When Pep Guardiola talks, players listen. However, not every player is capable of carrying out the Catalan’s instructions. Phil Foden, though, has proved himself as Guardiola’s ‘special ops’ man. When the Manchester City manager has a job for one of his players to do, it tends to be the 21-year-old who does it.
Sunday’s 2-2 draw between Liverpool and Manchester City provided the perfect demonstration of this. Deployed on the left wing at Anfield, Foden’s job was to expose James Milner on the right side of the Liverpool defence with his pace and direct running. He did this to great effect - both City goals came from this source.
“Phil [Foden] is a special player - we know it,” Guardiola explained after the back-and-forth draw against Liverpool which saw Foden score one and assist another. “He [Foden] came back from the (England) national team injured, he is a fantastic player - but not just him, everyone was fantastic.”
Just one week previously, with Manchester City at Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea, Foden was deployed through the middle. The purpose of this was to have the England international lead the high press on Thomas Tuchel’s side. He also did this to great effect as City suffocated Chelsea for the full 90 minutes.
Foden’s talent is clear for all to see. He is the most naturally gifted English soccer player in a generation. The 21-year-old is an exceptional dribbler, passer and finisher. His skill set has already made him one of the best in the Premier League it could make him one of the true greats of the European game.
However, it’s Foden’s versatility and intelligence that sets him apart from the rest. This is what makes him the ideal Guardiola player, and why the Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss has entrusted the 21-year-old with so much responsibility. Foden can perform, and already has performed, a number of roles for Manchester City.
“Phil Foden can play in five positions and in every position he will play extraordinary because he is an extraordinary player,” Guardiola said after Foden’s return from injury in last month’s Champions League win over RB Leipzig. “He was injured and couldn't play in the European Championships final against Italy. He is still in the process [of recovering]. Phil and everyone had a margin to improve and we’re going to help him do that.”
There is a growing sense that Foden will define City’s 2021/22 campaign with the 21-year-old still finding full match fitness after a staggered start to the season. The Etihad Stadium outfit are expected to challenge on all domestic and continental fronts and Foden, adaptable as he is, will help them do this.
Without Foden, City’s lack of a true centre forward would be an even greater deficiency. It’s certainly true that a goalscorer like Harry Kane or Erling Haaland would sharpen the attacking edge of the Premier League champions, but between Foden, Jack Grealish and Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City are still a devastating force in the final third.
It wasn’t so long ago that many argued Foden should have left City on loan to find regular first team minutes. Guardiola took longer than anticipated to integrate the player into his side, but his decision to hold back Foden until he was truly ready has been vindicated in the performances of the 21-year-old over the last two seasons.
Kevin Bruyne remains Manchester City’s pace-setter with Ruben Dias their defensive bedrock, but Foden is quickly becoming the player through which much of their attacking play flows. What’s more, the England international is still learning and improving. Foden isn’t yet in his final form and that is a frightening thought for opponents given how good he is already.
While Guardiola is currently charged with bringing tangible success to Manchester City in the form of titles and trophies, the Catalan was also hired to leave behind a legacy at the Etihad Stadium. The 50-year-old’s current contract runs until the summer of 2023, but it’s not yet clear whether or not he will sign an extension beyond then.
The legacy of Guardiola’s tenure at Manchester City could be embodied in Foden, a player who symbolises all that is revered about the Catalan as a coach. The 21-year-old is steeped in the values and principles of the former Barca and Bayern boss and could set the standard for what it means to be a City player for years to come.