To compare a player to Lionel Messi some hyperbole is required. The Argentine is, after all, widely revered as the greatest footballer of all-time. As close to an alien the sport has ever seen. No mere mortal measures up to the standard set by the Barcelona number 10 over the last 15 years or so.
There are, however, some players who evoke the spirit of Messi and Phil Foden is one of them. It’s in the way he spins on the ball, somehow keeping it under close control at all points. And in the low centre of gravity that allows him to glide past opponents when others would have seen face meet grass.
Against Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday, there were certainly a handful of Messi moments from the 20-year-old as Manchester City made their first ever Champions League final. While Ruben Dias was most impressive in defence, it was Foden who cracked open the match in attack for the hosts, assisting Mahrez for his second which effectively killed the contest.
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City’s performance was complete with Foden embodying the fluid approach adopted by Pep Guardiola in the final third this season. As has become customary in recent months, there was no orthodox number nine to lead the line, at least not until Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus’s late introduction off the bench. Foden was among those who facilitated this.
Comparisons between Foden and Messi are pertinent with the transfer window set to open in just a few weeks. City are believed to have tracked the latter for years in the hope that he will one day seek a new challenge away from Barcelona. The Etihad Stadium was one of the Argentine’s only realistic destinations as he openly contemplated his future last summer.
The situation has shifted since then with Barcelona electing a new (old) president in Joan Laporta and Messi seemingly happier in his surroundings, but the 33-year-old is still set to become a free agent this summer. It has been reported that Messi wants to stay at Camp Nou, verbally agreeing an extension with Laporta, but nothing official has been signed yet.
Foden’s recent performances, however, show City have no need for Messi. Tuesday night saw Guardiola make his first Champions League final without the Argentine by his side, but in Foden he has someone who performs a similar role. Guardiola’s system needs a Messi-like figure to truly work and while the man himself is still at Barca, Foden’s impersonation is a pretty good one.
If Kevin de Bruyne is Manchester City’s midfield pace-setter and Riyad Mahrez offers width, with Bernardo Silva a space-filler and Foden the dribbling dynamo who links them all, where would Messi fit in? Guardiola would either have to risk the development of English football’s brightest young talent in a generation or overhaul a system that has turned City into Champions League finalists.
Rather than looking to his own individual past, Guardiola should build around Foden as City’s future. The 20-year-old is the only City player to be in double figures for both goals (14) and assists (10) this season and has come up with a number of clutch moments in the run to the Champions League final.
None of this is to say Foden is as good as Messi, nor that he will ever reach the heights of the legendary Argentine, but City’s need for a player in his mould has been eliminated. Guardiola, through careful management and the decision not to loan out Foden when many in the game were calling for it, has forged a diamond. City already have their Messi - he’s a 20-year-old from Stockport called Phil.
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