Once a starlet, Phil Foden has risen to 'another level' | Football News - Hindustan Times

Once a starlet, Manchester City's Phil Foden has risen to 'another level'

By, Kolkata
Mar 04, 2024 10:47 PM IST

City’s homegrown hero has got better every season since he was eased into the first team by Guardiola.

Put through on goal by Kevin de Bruyne, Phil Foden was denied by Andre Onana. Then, inches from the goalline, Erling Haaland volleyed over making it the kind of miss Gary Lineker said on X he may not have ever seen in elite football. With their only shot on target – albeit one struck sweetly and powerfully by Marcus Rashford – Manchester United were leading at half-time even after Manchester City had used them for shooting practice. Football, bloody hell!

Manchester City's English midfielder #47 Phil Foden celebrates after scoring(AFP) PREMIUM
Manchester City's English midfielder #47 Phil Foden celebrates after scoring(AFP)

Manchester United had been unbeaten in their last 143 league games when they had led at the break, television commentators pointed out. For 55 minutes, an upset looked possible because a middle block had blended with grit and Onana’s fine show against the serial Premier League champions. Liverpool and Arsenal fans wouldn’t have believed what was happening and, for that matter, neither would those of Manchester United.

And then Phil Foden happened, twice.

That’s not to suggest he had suddenly risen to take the game by the scruff of its neck. He did that alright but had been threatening to do it all afternoon at the Etihad. But with an 11 that had seven defensive players, Manchester United, for whom Victor Lindelöf played makeshift left-back, had been able to keep Foden and team at bay.

But when Lindelöf delayed just that micro-second, Foden stole a couple of yards and fired a swerving shot good enough to rival Rashford’s effort in being a thing of beauty. In a competition where last month Liverpool’s starting line-up had 11 players from as many countries spanning four continents, Foden cancelling Rashford’s goal was a throwback to another era. One where players lived within a bus ride away from the club they supported and, if they were good enough, represented. It is not something that matters to the Manchester derby’s global television audience but is possibly important for those who back their club on “a cold wet Tuesday night….”

Groomed in Barcelona’s La Masia, Guardiola gets that. “He is from the home and that is why the connection with the fans is unbelievable,” said Guardiola.

That explained the applause Foden got when he was substituted. By then, he had shifted from right to left after Erik ten Hag moved Lindelöf to his more familiar centre-half position and made Diogo Dalot left-back. It was from that side that Foden popped up in the penalty area, found space to stand out in a crowd, literally, after a give-go with Julian Alvarez and score the second goal. It was his 18th of the season. His stats for the afternoon: 9 shots, two goals, 116 touches and 95% passing accuracy.

World class, said Guardiola. For a man who seems to be agonising for most of a football match, and possibly because of it, Guardiola is not stingy with praise. “I always had the feeling he would score goals and now he is winning games. To become a world class-player at that age you have to win games,” AP quoted the City manager said after Sunday’s match that took the defending champions to 62 points, to short of leaders Liverpool. “When you do this, you reach another level…”

Guardiola wasn’t done. He told BBC that Foden is the Premier League’s best player now. “He is more mature and understands the game more, especially defensively.”

Exactly what Gareth Southgate, who was in the stands, would like to hear months ahead of the European championship. The England manager has never held back his skepticism in playing Foden through the centre because he doesn’t trust his defensive abilities. So, it has always been as a wide midfielder that Foden has been slotted in England games.

Foden prefers playing on the left but with his tactical nous, technique, pace and the ability to make space for others, he can play in any position in the front third including a false nine.

Yet around this time last year, Foden had started in only three of City 10 Premier League games. Guardiola put it down to a World Cup hangover, a common enough occurrence after big tournaments.

A lot has also been said about Guardiola not giving the “Stockport Iniesta” game time even after he emerged as the breakout star of the under-17 World Cup. In a team of stars, it can be difficult to fit in a starlet, Ilkay Gundogan told HT last week looking back at when Foden took baby steps in men’s football. That helped, Gundogan, now with Barcelona, said.

There is no one way to do these things. Use a teenager regularly soon after he gets noticed and you could risk serious injury (Michael Owen, Theo Walcott, Ansu Fati, Pedri) or even a burnout. It is said Bobby Charlton was tired of football talk well before he had won the World Cup though that could also be a telling comment on the quality of the conversations.

Paul Pogba was 23 when he returned to Manchester United and his club career went south till the ban for doping he will now challenge. James Rodriguez could not reproduce his Monaco or 2014 World Cup form at Real Madrid. He too was 23 then, Foden’s age now. For Jadon Sancho, Foden’s teammate at the under-17 World Cup, Manchester United has not quite been a theatre of dreams.

On the other hand, there is Jude Bellingham, 20, lighting up La Liga and the 2022 World Cup. Kylian Mbappe was 19 when he became the first teen since Pele to score in a World Cup final and he has shown little signs of fading away. If George Best’s career feels like a highlights reel it is because he was that good after being the fifth Beatle at 19. Some players do well if they get more games when they are young, said Gundogan referring to Lamine Yamal.

Guardiola eased Foden into City’s first team. As per numbers by Transfermarkt, Foden had 237 minutes of senior team football spread over five Premier League and three Champions League games in 2017-18, his first season. It increased to 1106 next term, 1770 in 2019-20, 3373 in 2020-21, 3184 in 2021-22 and 2660 last term when he had appendectomy. Foden has already played 3152 minutes this season, a lot of them down the middle when Kevin de Bruyne was injured.

With every passing season, Foden’s goal contribution numbers got better. He has averaged over 20 in each of the past four seasons and with nearly half of 23-24 left, that number for City alone is 28 now.

Clearly, Guardiola’s handling of Foden was perfect. “He loves football, he lives for football. He is a joy and his work ethic is unbelievable,” the manager has said. “He will already be a legendary player because in a short age, the games played, the minutes, the goals scored, the titles won.”

Clearly, Foden has bought into the Pep way. He now has six goals in nine Premier League games against Manchester United. “That's my aim, to turn up in the big games," an AFP report quoted him as saying. “I think this season I'm proving that.”

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    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata and has been a sport journalist for over three decades. He writes mainly on football.

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