The 21-year-old’s commanding performance in 5-0 victory over Andorra shows why Gareth Southgate must build his side around him
It wasn’t by coincidence that Phil Foden was nicknamed the ‘Stockport Iniesta’.
Throughout his years coming through Manchester City’s academy, comparisons were made, even if they were slightly ambitious, to the former Barcelona midfielder.
His slight, battling build combined with exquisite technique, close control, ability to dribble out of tight spots and vision to pick out team-mates, these traits are similar to the Spain legend.
And as a boy in City’s youth teams, he took on the responsibility of making an impact from the centre of midfield, just as the great Andres Iniesta did during his career.
But so far on the big stage, Foden has been taken away from that pressure position. City boss Pep Guardiola believes he needs to build up his experience for the role and England’s Gareth Southgate has taken his cue from his club coach, who has so expertly overseen his burgeoning career.
Certainly no one would now argue against his decisions to turn down loan deals in order to learn from Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva on the training pitch.
For City and his country, he has made his biggest impact as a winger, particularly on the left, but he is increasingly showing he is ready for a a more central No.10 role.
Guardiola moved him into that position for last season’s Champions League final and, while City were beaten 1-0 by Chelsea, Foden’s performance was lively and positive.
This season too he has taken on the role, playing there in his comeback game against Wycombe Wanderers and floating in at times in the impressive away performances at Stamford Bridge and Liverpool.
With £100 million ($136m) signing Jack Grealish alongside Raheem Sterling, Guardiola is overflowing with options at left wing, which is why it might be time for Foden to make a switch inside.
Competition, however, is just as tight there with De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva, who has started the season in incredible form, all fighting for two starting positions.
Foden’s desire and footballing intelligence means he may well start plenty of games for City as a false nine – as he did in the 1-0 victory over title rivals Chelsea last month – as it’s the one position where Guardiola is short.
For England, however, it might be time to give him the position permanently; after all, Southgate has the same problem of trying to squeeze Foden, Grealish and Sterling into his starting line-up and he doesn’t possess the same depth of options in attacking midfield as Guardiola.
For all the excitement around the emerging talent coming through for England, Foden has shown that he is perhaps the most qualified to dictate matches, as he demonstrated in the resounding 5-0 victory over Andorra in Saturday’s World Cup qualifier.
Obviously, there is a huge caveat in that the opponents are among the weakest that he will face either internationally or in his club career, but still it was astonishing to see how the 21-year-old could control the game as a midfielder.
He had a hand in England’s first goal – a perfect pass freed Jadon Sancho to set up Ben Chilwell for the first, before he picked out Bukayo Saka to score the second in the 5-0 win.
Then there was the multitude of passes sprayed all over the pitch as the wingers tried to stretch Andorra’s full-backs and short passes as England tried to wriggle through a packed defence.
“I love my American Football and Foden has been like a top quarterback – he’s been like Tom Brady,” purred former Manchester United Roy Keane from the ITV studio. “He’s just picking people out. He’s got runners and he’s got wide-receivers. He’s making it look so easy.”
It was the perfect analogy as Foden took the responsibility of managing England’s attacks and he has given Southgate a dilemma as he develops his young team.
During England’s run to the Euro 2020 final in the summer, he stuck with two holding midfielders in Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips with Mason Mount more advanced.
While Southgate has won mainly praise for turning around England’s fortunes since taking over, his critics suggest he could be braver.
Now could be the time for more adventure in midfield; to build around the huge talents of Foden, with the energy of Mount alongside him, and the safety net of using one holding midfielder. It’s what Guardiola asks of his midfield and it is how he will use Foden as his switch becomes more permanent.
Foden is no longer one for the future. In a week when he was City’s most influential player in a combative 2-2 draw at Anfield and was then nominated to the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or, his time is now.
Southgate gave the impression that he would rather take Foden’s development slowly and his selection for Tuesday’s clash with Hungary could give an illustration of whether he is to stick with his more cautious approach.
“I don’t want to create too much for him,” Southgate said after the Andorra victory. “The danger is we create too much, which is too much to live up to. Let us just enjoy him.
“He’s a special player without a doubt. Let him grow into the team. We have to try and bed him in at the right time and get him positionally right for the right games. But we are delighted to have him.”
With the World Cup just 13 months away, Southgate doesn’t have much time for Foden to bed into the team. For many, it’s time to roll the dice and take a chance on a player that can take England to an even higher level.