Things can change very quickly in football – just ask Phil Foden.
Just a few weeks ago, the Manchester City star was watching from the bench as his team-mates recorded back-to-back wins over Southampton and Newcastle. Pleased as he will have been with those results, a single 91st-minute substitute appearance will have left him feeling like a spare part, wondering how he would get back into Pep Guardiola’s team.
This was supposed to be Foden’s year, the season he stepped out from David Silva’s shadow and cemented himself in City’s team. While it had been far from a disaster, both Foden and Guardiola would have expected more from a player with so much natural talent.
Fast forward to now, and Foden is City’s main man, having propelled them back into the title race with the opening goal in the crucial win at Chelsea and the winner against Brighton on Wednesday night.
Phil Foden jumps for joy after scoring Man City’s winner against Brighton on Wednesday night
In between those matches, he also played a starring role in the Carabao Cup semi-final win at Manchester United and scored in the FA Cup win over Birmingham. Foden’s tally of eight goals in all competitions makes him City’s top scorer.
In a sign of the times, Foden’s surge to prominence in 2021 has come with a big assist from Covid-19, with Ferran Torres’ self-isolation ahead of the Chelsea match giving the 20-year-old his chance, with Guardiola picking him on the left of a front three with limited attacking options available.
Foden has thrived in that previously unfamiliar role, finishing brilliantly at Stamford Bridge with his left foot, then equally skilfully at the Etihad against Brighton with his unfavoured right.
Foden scores City’s opener in a 3-1 win over Chelsea at the start of the month
It is Foden’s ability to not only play in a number of positions, but to thrive in all of them, which sets him apart as a special talent. As Sportsmail columnist Micah Richards explained last week: ‘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.’
Since making his City debut in 2017, Foden has been earmarked as the heir apparent to David Silva – a bona fide club legend with 10 major trophies in 10 seasons. But the expectation that Foden would slot straight into the Spaniard’s role on the left of a midfield three was always unrealistic given that Silva himself did not move into that position until his late 20s.
Like Foden, Silva was used in wide positions in his younger years, drifting in off the flanks with licence to get in the box, leaving the midfield donkey work for the more experienced players and concentrating his youthful pace and energy solely on attacking.
Pep Guardiola embraces Foden after the Carabao Cup semi-final win over Manchester United
There was frustration from City and England fans at the start of the season at Guardiola’s reluctance to use Foden in midfield, but his positional development is no different to that of Silva and another Spanish World Cup winner coached by Pep – Andres Iniesta. He too was used regularly on the left of a front three by Guardiola for Barcelona, before slotting back into midfield as he got older.
The form of Ilkay Gundogan and, to a lesser extent, Bernardo Silva is making Guardiola’s choice of Foden’s position easier in that regard, too. So, for the time being at least, Foden’s rivals for a starting spot are Torres and Riyad Mahrez in the wide forward positions. In that sense, he is playing more as a replacement for Leroy Sane than David Silva at the moment, which eases the pressure on his young shoulders.
Foden is more likely to find himself playing in his preferred central position for England, for whom his last appearance represented a redemption. Having been kicked out of Gareth Southgate’s squad for inviting women back to the team hotel in Iceland with Mason Greenwood in September, the pair were left out by England in October. It was fitting then that Foden announced himself properly on to the international scene with a double against Iceland in a 4-0 win in November.
Foden beams with pride after netting one of his two goals against Iceland in November
Foden and Mason Greenwood (left) were kicked out of the England squad for inviting two Icelandic women (right) back to the team hotel in September
The incident didn’t appear to have an impact on Foden’s game – he scored in City’s first two matches of the season – but while Guardiola never questioned him publicly, he will have been looking closely at how his young prodigy responded.
Southgate – who was in the Etihad stands to see Foden’s winner against Brighton – was forced to address the issue head on and could not hide his disappointment, though he was delighted with his reponse in November and will be licking his lips at Foden’s recent form. He has scored five goals in 12 City matches since then, and has seven in his last 13 for club and country.
Put simply, if England had a game today, Foden would be starting. Southgate has big selection questions to answer ahead of this summer’s European Championship, none more so than whether to stick with a 3-4-3 or switch back to a back four – which every top-half Premier League side is using right now. If he does use a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, expect to see Foden used centrally. If it’s a 3-4-3, he’ll be competing with Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish for a position either side of Harry Kane.
Gareth Southgate was at the Etihad Stadium to watch Phil Foden’s winner against Brighton
For now, Foden’s only focus is City, with 22 league matches to play, a Carabao Cup final on the horizon, plus the chance of success in the Champions League and the FA Cup. Having seen his fortunes change swiftly this season with the Iceland hotel incident and City’s Covid outbreak which gave him a chance against Chelsea, he can expect plenty more twists and turns before the end of the season.
If he maintains that relentless desire to press and create in any position he plays, as you suspect he will, then it could be a good year for City and England fans.