For years, there has been a way of annoying Pep Guardiola and it has not entailed mentioning Jose Mourinho. Ask him why Phil Foden is not playing more and, depending upon his mood, Guardiola may react. Ask him if Foden would be loaned out, as someone did a couple of years ago, and he responded with incredulity. He was too precious to be trusted to someone else, even if those were not the Catalan’s exact words.
Initially, perhaps the Anglocentric line of questioning took him by surprise: Guardiola has fielded rather more queries about Foden than Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez or Ferran Torres, foreign, and often more experienced and costlier, rivals for a place. Invariably, Guardiola’s reply involves referencing how often Foden has played, rather than focusing on the games he has not: it is now 102 appearances before his 21st birthday for one of Europe’s elite clubs. Few of his peers have as many at such a level.
Foden’s masterpiece, his catalytic role in Sunday’s demolition of Liverpool, perhaps the most important intervention in this season’s title race to date, may have one side-effect for his manager: more unwanted questions the next time Foden is benched to accommodate a different high-class player instead.
But it also underlined the progress Foden has made. Even extraordinary potential is not always converted into first-team performance. Only three of England’s 2017 Under-17 World Cup winners are starting remotely regularly in the Premier League, even if Callum Hudson-Odoi looks like becoming a fourth for Thomas Tuchel: Conor Gallagher, for a West Brom side who look doomed, Emile Smith Rowe, for mid-table Arsenal, and Foden.
And it is worth praising Guardiola for his part in Foden’s rise. He has been criticised: there were times in autumn when his team were short of goals, Foden was scoring in midweek matches and yet still not selected to start in the Premier League.
But in the bigger picture, a tactic of taking him in and out, of using him for bespoke tasks, of rotating and reinventing, has paid dividends. Sunday felt a breakthrough game, but there have been others: in April 2019, when he got the winner against Tottenham; his man-of-the-match display in last season’s Carabao Cup final. Foden is not a constant in the major matches, but he has featured in a decent number of them. He is often summoned for summits with Arsenal, has started and scored twice against Liverpool and began a showdown with Real Madrid.
The ‘Stockport Iniesta’ nickname has proved deceptive. So, too, descriptions of him as a midfielder. Guardiola has suggested that, in a few years, he will mature into more of a central figure but, contrary to predictions, he has not been the Stockport David Silva; Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva have instead been the beneficiaries of the Spaniard’s departure. Only 117 of Foden’s 879 Premier League minutes this season have come in the middle of midfield. Instead, he has been a multi-purpose attacker, utilised on either wing, given Guardiola’s seal of approval by being used as a false nine, his signature tactic, at Anfield. The running power he acquired a couple of years ago – and it should be remembered that Foden did not have a Wayne Rooney-esque physique at 17 – has allowed him to surge past defenders on slaloming solo runs. The ferocity of the shot that flew past Alisson felt typical; seen as a passer upon his emergence, he now ranks as City’s second top scorer, behind only another playmaker, in Gundogan. An ability as a finisher does not suffice alone for Guardiola: those who cannot follow his tactical demands will not feature.
Foden has become a more multi-functional player, a more intelligent one, a more versatile one. He has been a touchline-hugging winger, creating space for others, and an inverted one, cutting in to score. He has been managed sensitively: while City lost Jadon Sancho, Foden talked last week of wanting to spend his entire career at the Etihad Stadium. And if it is easier to please a lifelong fan, City’s recent experience is that it is difficult to integrate youthful talents, no matter how gifted, into their first team. Foden has felt the exception to many a rule. His development into an exceptional player can feel obvious, even automatic. But such cases never are. If the saddest thing in life is wasted talent, it can also be the most fascinating. The story of where it went wrong can be more compelling than the tale of where it went right. But for Foden and Guardiola, an approach that has combined patience with swift progress reflects well upon both.
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