Pep Guardiola might never admit it publicly, but there’s a good chance he planned for Harry Kane to be a part of his Manchester City team this season. Everything was lined up for the England captain to pitch up at the Etihad Stadium, such was City’s need for a player in his mould, yet no deal was struck. Kane is still at Tottenham Hotspur.
If, however, there is a team capable of making it through a full season without a designated centre forward, it’s City and Phil Foden, more than anyone else, gives Guardiola what he needs in the final third. In fact, Guardiola increasingly appears to have built his team around the 21-year-old. Who needs a centre forward when you have someone like Foden?
Foden’s brilliance was on full display as Manchester City claimed an emphatic 5-1 win over Club Brugge in the Champions League on Tuesday. He might not have found the back of the net, but so much of City’s game flowed through Foden with their attack geared around the England international’s game.
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Almost every match Manchester City have played this season has been a referendum on whether or not they were wrong not to sign a true centre forward in the summer transfer window, but Foden’s versatility as an attacker means Guardiola can set up his team in a number of different ways according to the task at hand.
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Against Chelsea last month, for instance, it was up to Foden to lead the high press. Deployed as the central attacker in a 4-3-3 formation, the 21-year-old made sure Chelsea couldn’t play the ball out from the back. Thomas Tuchel’s side were suffocated in no small part due to the energy and movement of Foden.
Just one week later, Foden was shifted out to the left wing to pit him directly against James Milner in the Liverpool defence. Manchester City identified Milner as a weak link and did all they could to give Foden as many one-on-one scenarios as possible as he scored one and assisted another in a pulsating 2-2 draw at Anfield.
One of the most impressive things about Foden is that he is generally able to play his natural game no matter where he is positioned on the pitch. Some argue the 21-year-old should be used in the centre of midfield where he can have the greatest influence, where he would have the most touches of the ball, but Foden gets forward even when played here.
“Phil can play in five positions up front,” Guardiola recently explained. “He can play in both attacking midfield [positions] in the pockets and he can play in three positions up front. There are players who play in one position and there are players who play football. Phil knows how to play football. If he played left back, he would play good.”
Guardiola has used Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling and Ferran Torres in the centre forward position so far this season, but not one of these options offers as much as Foden on both sides of the ball. The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss likes his number nine to be more than just a goalscorer and Foden embodies this.
See how Foden provided the pass from deep for Joao Cancelo to score Manchester City’s opener against Club Brugge, and how the 21-year-old continued to provide through balls for Riyad Mahrez and Sterling, who should have converted more. This was from the player deployed as the number nine in Guardiola’s system.
A record of two goals and three assists in eight appearances (all competitions) for City this season is respectable enough, but these numbers don’t quite do justice to Foden’s importance to the Premier League champions. He’s not Kane, but that might prove to be a good thing.
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