Phil Foden is just 23 years old, and has won the Premier League five times, the FA Cup twice, the EFL Cup four times and the Champions League once. He has started a World Cup quarter-final and played in a European Championship semi-final. He has achieved a quite incredible amount already.
And yet, it also feels as though his career so far has been ever so slightly underwhelming. Certainly not in terms of trophies, but maybe in that most people expected him to be a more prominent player for both club and country by now.
That probably isn’t through any particular fault of his own. Aside from the time he broke Covid isolation rules when on tour with England in Iceland in September 2020, there have never really been any questions or concerns about his professionalism. His Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has even spoken publicly on several occasions about how well Foden trains.
But at this stage of his career, approaching six years on from his City debut as a substitute in a Champions League group stage game against Feyenoord in November 2017, some fans might have expected more of this precocious talent.
In his first season with the first team, he broke countless records, including becoming the youngest English player to start a Champions League match at 17 years and 192 days old, as well as the youngest Englishman to start a knockout match in the competition a few months later. He played in the EFL Cup final victory over Arsenal and soon after became the youngest player ever to receive a Premier League winners’ medal. A couple of weeks later, he turned 18.
This hugely exciting and talented youngster was, in the eyes of many, the future of English football. “He is the most talented player I have ever seen,” Guardiola said a year later, at the end of the 2018-19 season. Some praise.
At that time, when Foden was showing he could be an important player – though still largely used from the bench – for one of the best managers of all time at the most successful club of the era despite still being a teenager, it was fair to assume that at some point in the next few seasons we would see a breakout year. Foden would explode.
It’s September 2023, and we’re arguably still waiting.
That isn’t to say we haven’t seen plenty of Foden doing what he does best, picking apart opposition defences with wonderful deft touches, clever reverse passes and neat dribbles, but he is still not yet a consistent starter either at club or international level. And back when he was tearing it up for City aged 17, 18, 19 and 20, plenty of people reasonably expected that a 23-year-old Foden would be a key player for at least one of City and England, if not both.
Part of the problem seems to be that nobody is quite clear as to his best position. His versatiliity is a useful trait, but that has meant he has been shunted around the pitch, unable to hold down a specific spot while others nail theirs down and get more game time in that position, learning exactly how Guardiola wants them to play.
“Phil can play in five positions,” Guardiola said in October 2022. “I would say he can even play as a left-back. He played a few minutes there at home and he played really well.” Over the past three seasons, Foden has played a huge variety of positions for City.
The turnover of personnel in midfield and attack at City could – and maybe should – have led to more opportunities for him; a key opening for him to grab. In the years since he broke into the team, the departures list at the Etihad Stadium includes Yaya Touré, David Silva, Leroy Sané, Ferran Torres, Sergio Agüero, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Riyad Mahrez, Ilkay Gündogan and Cole Palmer. Foden has interchanged positions with each of them at one time or another. For his City debut he replaced Touré from the bench, while he was seen by some as the ideal left-footed replacement for Silva in the left number-eight position; more recently, he played false nine ahead of Agüero and Jesus, and he shared the wide attacker positions with Sterling and Mahrez.
Each departure, however, has led to further investment, and while Foden has been given plenty of chances all over the pitch, his intermittent good performances have not led to a sustained run in any particular position. On only five occasions in his career has he started five or more consecutive Premier League games for City.
It’s almost as if any slight mishap or imperfect performance on his part is pounced upon by his manager as a reason to rotate him out of the team. Perhaps that’s just a reflection of the sky-high standards Guardiola holds his players to, though.
What that has meant is too little game time for Foden. He has completed 90 minutes just 43 times in the Premier League for City. Last season, when Foden was City’s second-highest goalscorer in league games behind Erling Haaland, with 11 goals, 13 teammates were given more game time than him. He played just 1,844 minutes of a possible 3,420 (53.9%) in the Premier League, while on the way to Champions League glory, he played only 381 minutes of a possible 1,170. João Cancelo played almost as many minutes as Foden (378) across City’s 2022-23 Champions League campaign, and he left the club in January.
This has proved a problem for Foden on the international scene, too. He is without question one of the 11 most gifted English players in the game at present and there are a lot of people who would argue – and have been arguing for a long time, probably as far back as the Euro 2020 tournament that was held in 2021 – that the team should be built around Foden. Or if not built specifically around him, that he should be one of the first names on the teamsheet in a central role.
But he has never been able to hold down a regular starting spot for England, and opportunities in a central position have been even rarer for his country than they have for his club. Following the 3-1 win over Scotland this week, in which Foden started on the right flank and scored the opening goal, manager Gareth Southgate was asked whether he would entertain calls to play Foden through the middle. He gave an answer that was perhaps illustrative of a preference to defer to Guardiola on the subject.
“He doesn’t [play centrally] for his club,” Southgate said. “You’d have to speak to Pep, who is the best coach in the world. He plays him from wide. Phil’s always got the freedom to drift if we play him wide.”
In the Premier League in 2022-23, Foden played 88% of his minutes out wide, with 57% coming on the left flank. It is a curious tactic of Guardiola’s to play Foden on the left, because he usually plays his wingers on their ‘unnatural’ side of the pitch; inverted so they can cut inside onto their stronger foot. That has almost always been the case with Jack Grealish, Bernardo Silva, Mahrez, Sterling and Sané over the years, though right-footed Jesus did have a spell playing on the right flank.
Playing on your natural side makes it very difficult to come infield, particularly for a player like Foden, who is very one-footed. His touch map from Premier League games last season how much he was stuck out wide and how many of his touches came very close to the touchline.
Even when he played on the right, though, Guardiola still wanted him to receive very wide and make the pitch as big as possible, leaving space centrally for the number eights to get into, and pulling the opposition’s defence apart to give Haaland as much space as possible to get into shooting positions. That meant that Foden had most of his touches in wide positions whichever flank he was playing on.
His numbers are impressive wherever he plays, though. Since his Premier League debut in December 2017, 207 players have got more minutes on the pitch than him (7,128), but he ranks 31st for combined goals and assists (56). Only 10 players with a minimum of 5,000 minutes played have directly contributed to a goal more often than him (every 127 minutes). Remember this includes the period when Foden had only just broken through at City; every other player above him in the list is far more experienced – including players like Agüero, Kevin De Bruyne, Mohamed Salah and Harry Kane.
He has also scored his 35 Premier League goals from just 26.3 xG, with only eight players boasting a better overperformance in front of goal than his 8.7, showing just how good his finishing is. It is hard not to wonder what damage he could cause if he spent less time such a long way away from goal.
It therefore makes sense that fans want to see a player this talented play centrally. He is exceptional – arguably unmatched among English players – when it comes to unlocking an opposition defence, and the prospect of him combining with Jude Bellingham behind Kane at next summer’s Euros is an incredibly exciting one.
After the win over Scotland, Foden was asked about his best position. “I see myself as a threat on the wings and also coming inside,” he said. “Today I was a right winger, but I got to drift inside a little more into the central areas, and I enjoyed that role today. Hopefully I can start playing there more in the future.”
As Southgate suggested, those chances will have to come at club level if Foden is to then play centrally for his country. Guardiola has hinted recently that those opportunities might not be too far off.
“He has something special in that [central] position,” the City manager said before the start of this season. “The quality of the one-against-one, arriving in the box, the sense of goal. With Gündogan leaving maybe he can play more in that position, we will see.”
Now, with De Bruyne out with a long-term injury, there should – in theory at least – be two positions up for grabs in central midfield. However, in all four of City’s games since De Bruyne suffered a recurrence of a hamstring injury against Burnley, the midfield three has been made up of Rodri, Mateo Kovacic (another new signing) and Julián Álvarez. Foden has started three of those four games – out wide each time – putting in a man-of-the-match performance in the win against Newcastle. That day, he started on the right but had more freedom to move all around the pitch, as his touch map shows.
He clearly wants to be able to get into central positions, and that becomes easier to do when he is playing on the right than when he is the left. It also makes him more difficult to track as he has to move between zones on the pitch to receive centrally.
But given how good he is at receiving in tight spaces on the half-turn, he – and many fans – will probably be hoping that he does get a chance to the left of Rodri in central midfield. It could be that Guardiola doesn’t think Foden is capable of doing the very specific job that he wants his number eights to do, and that could have something to do with the out-of-possession role they play. The defensive side of the game doesn’t come naturally to Foden, while any extra defensive responsibilities will of course take something else away from his in-possession game. It could be that Guardiola is trying to protect Foden from those responsibilities.
Or it could simply be that the City manager still doesn’t know Foden’s best position. It’s not clear that anyone does. Even Foden.
After the group stage at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the City midfielder was asked about where he’d like to play.
“I don’t even know! Everywhere,” he replied. “I feel like I’m a 10, whether it’s now or in the future, behind the striker, getting on the ball and trying to make things happen. I’m playing more out wide and I can do that job as well. At the same time, I do like playing wide because you score more goals and get in the box a lot more.”
Crystal clear, that.
Everyone, including Foden himself it seems, is still trying to work out where he should play. Now in his seventh season, chasing his sixth Premier League crown, it’s time that he does enough to hold down a regular spot for City and make a starting berth in England’s team at Euro 2024 his own.
Where on the pitch that should be is still very much up in the air.