. This reflected the fanbase opinion of Harrison’s season.
Although Harrison hadn’t been outstanding, Bielsa felt that he’d shown enough in his first season to bring him back and Victor Orta secured a deal where they would loan the City player for another year but this time with an option to buy him for a fee of around £8m.
This second season saw him play 1000 minutes more than his previous one with his output increasing to 0.13 goals per 90 and 0.18 assists per 90. His profile from that season emphasises the huge improvement he made as he ranked in the 88th percentile and above in 5 of the key metrics for his role:
Harrison had made himself the second-best creator in the Leeds team, second only to Pablo Hernandez, who was the league’s best creator as well as Leeds’.
The Elland Road club would have taken up the option in Harrison’s deal after this season, particularly with them winning the Championship. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic squeezing finances, Orta renegotiated with City and loaned Harrison for a further season with another option to buy, this time thought to be around £11m.
Had City known how Harrison would adjust to the Premier League, they would likely have wanted to set that option to buy at a higher price. Again he played over 3500 minutes but this time scored 0.24 goals per 90 and assisted at a rate of 0.18 per 90.
Again, his improvement was shown in the underlying numbers. This time his profile is measured against forwards in the Premier League instead of Tier 2 players, and as you can see, he managed to score above the 90th percentile for carries, key passes, passes into the box, touches in the final third and expected assists.
Although City might feel they missed out on a bit of cash with Harrison, it’s clear that the loans developed the Englishman as hoped, leading to him turning into one of the best attacking players for a club that finished 9th in the Premier League.
Yangel Herrera is also expected to be sold this summer after four seasons worth of loans without featuring for City. In 17/18, he was on the first of two seasons at NYCFC. He spent the most recent season at Granada, where he built up a reputation as a tenacious, goalscoring midfielder and is now coveted by multiple Premier League and La Liga clubs.
There are very few examples of players coming through the academy or being bought, going out on loan, and then making it in the City first team.
Now that their standards are so high, they cannot afford to take anybody other than elite players into their team. Phil Foden is obviously a special case, but it’s notable that City resisted any temptation to loan him as Pep Guardiola preferred to have him integrated slowly into the side and ensuring he was completely familiar with City’s tactical systems.
Instead, the vast majority of City’s loan players are sold on. We have already mentioned Angelino, Harrison and Luiz who brought in almost £43m in fees between them but City also managed to sell many more of their loanees from that season. Jason Denayer was on his fourth loan without representing Manchester City in 17/18, spending it with Galatasaray in Turkey. Following that season, Lyon spent £9m to bring him to Ligue 1. City also had Angus Gunn out on loan at Norwich City—the club they had taken him from as a teenager—that season.
The English goalkeeper showed enough potential in the Championship to encourage Premier League club, Southampton, to pay over £10m to sign him. Again, this was a large fee for City considering that he made no first-team appearances for the club.
The 17/18 season also saw Pablo Maffeo complete his third season-long loan to Girona, where he impressed enough to be bought for just over £8m by VFB Stuttgart. Whilst he did actually have three appearances in a Manchester City shirt, this came over a five-season-long period where he was owned by them and he was simply given a few throwaway appearances in European qualification games and EFL cups games early one season before subsequently being loaned out.
Alongside these larger fees, they have raised upwards of £10m in accumulated smaller fees from the many other loanees they sent out in 17/18.
One player they may feel they missed out on selling at a good fee for was Patrick Roberts, who excelled on loan at Celtic in 16/17 and then returned there in 18/19 only to have his season interrupted by injuries. Despite this, according to Transfermarkt, his value peaked at £6.75m on his return to City. However, rather than trying to cash in on the winger, they loaned him to Girona, where he struggled and his value has been plummeting ever since. Now 24, City still have him on their books after a string of unsuccessful loans to the Championship.
This is an example of how using loans to maximise assets and then sell them at their peak can go wrong. On the whole though, City are easily covering their mistakes by those they are making big money on, and of course it helps that the club has enormous funds to plough into this project to keep it going.
The pros and cons of the Portfolio Model of player development are similar to the Academy Model. The model skews heavily towards teams with the financial backing to enjoy economies of scale. With some of the randomness taken out of the player development lottery by buying later in the process, there is more of a guarantee that surplus players can be sold on at the end of the process. This allows you to hit a level of sustainability fairly comfortably.
But these advantages fall away as you move down the pyramid. Primarily, capital is needed up-front to build your portfolio of players. Even if you can afford to set aside the money for a stable of older academy players, some of these players command such high fees that there isn’t too much scope to fail.
On top of this, the less prestigious your club is, the less likely you are to add value to your outgoings such that the players coming out of the other side of the system are unlikely to command the sort of fees Manchester City can pick up for surplus players. This adds to the risk element of the Portfolio Model.
It’s hard to see this sort of model being adopted by teams outside the elite level. Perhaps the closest that you will come to this further down the pyramid is with teams such as Brentford who do not run an academy at all but run a reserve team, filling it with players who have come out at the other end of the academy pathways.
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