England are in love with Phil Foden – but has he won over Gareth Southgate?

England are in love with Phil Foden – but has he won over Gareth Southgate?

In the weeks leading up to this World Cup, Phil Foden evoked Diego Maradona.

“When I step on the pitch, everything else disappears,” said the Manchester City and England youngster. “Whatever happens in my life, it goes away.”

Perhaps it was a coincidence, but it repeated, almost word for word, a line uttered by Maradona in Asif Kapadia’s wonderful documentary.

The great Argentine said it in reference to the vices and demons he battled throughout his life, apart from those glorious 90-minute intervals when he had a ball at his feet. Foden, in an interview with Esquire magazine, spoke more innocently. When he’s on the pitch, nothing else matters; he is fully invested in the game.

He said otherwise in the same interview about feeling untouched and playing with a smile on his face. The bigger the stage, rising through the academy ranks at City and into the first team, the more he felt: “Exactly: this is the time to show everyone what I can do”.

Pep Guardiola was captivated from the first time he saw him. He described Foden, then 16, as a “gift”, blessed with an amazing talent which, if properly nurtured, could flourish for club and country. Foden had the ability and he seemed to have the temperament too.

It has not always looked so easy for Foden when he has played for England. It certainly didn’t for the first 20 minutes or so last night against Wales. He looked so peripheral, not only in terms of his position, hugging the right touchline, but in terms of his influence, which was minimal. It was his first start at the World Cup and the game seemed to pass him by.

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That changed, thankfully. Foden gradually grew into the game as the first half wore on and then exploded into life early in the second period, dribbling the ball deep into Welsh territory, away from Connor Roberts and Ethan Ampadu, before being hacked down by Joe Rodon. From an unpromising position, with a packed defense in front of him, Foden had won the free-kick from which Marcus Rashford set England on course for a comfortable 3-0 victory.

Barely a minute later, Foden was on the scoresheet, picked out by Harry Kane at the far post and swept the ball home for England’s second goal. And with that, the clamor for his inclusion against Wales – after being kept on the bench throughout the tough 0-0 draw against the USA – gave way to a clamor for him to stay in the side to face Senegal in the round-robin. of 16 on Sunday.

Phil Foden marks his first World Cup start with a goal (Photo: Alex Pantling – FA/FA via Getty Images)

Foden was grinning from ear to ear at the final whistle, delighted to have scored in the World Cup and to have played a key role in what ended up being a rousing victory over a disappointing Wales side.

The question is whether the impact was enough to persuade Gareth Southgate that Foden should start against Senegal. The same question applies to Rashford, who scored twice. Southgate began this tournament against Iran with Bukayo Saka on the right and Raheem Sterling on the left, and both scored (Saka twice) and performed well in that game, bringing balance as well as goals, before facing frustration against the USA. is not necessarily as simple as imagining that whoever scores has to play in the next match.

Southgate said afterwards that Foden and Rashford had performed well for “moments”, but had been quiet in the first half until he switched them around – Foden on the left, Rashford on the right – before Foden switched back again after the introduction of Jack Grealish. “They reacted well,” the England manager said of Foden and Rashford. “For both of them to get goals was great.”

But here’s the thing. Beyond these two very significant “moments”, Foden was less involved in the uplifting second half than the productive first – and far more involved on the right flank than on the left. According to Opta, he touched the ball on 50 occasions, but only 13 of those touches came in the second half and only a handful of them on the left side of the pitch. He completed 24 successful passes, which is barely half his average per 90 minutes (46) in the Premier League at City this season.

The point here is not to pick Foden’s performance apart, but to illustrate that, beyond the two moments in as many minutes early in the second half, he found it difficult to influence the game as he does at City.

It may sound like nit-picking – those two moments effectively swung the game England’s way – but even more than goals, even more than assists, Foden’s purpose as a City footballer is about being on the ball, receiving and regaining possession in tight areas , creates space and helps his team destroy the opposition through sheer weight and possession. For England, however, his role in one of the wide positions in the front three is to penetrate opposition defenses in a more conventional way.

His goal was indeed the type City are known for – a wide striker coming in from his flank to get to the far post to score – but he admits the comparison doesn’t apply to the team’s performance as a whole.

In his 111 Premier League appearances for City to date, Foden has averaged 60 touches per 90 minutes. This season’s figure is 66.9. That is very high for someone who primarily plays in the forward.

For context, the only regular Premier League striker with a higher figure this season, having made more than a handful of appearances, is his City team-mate Riyad Mahrez (72). Grealish, also at City, averages 59.2. Bukayo Saka averages 49.2 at Arsenal, while Son Heung-min and Mohamed Salah average 39.9 and 39.3 at Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool respectively.

Touches per 90 minutes for attackers

Again for context, Foden started England’s opening match in the European Championship play-offs last summer and touched the ball just 26 times in 70 minutes before being substituted. Even if you extrapolate that number, it equates to 33.4 touches in 90 minutes. That’s almost exactly half as many touches as he has per 90 minutes at City.

It is not just a matter of quantity. England had 74.4 per cent possession in the first half against Wales last night, but that doesn’t mean it was the same kind of dominance or the same kind of movement that Foden is used to at City, where everything is so fast and so fluid and every player sees appear to be on the same wavelength.

John Barnes and Chris Waddle used to do the same in the 1980s when asked why they found it so difficult to replicate their club form in an England shirt. Barnes would say it was because at Liverpool he could receive the ball 10 times in positions where he could hurt the opposition. In England’s service it might happen only once or twice in 90 minutes and even if he beat the first defender he would look up and, unlike Liverpool, he could not be sure where his team-mates would be.

Foden would probably identify with that. The technical standard in this England squad has gotten higher and higher over the last couple of years with the likes of Jude Bellingham and Saka on the pitch, but it’s not like watching City. It is not easy to expect Foden to be dropped into this England team and perform as he does when he has Joao Cancelo, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne working alongside him.

The obvious answer to make here is that England should play like City. Some will no doubt suggest that they finally have the players to do it. But international football is not like that. Even if you have the players, managers don’t have time. No side in this World Cup comes close to the flow and cohesion of Pep Guardiola’s side. Not Brazil, not France, not Germany, not Argentina, not even Spain. Not one.

Gareth Southgate makes different demands on Phil Foden than Pep Guardiola (Photo: Alex Pantling – FA/FA via Getty Images)

The point is that even if international football is not a step up in quality for a player like Foden, the requirements are different. He has said so himself, trying to explain, like Barnes, Waddle and so many others before him, why he has so far produced only glimpses of his potential in an England shirt.

Watching him last night, there was a moment in the first half where he received the ball near the right touchline and there was no team-mate near him – not even Kyle Walker, who is more suited to the contrasting demands of playing for City and for England. When he moved to the left in the second half, there were again few opportunities for him in possession, which is probably why that run towards the opening goal came about.

There is a strong temptation to say that Foden should be deployed centrally, but, as Southgate said in the build-up, that is perhaps easier said than done. “Sometimes the discussion around just putting him in at 10 every game is not realistic,” the manager said, “because firstly you need the ball and secondly there’s the defensive responsibility (in that role) that he doesn’t get on his side .club.

“From the large area it is different. The responsibility is different and the role is different. At 10 you have to cover a lot more ground and be aware of the spaces with the ball. If that bit of pressure isn’t right, then they’re through you and into your back line. That’s why we didn’t put him in as a 10 against the USA. There are games where (…) there might be a bit more freedom and it might be the slot where he can go and express himself, but his club doesn’t do that either, so there has to be a reason for that.”

Guardiola has said on many occasions that he feels Foden’s long-term future is in the kind of roaming central role in which David Silva used to operate for City, but he also says it is a matter of learning the game and adapting to the physicality and tactics. requirements for that role. The thought of Foden running games for City and England from a central position is tempting, but the prospect of him starting in a central role against Senegal on Sunday seems remote.

For now, Mason Mount remains Southgate’s preferred option there. And as the tournament continues, it’s easier to imagine the manager going for a more defensive option, such as Jordan Henderson or Kalvin Phillips, rather than giving Foden a central role, whether in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3.

So it will be a question of whether Foden and/or Rashford did enough against Wales to replace Saka and/or Sterling in the wide positions. The goal sheet says yes, the public outcry says yes, and there were certainly plenty of occasions when he got into shooting positions, which is a big part of that role when Harry Kane drops deeper and creates space between or behind opposition defenders.

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But Southgate will take a closer look. He will like to weigh up Foden’s contribution and assess whether it, against Senegal and potentially against France in a quarter-final, is greater or less than he expects from Saka or Sterling – on and off the ball – in the same scenario.

Foden is supremely gifted, almost unique in the English game, but the demands of international football are different to those playing for City in the Premier League — not because the standard in the World Cup is higher, but on the contrary, because the international game is less sophisticated, not so multidimensional. It becomes a pure question of production, of delivering under pressure.

In that respect, at least Foden’s goal last night will have done him good. It will make the clamor for him even louder. He will hope he has done enough to stay in the team, but he faces an anxious wait between now and Sunday.

(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

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