Manchester City finally see the real Phil Foden after unexpected opportunity

Phil Foden could take another step up this season (PA)

With a couple of different developments, it might have been Lucas Paqueta who was operating in Erling Haaland’s slipstream. Had his hamstring held out, it almost certainly would have been Kevin de Bruyne. Instead, it was Phil Foden. The best player on the pitch, in arguably one of the finest of his 220 first-team performances for Manchester City, the creator-in-chief fashioned seven chances. Newcastle were beaten and Foden, who has been centre forward and false nine, left and right wingers at various points, gave his impression of City’s perfect 10, ostensibly operating on the right, in fact wreaking havoc between the lines.

There are two roles that Foden long seemed fated to play for City: either as a No 8 or a No 10. Yet, though he is only 23, there was the sense the future kept being postponed. maybe it would have been again had De Bruyne, perhaps the Premier League’s greatest ever provider stayed fit, or had Paqueta joined. But while the prospect of a ban for betting hangs over the Brazilian, City will not be paying West Ham £80m for him.

And in a summer of unexpected developments for City, they may benefit from the law of unintended consequences. Pep Guardiola has had to rethink his plans. Foden returned to the position he occupied in the youth sides.

“I have always played in the 10 role growing up,” he said. “We have got the best player in the world playing there, in Kevin de Bruyne. But with Kev out and Bernardo [Silva] missing, that is maybe why I got trusted there.” Foden’s interpretation of the role is different from De Bruyne’s: fewer extravagantly brilliant passes to take out an entire defence but bringing his own brand of directness. Foden described his strength as being “sharp on the turn in those spaces”. Guardiola was more effusive. “He has incredible ability between the lines,” he said. “The way he turns and attack the last lines is one of the best I have seen.”

All of which makes Foden unique. Not that it guarantees him a place, even in De Bruyne’s extended absence. Guardiola’s high regard for him was shown when brought Foden on for the injured Belgian in the Champions League final, and the Mancunian excelled. Yet he was benched again for the Community Shield. Guardiola has always accumulated No 10s – indeed, he started off at City by rebranding two, De Bruyne and David Silva, as “free eights” – and his squad still contains various candidates, in Bernardo Silva and Julian Alvarez.

Meanwhile, the departure of Riyad Mahrez leaves a vacancy for a right winger and Foden, along with Palmer and Silva, is the best equipped to fill it. “We didn’t expect with Kevin and we didn’t expect with Riyad,” said Guardiola. “The club have to take some important decisions with the squad.”

And soon. Guardiola is aware that City rarely receive much sympathy. Contrary to some perceptions, he often operates with a relatively small squad, albeit with the notable caveat they boast more quality than everyone else’s. On Saturday he used just 11 players and was down to a senior 12 he trusts, plus the gifted rookies Palmer and Rico Lewis. Take out Silva, De Bruyne and John Stones and City had far fewer players than Harry Redknapp did whenever he pronounced himself down to the bare bones; partly by choice, admittedly, with Joao Cancelo being ushered towards the exit and Aymeric Laporte the subject of a bid from Al-Nassr, but in a way that required reinvention.

Foden put in a stunning performance against Newcastle (EPA)

“Manuel [Akanji] played in a position he has never played in his life like holding midfielder,” marvelled Guardiola. Akanji had only had a couple of training sessions to work on his new role; he was the late-summer surprise addition last summer, proof unexpected developments and changing plans can work out well for City.

Now, in a season that could stretch beyond 60 games, when matches last longer and yet Guardiola has made one substitution over the course of hard-fought triumphs over Sevilla and Newcastle, City look short-staffed, perhaps more than they have been at any other stage of his reign. A host of factors have coalesced, from injuries to raids from Saudi Arabia to targets, from Declan Rice to Paqueta, feeling unobtainable.

If the size of the squad probably needs to increase before the transfer window closes, the shape of it will have pertinence for Foden. Bring in a No 10 and he may revert to the flank. Sign a winger and he may be seen infield more often. If any newcomer arrives as a backup player, they may be shuffled around to accommodate him, rather than vice versa if a superstar is signed. Displacing De Bruyne would have had its difficulties and the self-effacing Foden accepted the older man’s superiority. But a snap of De Bruyne’s hamstring, and a worse-than-expected diagnosis, has opened up an opportunity. After the most frustrating season of Foden’s first-team career, there is a path for this to be the one where he finally fulfils his destiny.


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