Pep Guardiola told me I had to leave Man City

In 2016, Manchester City’s Under-18s had an exciting attack consisting of Phil Foden, Brahim Diaz and Jadon Sancho. One is already a Champions League winner, the other will follow on Saturday evening.

Add in Felix Nmecha, who graduated from the City Football Academy a year or two later than the more recognizable trio, and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, and there are four City representatives in the showpiece at Wembley on Saturday.

Nmecha was released by City in 2021 to boost his career prospects, with his progress at Wolfsburg and Dortmund perhaps a sign that they could have made some profit from him. Sancho’s path is well documented. He made the jump to Dortmund, where he made a name for himself, before making an ill-fated move to Manchester United and now returning to Germany on loan. City have profited around £20 million over the course of his post-City career.

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Bynoe-Gittens swapped City for Dortmund in 2020 and has played in all but one of his side’s previous 23 Bundesliga games this season. Then there is Brahim Diaz, the player who came closest of the trio to breaking into Pep Guardiola’s first team, after Foden of course. Diaz made 15 appearances for Guardiola, scoring twice and enjoying the Etihad crowd singing his name after scoring both goals in a Carabao Cup win over Fulham.

Hopes that he and Foden would successfully graduate to the first team were high and Guardiola clearly liked the young Spaniard, but as Foden discovered, competition was fierce on the flanks for City. He started just four times, all in the League Cup, averaging just 27 minutes across his fifteen appearances in Sky Blue. He also enjoyed some success on pre-season tours, which strengthened his bond with Guardiola but also cemented his belief that he should play more.

While Foden waited and trusted Guardiola, Diaz took an approach similar to Sancho’s a few years earlier. He wanted to play more and made his feelings known. When his contract expired in 2019, Diaz was hesitant about an extension and sought certainty over playing time.

City were willing to risk him leaving on a free, but were also aware of his value. And Guardiola would not be forced to play anyone more or less than he wanted.

“My advice is that if he doesn’t want to stay, he should leave,” Guardiola said as the contract standoff continued. “Brahim’s case is very simple: we want him to stay, we want to extend his contract for four or five years and we will do absolutely everything we can to keep him here, but as I said before, it is in his hands.”

By publicly telling Diaz to leave, albeit with the caveat that he wanted him to stay, Guardiola had called the youngster’s bluff. Sign the contract or go, but the manager’s position would not change. Diaz chose to leave.

As the January transfer window approached in 2019, Diaz made a high-profile move to Real Madrid, which initially earned City £15.5 million, rising to a potential £22 million. City also added a sell-on clause of 15 percent of his next transfer fee, or 40 percent if Real sold him to Manchester United. That particular clause generated a lot of headlines.

Diaz was delighted and City had received a hefty sum for another graduate. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else after Manchester City: my first choice was Real Madrid, my second choice was Real Madrid and my third choice was Real Madrid,” he said after joining Los Blancos.

He said a fond farewell to City, thanking the club for welcoming his family to Manchester and “for believing in me because they not only taught me to be a better player, but also a better person”. He added: “And of course thank you to every Manchester City supporter. I will never forget my name being sung from the stands the night we beat Fulham in the League Cup.”

Guardiola wanted to protect City’s image after another big name left the academy, portraying the deal as a bona fide success story. “We protect him before we get to this period – it was the same with Jadon and Phil. But he has to decide and it’s nothing more than that,” he had said.

“They can’t say that we didn’t do everything we could to take care of them, him and his families – as a human being, as a person, as a footballer. We cannot push more than we did with Brahim, for example, or with the others they come as young children, but the market is the market.

“What can we do? More than we have done? Absolutely not. The club did it perfectly in every case, but the desire is the desire. Maybe they visualize that they are going to play and they believe in other places where they are going to play. Maybe …maybe not. We’ll see.”

After Diaz left, Guardiola offered a farewell message, telling the youngster that his assessment of his situation at City was not as simple as he made it out to be. “I don’t want people who don’t want to stay here to be with us and try to achieve what we want to achieve,” the manager said.

Brahim Diaz celebrates with Leroy Sane and Phil Foden after scoring his only two City goals against Fulham in the EFL Cup.

Brahim Diaz celebrates with Leroy Sane and Phil Foden after scoring his only two City goals against Fulham in the EFL Cup.

“If players want to stay, the door is always open for them. We did the same with Brahim as we did with Phil and Jadon. They are important players, but the only one who decided to stay was Phil.”

“Players win opportunities on the pitch. You have to look at all the big clubs in Europe to see how many young players are in their first teams. Young players need time. For example, David Silva was loaned out to big clubs.” to become who he is today.

“Some players have patience, some don’t. The players, their family, their agent; they decide what’s best for them.”

Initially, Diaz seemed justified in his decision to leave. He made six appearances in the second half of the season for his new club, earning a La Liga winners medal in the process. But he had a difficult first full season and spent the next three years on loan at AC Milan, with an option for the Italian side to buy him permanently for £18 million, although Real were then able to buy him back for £23 million.

Coincidentally, Diaz’s loan was a success: he scored 18 goals and recorded 15 assists in 124 appearances, and he returned to Real as a better player and as Serie A champion – his third league title in as many countries.

He signed an extension with Real upon his return and has successfully reintegrated into Carlo Ancelotti’s side this term. He scored a decisive goal against Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana and a crucial Champions League winner in the last 16 first leg at RB Leipzig in a Man of the Match performance.

Diaz received a good reception when he returned to the Etihad for the quarter-final and will now hope to play a role in the final, most likely off the bench. If he adds the Champions League to his collection, he will feel that his decision to leave City has been justified, even though he has taken the long road to success at Real.

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