Lionel Messi was 21 when Pep Guardiola became his manager in 2008. There was huge excitement about what the towering young talent might achieve at the time and that meant there was a great responsibility on the shoulders of Guardiola.
He could not have handled the situation better. Guardiola filled Messi with belief and gave him responsibility and enabled him to become arguably the greatest player we have ever seen. Those early years in Barcelona were a masterclass in how to capitalise on momentum and talent.
I use that example because there is now a similar scenario at Manchester City. I want to be very clear, first of all, that I am not likening Phil Foden to Messi as a player. To do that would be irresponsible and unfair — a 20-year-old does not need to be burdened with such comparisons.
I believe the time has arrived for Pep Guardiola to let England international Phil Foden (R) roll
The pair embrace following Manchester City’s Carabao Cup semi-final win at Man United
Like he did with Lionel Messi at Barcelona, Guardiola can turn Foden into a world-beater
But, once again, Guardiola finds himself in charge of an outstanding young talent who has momentum and I believe the time has arrived for him to let Foden roll. There is no need to wrap him in cotton wool any longer — he is ready for the responsibility, for City and England.
Every time I watch Foden, he makes a difference. He’s blessed with a wonderful ability to get you out of your seat but the thing I love about him as much as anything is his appetite for the other side of the game. His work-rate is incredible; players with his gifts don’t tend to work so hard.
It doesn’t matter if he plays on the right or the left, as he did last week at Chelsea, or through the middle — you see him running and pressing as if his life depends on it. Foden is a football obsessive with a talent that is off the scale and he just wants to deliver on a weekly basis for City.
That’s why I am hoping that Guardiola treats Foden in the same way he treated Messi and gives him the opportunity — and responsibility — to shine. He will know that Foden is impatient, as all young footballers are, but he will also know how crucial this moment is in his career.
Foden is rich in potential but there have been countless other 20-year-olds who have been in similar situations and, for various reasons, not fulfilled expectations. My mind immediately turns to Michael Johnson, my old team-mate at City.
If Michael had carried on as we thought he would, he’d still be in City’s team now. He was in the top three young players I had the privilege to work with, along with Daniel Sturridge and Jack Grealish. When you hear the saying ‘world at his feet’, it was never more fitting than for Michael.
Foden is rich in potential but others have not fulfilled expectations, like Michael Johnson (R)
Foden’s work-rate is incredible; players with his gifts don’t tend to work so hard
He broke into the team around the same time as me and people started to make comparisons with the late, great Colin Bell, who passed away this week. Michael could pass, he could shoot, he had energy and could read the game. He made football look easy and we all assumed that he would be City’s main midfielder for a decade.
Unfortunately it never turned out that way. This isn’t a criticism. He had serious fitness issues, with his knees and his hip and he made a decision to walk away from football to focus on different things in his life and I believe he has never been happier.
His story shows that talent doesn’t necessarily ensure you will become a star in the Premier League. You need all circumstances to work for you. This puts into context the opportunity that is now there for Foden and City to ensure he becomes the club’s greatest academy graduate.
The more young players are given openings, the more they thrive. Look at how Trent Alexander-Arnold has developed at Liverpool, see how Grealish has blossomed over the last 18 months by playing consistently in the Premier League. The more you play, the more you learn.
The more youngsters are given chances, the more they thrive. Look at Trent Alexander-Arnold
Foden had only played one minute in the Premier League following the 1-1 draw with West Brom on December 15 up until last week’s fixture at Stamford Bridge and Guardiola would have had his reasons for limiting his appearances.
My hope, though, is that he gives him the platform to flourish. Look at the transformative effect he had when introduced against Chelsea and the glorious goal he scored — he cannot be held back. Guardiola can make the development of Foden his lasting legacy to City.
I saw an interview with him a couple of months ago, on Sky, when he talked about being a mascot for a game against Sunderland years ago. Apparently I was one of his heroes, as I had come up through the ranks, and he wanted to walk out next to me.
It took me by surprise how gutted he was that it didn’t work out for him — he ended up partnered with Martin Petrov — but all I can say is this: if his career develops as we all wish, it would be my honour to walk out alongside him one day!
His time is not the future. His time is now.
Micah’s moment of the week
I’ve spoken about a close call I experienced in the FA Cup elsewhere in this section but I just want to reiterate the depth of feeling I have for third-round weekend.
Each year we hear people say the competition isn’t what it once was but, believe me, if you are lucky enough to get your hands on the trophy as a player, the feeling is indescribable. I got my chance in 2011 and to end Manchester City’s 35-year wait for a trophy at Wembley was unreal.
This weekend there are so many great ties and the opportunity is there for players in the lower leagues to show what they are about. Who knows what possibilities might open up for them if they are to play their part in a giant-killing?
The best tie of all is Marine v Tottenham. I’m over the moon these guys who have been playing semi-professional will get this shot at the big time. At a time when there have been such difficulties in football, a story of this nature cannot help but make you smile.
I won the FA Cup in 2011 and to end Manchester City’s 35-year wait for a trophy was unreal
Plenty more twists to come in this title race
Manchester United were touted as potential champions last Friday. By Sunday, it was Manchester City’s turn to be nominated as league winners.
Liverpool’s defeat at Southampton, meanwhile, has led some people to write off their chances. My thoughts on it all? Let’s just calm down. Just because we have reached the second week in January does not mean we should be making definitive calls on the title race. This is no ordinary season and you have to remember that we haven’t even reached the halfway stage.
Football never works out how you expect it to and there is still so much to be played. United and City might be on a roll but who is to say another blip isn’t around the corner?
Let’s see how things are looking by the end of the month before we can form a clear picture.
There are plenty more twists to come in the Premier League title race in the 2020-21 campaign