With one touch of the ball, Phil Foden took two Brighton defenders out of the game and opened up the space to score his eighth goal of the season. The 20-year-old picked the ball up from Kevin De Bruyne, whom he had been combing with all night, before placing the ball past the visiting goalkeeper Robert Sanchez with a minute of normal remaining time remaining in the first half at the Etihad Stadium.
The goal was enough to secure victory for Manchester City and propel them right back into the heart of the Premier League title race. It may also have been enough to end some of the murmuring which has surrounded Foden for much of the season, with the midfielder now firmly in contention for Euro 2020.
Phil Foden has had a complex relationship with his boss, Pep Guardiola, for most of his time as a first team player with City. It should be stressed that such a statement doesn’t refer to their personal rapport, which has never been in question, but rather their professional one. Guardiola once called Foden the “most talented player he had ever seen”, a comment which was instantly dismissed as overindulgence given the players the Catalan has played and worked with during his career, and it may have been a tactic to quell any talk that he didn’t rate Foden, having scarcely played him in the eyes of the English press.
Respect is mutual, but the lack of regular first team action has continued for much of the current campaign. It is a fair question to ask in a sense; if Phil Foden is befitting of the praise Guardiola bestowed upon him, why has he not played more? Especially given that his biggest perceived roadblock, David Silva, departed in the summer.
To answer that first needs context. Of course there is great desire on the TV screens and newspaper column inches to see Foden involved every week; not only is a source of hope and expectation for the England national team, but he is viewed by many as the missing piece of the puzzle. Creativity and guile have been sorely lacking even in this most encouraging of eras under Gareth Southgate; Foden, like Jack Grealish and James Maddison, is emerging as a playmaker with the ability to control a game, just as he did against Brighton. Aided by De Bruyne he may have been, but there was a grace and a maturity about Foden’s play which made it feel as though he could be about to make his mark more often.
Perception is key here too, though. Phil Foden is closing in on 100 appearances in a City shirt having only recently emerged from his teens, which is certainly a healthy amount. The old adage that “if you are good enough, you are old enough” is slightly overstated in England, in part because there is a desperation bordering on obsession with seeing young players make their mark internationally, particularly in creative or attacking positions. Guardiola knows what a player needs, having been a top class player himself, and has given Foden the space he needs to develop alongside De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva; even though Foden will have been itching for more opportunities.
Incidentally, David Silva’s exit may not have opened the door for Foden as much as, say, Leroy Sane’s. He joined Bayern Munich and wasn’t replaced, meaning Guardiola has been left with an imbalance in his squad, lacking attacking width and housing more than enough creative midfielders. Bernardo has been utilised on the wing, while De Bruyne was deployed in a central attacking position in the absence of Sergio Agüero and while Gabriel Jesus, freshly recovered from COVID-19, was on the bench this week. It is on the left Foden has been given his biggest break, too, and the freedom he has been afforded, evidenced by the way he glided into the space before his goal, shows he is growing into the player Guardiola wants him to be.
Perhaps there is an element of learning the ropes out wide before gaining that trust centrally; it has been pointed out that David Silva’s evolution as City’s chief creative protagonist followed a similar pattern. There is no longer a suggestion that Foden could benefit from a spell out on loan, because training and working with Guardiola is a greater education than anything else. Questions over his physical strength are disappearing, too; he showed he could look after himself against Brighton, and nothing summed that up better than the beautiful Zidane-esque turn on the halfway line in the second half.
After so many months and even years of debate and concern, there is conclusive evidence that Guardiola and Manchester City are managing Foden’s development correctly. Less is more, sometimes, and in his case, it is clear that the gradual process has helped him along, with the Englishman helping to dominate the midfield battle against Liverpool. He isn’t where he wants to be as City’s main man yet, because De Bruyne is still there, but his goal and overall performance against Brighton shows just how bright a future he is set to have at club, and hopefully international, level.
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