Phil Foden was the wide receiver in one game and the quarterback in the next. He was the runner off the ball who used his pace to materialise in scoring positions in Manchester City’s draw at Anfield. He was the deep-lying distributor in England’s thrashing of Andorra, spraying diagonal balls with enviable ease, chipping passes over his hosts’ defence with incisive excellence. In a game when Sam Johnstone got as many assists as Foden, there was no doubt who the most creative player actually was. Successive matches showed the range of skills that make him a remarkable talent.
Gareth Southgate was rewarded for his experimentation, injecting a routine win with interest value, offering an enticing glimpse of the future. The England manager’s fondness for two defensively-minded midfielders means that, against superior opposition, he is always likely to field a pair from Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips, Jordan Henderson and James Ward-Prowse; if a prodigy is summoned for such duties, it will be Jude Bellingham, rather than Foden.
But there is still the Mason Mount role, to give it the technical term, as the most advanced midfielder in a 4-3-3, where Foden and Jack Grealish could be alternatives. That England have a surfeit of options for the front three and a lack of invention in midfield means Foden’s redeployment could be doubly useful. “The possibilities are really interesting in terms of his positioning moving forward,” Southgate said, although this was a case of moving his positioning backwards.
There has long been the sense that Foden’s peak will come in midfield and that he is merely serving an apprenticeship as an attacker; as he was sufficiently potent to score 16 times last season and is a possible top scorer for a striker-less City this year, it feels a particularly productive training scheme. The ‘Stockport Iniesta’ has proved more prolific in a campaign than the actual Iniesta ever was.
The long-term plan may remain the same. Pep Guardiola said last June: “In time, he's going to learn to play as a holding midfielder, even.” In December, he added: “With age – when he becomes 24 or 25 - he will be able to play more in the defensive midfield.”
The probability is that the key word is midfield, not holding or defensive, that Foden will be reinvented in the centre of the park, but with someone else acting as the anchorman. But those ages may not have been selected randomly. A more mature understanding of the demands of the deeper roles could come at an opportune time for City; Foden’s opportunity to figure there regularly could come when both Southgate and Guardiola have left their current posts.
Because a manager who stockpiles technical midfielders already has three outstanding exponents of the ‘free eight’ berth competing for two positions. Bernardo Silva was one of the three best players in the Premier League in 2018/19. Kevin de Bruyne was in 2019/20. Ilkay Gundogan was in 2020/21 (when De Bruyne was nevertheless named PFA Player of the Year). If De Bruyne can feel the best all-round footballer in the country, Silva has shaped up as its outstanding midfielder in recent weeks. And while both the Belgian and the German have injury problems, Foden needs two to be absent to open up a vacancy.
He turns 24 in 2024, a month before De Bruyne’s 33rd birthday. Gundogan will be 34 later the same year. It is why 2024 or 2025 seems a logical time for a changing of the guard; by then, City may have a manager with more conventional ideas about centre-forwards, with a knock-on effect for midfielders who then have to actually operate in midfield.
If Southgate faces a dilemma of whether to pick Foden in a position he rarely plays at club level, for now he may be more false nine than midfielder, but largely a winger. But unlocking Andorra, impressive and auspicious as it was, pales into comparison with tormenting Liverpool. For now, he is more finisher than playmaker but few have the ability to be both.
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