Phil Foden has scored better goals than the pair he netted in Manchester City’s 4-1 dismantling of Brighton on Saturday, but the 21-year-old once again produced a performance to highlight his importance to the defending Premier League champions. Increasingly, it seems Pep Guardiola is building around Foden.
And with good reason. He is the most naturally talented ball-player England has produced in a generation with Foden already proven at the elite level of the club and international game. What’s more, Foden is the epitome of everything Guardiola looks for in a footballer. They are the perfect match for each other.
Yet there is much discussion around the role Foden performs for City. Despite his emergence as a midfielder, Guardiola has pushed the 21-year-old further forward this season to compensate for his lack of a true number nine after the very public failure to capture Harry Kane this summer.
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Foden has been used as a ‘False Nine’ on a number of occasions, like Saturday’s clash with Brighton, with Guardiola also deploying him on the left side of the attack at times. This has put the England international in more goal-scoring positions, reflected in his tally of three goals in just five Premier League appearances this term.
However, many believe Foden would be even more influential in a deeper position where he can dictate pay ahead of him. His technical skill set and diminutive size draws comparisons to the likes of Andres Iniesta and Luka Modric, both of whom are renowned for being facilitators rather than finishers.
Parallels with David Silva have been drawn with Match of the Day pundit Jermaine Jenas expressing his view that Foden will ultimately follow in the footsteps of the former Manchester City playmaker. “I think he will end up where David Silva played, eventually; he scores goals, creates, makes things happen and that is the spot I eventually see him in,” Jenas explained.
Is there really such a need to shift Foden from a position he is so effective in, though? At just 21, he is already the dynamo through which so much of the Premier League champions’ play flows. Guardiola has cultivated Foden into a one-man attacking hub around which others revolve. He could barely be any more influential.
Such debate around Foden’s position perhaps has its root in England’s need for a player who can control games from midfield. Gareth Southgate has plenty of options in the attacking third, but still lacks a Modric-like figure to suffocate opposition teams with the ball. Foden could be that figure, but Guardiola clearly sees him in a different way. Southgate, and England fans, might wish this wasn’t the case.
Foden certainly isn’t the first English player to have had their positional suitability debated so keenly. It was long argued that Wayne Rooney should drop into midfield where he would be able to make better use of his passing range, but the theory didn’t work out in practice when Louis van Gaal tried it for a period.
Football’s most valuable difference-makers operate closest to goal and so it makes sense that Guardiola has pushed Foden forward where he can use his natural ability to affect scorelines in the most direct way possible. What’s more, Foden still has the freedom to drift when he is deployed as a centre forward.
“There are players who play in one position and players who play football,” Guardiola said about Foden after the win over Brighton. “What playing football means is that they can play in any position. They understand the game. It’s not a problem. It doesn’t matter what position he plays. He plays good. Sometimes we need him here, there, right, left, it doesn’t matter. He’s important.”
Guardiola is right to note Foden’s ability to play in any of the front six positions for Manchester City. It’s this adaptability that makes him such a central figure at the Etihad Stadium. Just because England might need someone to control games doesn’t mean they shouldn’t cherish another player who can decide.
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