After impressing his bosses at Manchester City while still at the academy, James McAtee opted for a loan move to Sheffield United last season in order to get much-needed game time and further his development. In hindsight, the 20-year-old made a great decision as he had a good year with the club helping the Blades secure promotion back to the Premier League.
He was one of the key members of Paul Heckingbottom’s squad, featuring in 37 championship matches with a decent nine goals and three assists in 21 starts. Manchester City have not been the only one monitoring his progress.
Recent media reports suggest that the young midfielder is attracting interest from several club sides. A bid of £30m is reported to have already been lodged for his services.
Contrary to what has become the norm with City moving on youngsters from the club’s academy for a neat profit, the offers were rejected. That suggests plans could be in place to integrate the youngster into the senior team.
But there’s a good reason why most of City’s academy graduates are usually sold or sent out on loan for several seasons before finally getting shipped out. There is usually a steep barrier between the academy and the first team. With the competition being so stiff it takes exceptional talents by Phil Foden and to a lesser extent Cole Palmer and Rico Lewis to break through the barrier.
That puts the odds firmly against McAtee.
However, he has something that most other academy graduates don’t; the confidence of the manager in his ability to step up to the big leagues. The question though is whether or not the under-21 England international will justify the confidence.
It’s not difficult to understand why Pep Guardiola has confidence in the young midfielder - he was one of the outstanding players in the Elite Development Squad prior to heading out on loan last season.
Accolades such as Manchester City EDS Players’ Player of the Year: 2021–22 and Premier League 2 Player of the Season: 2021–22 show just how special a player he could be. With the right coaching from arguably the best manager in the game, he can develop into one of the best players in the world at senior level. That will benefit both player and club in the years to come.
In the meantime, as seen in the case with Foden, Palmer and Lewis, staying in and around the senior team and growing there could prove more beneficial for the player than further loan spells. And if the time away was to take another look at the player while playing regularly at a higher level than the EDS, his being named Sheffield United Young Player of the Year 2022–23 says it all.
The young Englishman has demonstrated his ability to hold his own and the readiness to step up to the plate. Named in City’s preseason squad for the Asian tour, he featured for the first half against Yokohama F. Marinos and gave a good account of himself.
But the real test of whether or not he is ready for the challenge of playing at the top level will come when the season kicks off in earnest by next month.