Back in July, only certain Manchester City supporters, English youth football followers and the most ardent of neutral fans were aware of the newly crowned Young Sports Personality of the Year Phil Foden.
Today, the hype surrounding the youngster is building at such a rapid rate that ‘get him on the plane to Russia’ proclamations almost feel imminent.
Of course, Foden has just 18 minutes of Premier League action to his name and competition for a place in the England midfield is fierce. But there’s something special about the 17-year-old midfield maestro.
This is modern football. And, between the realistic and the ridiculous, the increasing focus on Foden and his gifts verges closer to the former. This is partly because – even when judging on the basis of pre-season friendly action – he is obviously extremely talented; it is also because he plays for City.
This summer was a particularly extravagant one for last season’s Premier League third-place finishers. They spent over £200million on players. Even taking into account player sales, their net spend stands at an eye-watering £169million. They are a club with plenty of money, and they are not afraid to use it.
The existing environment is a galling one for young prospects, however. Those hoping to make the step up from youth team to first team face a real struggle to break beyond established, high-quality individuals whose formative stages came years ago. That Foden appears to be succeeding in this struggle speaks volumes about his class and potential.
It also suggests that he has caught the eye of a manager renowned for identifying and nurturing some of the finest players in the world today. Pep Guardiola, during his time as manager with both Barcelona and Bayern Munich, gave opportunities and teaching to his brightest young pupils.
Foden looks set to be the latest to benefit from the Catalan’s expert guidance. The signs of this being the case were already there to those paying attention last season.
He averaged just under one goal every two games for Manchester City’s under-18s, a strong return for a midfielder, and was named on the substitutes’ bench for the first team’s Champions League group stage clash with Celtic at the Etihad Stadium.
Then, earlier this summer, he scored twice to help England to the final of the European Under-17 Championship, where they lost to Spain. But revenge came in October as the Under-17s overcame La Roja to win the World Cup, Foden starred in the final and scored twice.
As a Manchester City fan born in Stockport and raised in the club’s academy, Foden couldn’t have asked for a more dreamlike pre-season than the one he has had this summer. Not only did he start the friendly against Manchester United, but he won the man of the match award for his performance in that match.
Evidencing intelligent movement, positive combination play and the ability to spot and execute the killer pass through lines of opposition defence, he displayed the hallmarks of a player ripe for top-level football. He also showed he has the style and awareness necessary to thrive within a Guardiola team.
Following Foden’s outing against Manchester United, Guardiola told the press: “I don’t have words. I would like to have the right words to describe what I saw today. You are lucky guys, believe me. You are the guys that saw the first game in the first team for Manchester City for this guy … For us, he is a gift. He will stay and train with us in pre-season and maybe in the season he will stay with us because he is special.”
Former Manchester United player Gary Neville opined that: “[Foden is] at the wrong Manchester club for getting a sustained opportunity. City have a lot of great kids. They should be playing.”
Guardiola rebutted, saying: “My history is there. I’m not going to put young players in the squad because they are young. They will be in the squad because they have quality. I don’t have problems with that.”
And the history is indeed there. One of his first actions upon being made Barcelona manager was to bring Sergio Busquets with him from the ‘B’ team. He also spent a great deal of time analysing how to bring the best out of a young Lionel Messi. Then, with Bayern Munich, he brought Joshua Kimmich into the line-up as a 20-year-old, trialling him in a number of different positions.
Guardiola’s maiden campaign with Manchester City didn’t involve many chances for academy graduates or other youngsters, so Foden could well be his first true ‘project’ with the club. However, even if the 17-year-old is to train and play with the first team, a regular berth looks some way off.
This is primarily the case because of his style and favoured role. Lithe, left-footed, creative midfielders are not in short supply at City. Club legend David Silva is the benchmark, while his namesake Bernardo, recently signed from Monaco for over £40million, is in a similar mould.
While the former is approaching the end of his career, the latter is just getting started. Rather ominously, these are the players Foden must compete with for a place in the team.
The hype is only just beginning for the youngster, though his follow-up pre-season showing against Real Madrid undoubtedly brought with it a dose of reality, as he was unable to make the same impact as he had done against Manchester United.
However, with three years to go before he even exits his teens, he is in the perfect place at the perfect time to receive the sort of instruction and inspiration – both as a player and as a person. Foden has time on his side and, under Guardiola, he has genuine hope of fulfilling his early promise.