The Premier League trophy has worn the sky blue and white ribbons for the past three years, as have the two other Premier League trophies offered at academy level.
Manchester City have won five of the last six Premier League titles to dominate the senior national landscape, and their influence on English football extends to the under-21 and under-18 levels, where they have won the Premier League 2 and under-18 Premier won. Also national titles from the past three years.
That ‘triple treble’ – as chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak called it – is a testament to City’s approach at all levels of the game, with a healthy conveyor belt of talent always coming through the academy system. It has brought first-team players such as Phil Foden, Rico Lewis and Cole Palmer, while those who didn’t quite make it have generated millions of pounds in transfer fees for the club.
However, next season, Premier League clubs voted for a major change to the Premier League 2 format, seriously threatening City’s chances of retaining their title again.
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Currently, the Premier League 2 is split into two divisions and is a straight league system. All teams play each other home and away, with the side being crowned champions at the end of the season.
Next season, however, the leagues will be merged, with a more complex ‘Swiss’ system for competitions designed to give players a new challenge. The previous concept of promotion and relegation was deemed to divert too much attention from player development, even though it offered youngsters an exact replica of the divisions they will play in for the rest of their career.
Last month, shareholders voted in favor of the new model at their annual general meeting, meaning it will take effect from next season, in a similar form to the controversial model that will be used in the Champions League from 2024/25.
Instead of a 14-team top division and an 11-team bottom division, there will be a single 25-team division, with clubs seeded into five pots of five teams. That will then play each club in their own pot plus four or five teams from the other pots.
After all those matches are completed, the combined table determines the playoff positions, with the top 16 teams qualifying for a final knockout format. That means City could theoretically top the league table, but lose out in the play-offs to a side who finished just 16th.
The placement will be based on historic performances over the past three years in PL2, so given that City have won the top division each of those three seasons, it would be a surprise to see them lower than Pot One.
City will once again be confident of winning the division no matter how many games they play – but leaving the end-of-season titles to a knockout tournament could put their hopes of defending their title in jeopardy.
In the Under-18 Premier League, titles are awarded to the winners of the North and South divisions before going head-to-head in a one-off final to determine the national champions – a competition City have won for the past three seasons.
Speaking to MEN Sport ahead of this year’s National Final victory over West Ham, under-18 head coach Ben Wilkinson explained the danger of a one-off knockout match.
He said: “In every competition, the best team wins the competition, the manager [Pep Guardiola] it says a lot. If you’re on top after 24, 38 games, you’re the best team. I always think you can win or lose in one-off games depending on a lot of little details, as we found out at Arsenal [in the FA Youth Cup semi-final].
“But it goes back to the point where we’re in a development environment, and while we’re in that development, we want to expose the players to as many of those high-pressure moments where you have to perform. From that POV, it gives us a whole new valuable learning experience to see where the boys are at.”
So on the one hand, combining a league format with a knockout competition provides the visibility that City coaches look for when it comes to preparing their young players for first-team football. Then again, as Wilkinson alluded to, City crashed out of three cup competitions from under-18 to under-19 last season after losing a player to a sending-off, their fate in that competition coming down to those fine margins.
All it takes is one bad game or one bad decision in an early playoff game to prematurely end a season under the new system and deprive those players of the chance to defend their titles. The condensed league schedule also leaves more matches to one-off knockouts, adding another dimension to player development.
Given City’s various struggles in the FA Youth Cup, EFL Trophy and UEFA Youth League in recent seasons, the other side of the argument is that more exposure to knockout games will help build the experience needed to take those competitions into the to win the future.
City will approach every competition with the intention of winning it, so the new Premier League 2 format will be no different. After perfecting the formula to win the old format, it’s now up to coaches and players to find a way to adapt to the new – even if it puts their title defenses at more of a chance than they’d like.
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