After Phil Foden continued his exceptional run of form with a match-winning performance in Sunday’s Manchester derby, we ask whether he can finally nail down a starting position for his country ahead of Euro 2024.

England’s left-sided problem went away for quite a while.

Long since the days of hoping that Steve Guppy, Jason Wilcox, Chris Powell, Alan Thompson, Trevor Sinclair, or Joe Cole might be the solution, football has evolved to such a point that there are other ways to solve this most infamous of problems – one that plagued England and worried fans for years on end – than just playing someone else on the left side of midfield in a 4-4-2.

Inverted forwards such as Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford filled the void for a while, and Gareth Southgate’s use of a 3-5-2 formation at the 2018 World Cup meant there was no left side of attack to cause a problem or even a discussion, for that matter.

But ahead of a European Championships this summer at which England have to be considered among the favourites having lost in the final at the last edition on penalties, there is once again a little uncertainty over the left-sided position in attack.

Southgate will continue with the 4-3-3 formation he has used at the last couple of tournaments. And in that formation is a position to be filled.

England have a vast amount of attacking talent – so much so that the 82-cap Sterling hasn’t played for England or even been called up to an international squad since the 2022 World Cup in Qatar 15 months ago.

But despite the wealth of options, there is only really one viable left-sided option heading into this summer’s tournament. And yet it isn’t one that Southgate seems all that keen on using.

Phil Foden is having a genuinely sensational campaign at Manchester City. He has been one of the Premier League’s players of the season and, given Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland have both missed big chunks of the season, if City are to retain their crown and become the first team in English top-flight history to win four consecutive league titles, Foden will have played a big part.

With his national team, however, he has always remained less integral. After starting on the left side of attack in England’s two knockout games at the 2022 World Cup – having forced his way into the starting XI with his performances off the bench in the group stage – Foden started none of the first five of England’s Euro 2024 qualifiers last year.

He eventually muscled his way into the team, starting the final three games of that campaign, doing so twice on the right and once in a number 10 position. But while he started in a crunch game against Italy, the final two of those starts came after England had already secured their place at the tournament.

The starting position on the left for the eight qualifiers was instead filled by James Maddison (three starts), Marcus Rashford (three) and Jack Grealish (two). Foden was fit, available, on the bench and ready to play in each of those games.

Maddison has been playing centrally for Spurs and has been doing pretty well, but in truth he hasn’t got back to his best since missing two and a half months of the season with an ankle injury. Rashford scored a screamer against Man City on Sunday but was otherwise as anonymous as he has been all season, while Grealish has had plenty of fitness problems and has struggled for consistency this season since the high of last season’s treble win.

But Foden’s form – particularly since the last time Southgate had any games to pick a team for in November – will surely force the England manager’s hand. He simply has to be in the starting lineup for England’s opening fixture against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen on 16 June. It’s hard to imagine any reason he couldn’t be.

“Right now, he is the best [in the league],” said Pep Guardiola after Foden’s man-of-the-match performance in Sunday’s 3-1 derby win over Manchester United, in which the midfielder scored twice to turn the game on its head. “To be world class you have to win games. Now, he’s winning games.

“Always he scored goals but now he’s winning games. When you do this, you reach another level as a player.”

There’s no disputing how good Foden has been of late. Sunday was the peak of his recent run of form, and he ran riot.

He attempted nine shots – three times as many as United managed in total and the most he has ever had in a Premier League game for City – and took his goal tally for the season to 18 in all competitions, the most he has managed in a campaign before, and he still has three months of 2023-24 to go. Those goals have come from just 12.9 expected goals.

phil foden xg goals map 2023-24

He had a whopping 116 touches and maintained a pass completion rate of 95.2%. Those are the kind of numbers you usually see a centre-back at a possession-dominant team racking up against a relegation-battler. Foden was operating almost exclusively in crowded areas in the final third against a United side with Champions League aspirations (although they sat back for much of the game and played like a team with little confidence in their ability to keep hold of the ball).

phil foden touches vs man utd march 2024

Foden started on the right side of midfield and did plenty of good work stretching the play out there, as well as cutting inside onto his left – something he did to devastating effect to fire in his rocket of an equaliser.

But he didn’t stick to his flank by any means, and later in the game, with City stuck at 1-1 and toiling in their search for a winner, Guardiola moved Foden over to the left. Despite being on his ‘natural’ side – where it is easier for a left-footer to take the ball around the outside – Foden did what he does best and stuck to coming infield.

He also interchanged positions with De Bruyne and Julián Álvarez regularly, and that meant it was possible for him to get closer to goal more often. It was from an inside-left position that he left Casemiro for dead with a swift one-two with Álvarez before slotting in City’s crucial second goal.

phil foden in action vs man utd

Foden’s versatility is a massive strength, but there’s no doubt it’s been a bit of a hindrance in his career. Guardiola loves moving players around, and Foden has played a vast range of positions in the last few years. While that initially meant he got more opportunities all over the pitch, in more recent times it has meant that holding down a starting spot at both club and international level has been that bit more difficult as he has been shunted around the pitch into positions where his manager needs someone.

phil foden positions played

He has at least been given consistent game time of late. Foden has started each of City’s last 16 Premier League games – already five games longer than his previous longest run of consecutive starts. He has still, however, had to deal with playing in different positions week to week.

But while Foden could play in basically any position for England, there is probably only one spot open for him. In Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham, England already have three other potential match-winners; two in the centre-forward and right-wing positions, as well as someone who operates centrally. Moving any of them out of position would surely damage England too much to be worth considering, while previous evidence suggests it’s extremely unlikely that Southgate would be bold enough to play both Foden and Bellingham in the number eight positions. Playing Foden on the left is the only solution.

While most of his appearances this season have come on the right, he has produced some brilliant displays when playing on the left, including his hat-trick performance against Brentford last month. As was the case when he was on City’s left in the closing stages on Sunday’s derby win, Foden popped up in central positions at Brentford, constantly threatening the opposition goal.

The only slight issue with Foden coming infield so much is that you need someone else rotating with him to make sure the left channel is occupied. Without someone offering a passing option out near the touchline, the opposition have no reason to remain anything other than compact and narrow, which makes them harder to break down. At Brentford, that was Josko Gvardiol, while against United central midfielders moved out there when Foden moved into the middle.

That arguably isn’t Gvardiol’s natural game, but he has adapted exceptionally well to the demands of Guardiola since. City don’t play with a conventional left-back – which doesn’t hurt them at all – but Southgate prefers to do so. Fitness permitting, Luke Shaw or Ben Chilwell will provide a natural overlapping option around the outside if Foden comes infield.

Of course, injuries to any one of a number of key players could scupper Southgate’s plans for the summer, as so often happens for England. Keep those metatarsals wrapped in cotton wool, lads.

But if everyone remains fit, it’s a very, very exciting time. Foden’s form is a huge part of the reason for that, not least because it might mean fans can look forward to a major tournament without worrying about England’s left-side problem.

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