Phil Foden is playing more than ever before, and he’s better for it. Pep Guardiola has been key to his development – in limiting his game time as much as making him a crucial part of Manchester City’s success.
For most of Phil Foden’s career, there have been calls for him to play more football than he was getting at the time.
When he first broke through midway through the 2017-18 season, he was so clearly such a huge talent that excited Manchester City and England fans quickly started demanding he be sent out on loan. The general consensus was that he needed to be playing regular first-team football. And lots of it.
But City resisted doing so and risked harming the development of a player Pep Guardiola would in 2019 go on to describe as “the most talented I have ever seen.” This was City’s greatest ever academy product, and his game time was purposefully being limited.
Across his first three seasons in the senior squad, he started just 12 Premier League matches when he would have been more than capable of playing for a mid-table team where he could easily have been a regular starter.
In the next three seasons, he would start 63 Premier League matches – an average of 21 per season – for one of the best teams in the world under one of the best managers, playing 5,591 of a possible 10,260 minutes in the Premier League (54.4%). It wasn’t an insignificant amount of football, but it also wasn’t too much.
There is a curious side to these numbers, though. For the last three seasons, Foden has started around half of City’s Premier League games despite simultaneously seemingly becoming a vital member of the first team. In the 2020-21 run to the Champions League final, for example, he started 12 of their 13 matches and played at least 80 minutes in all seven knockout-stage games. Only goalkeeper Ederson (1,080) played more minutes in the Champions League for City than Foden (1,066) in that campaign.
So, while Foden was playing almost every minute as City chased the one trophy that meant more to them than any other – proving that injuries weren’t a problem for him that season – he was only on the field for 1,614 of a possible 3,420 minutes (47.2%) in the Premier League. Twelve teammates played more than him in the league.
Even last season, despite being City’s second-highest scorer in the league (11) behind Erling Haaland (36), Foden played just 1,844 minutes – the 14th most in the City squad.
There has clearly been a concerted effort to manage his game time for years. And Man City might just be reaping the benefits.
Monday night brought a Foden hat-trick in the 3-1 comeback win at Brentford. He started on the left flank but with instructions to get on the ball centrally. Foden himself believes how he is playing now is up there with the best football he’s ever played.
“I’m delighted with how I’m playing at the moment. I’m playing more inside where I want to be,” he said afterwards. “It’s probably the best form I’ve had in a City shirt for a long time, consistently. Long may that continue.”
Consistency has certainly helped. Having started the last 11 Premier League games, Foden is on his joint-longest streak of league starts for City. A start against Everton next weekend would make this his outright longest.
He also isn’t being rested much in other competitions, either. He has started City’s last 10 games in all competitions, making this his second-longest run in a City shirt, behind a 12-game stretch that ended in March 2022. Those two stretches are the only occasions he has ever started more than seven City games in a row. Previously, he had been given frequent rests.
So, has there been a change of tack on Guardiola’s part? Is he finally willing to make Foden a fixture in his first-team plans?
Obviously Foden is becoming a better player, which will help his chances of starting for City. And City have also had a few problems with injuries in attack of late, with Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne and Jérémy Doku all missing for significant periods.
But even with them back, Foden has kept his place. Guardiola now sees him as indispensable to the team.
There have been too many examples over the years of talented youngsters playing too much football at too young an age, who have later seen their career fizzle out too early.
Foden has 8,628 Premier League minutes so far, still three months off his 24th birthday. By the point of turning 24, Wayne Rooney had played 17,349 minutes in the competition, Dele Alli had played 12,087; Joe Cole 13,711; Michael Owen 15,243; Robbie Fowler 15,671, and Romelu Lukaku 13,989. There are also plenty of examples of players being given lots of game time when young but continuing at the top level well into their 30s. And there’s also clearly more to each of these players’ stories than simply being overplayed in their formative years, but there is also every chance that Guardiola has taken action to avoid anything similar happening to Foden.
According to Transfermarkt, Foden has suffered only two injuries in his seven seasons at the top level, missing a total of 89 days and 19 games for club and country. No two players are the same, but a look at the many injuries suffered by 21-year-old Pedri at Barcelona provides a cautionary tale.
Pedri became a first-team fixture as soon as he broke onto the scene in Spain, and he has been plagued by injury problems. Hamstring injuries alone have caused Pedri to miss 307 days and 55 games – both far more than Foden’s total absences and he is two and a half years younger than the Englishman. If it weren’t for all those injuries, Pedri would have played far more football than Foden in three seasons fewer than him.
City have still got a lot from Foden. Despite playing relatively little football for someone so good, he ranks 17th in the Premier League era for goal involvements by players before they turn 24, with 68 (43 goals, 25 assists). And he’s got the rest of this season to add to his tally, with his 24th birthday not until late May.
The downside to playing the kind of bit-part role that Foden has over the years is that he has played in lots of different positions, and it isn’t entirely clear what his best position is. He has played across midfield, up front, and even at left-back for City, and his position has also chopped and changed a remarkable amount even this season. It’s one element of Foden’s development that can’t have been easy for him to deal with.
“It would help if I played one position and learned that position every game but I’m a person who adapts and plays where needed,” Foden said after the Brentford win.
“I’m enjoying playing anywhere in the middle. That’s where I see myself. Hopefully I can play more in the middle.”
Foden can no longer be considered a prospect for the future. He is an elite player for the here and now at City, and he will be key to his team’s chance of winning a fourth successive top-tier title – something that has never been done before.
He has had a unique footballing education in part because he has spent his career learning almost entirely from one of the greatest managers of all time, but also because his game time has been managed so meticulously. City could reap the benefits for a long, long time to come.