Phil Foden only turned 18 in May. A world champion at youth level and being gradually introduced to the senior game, he could conceivably have 15 years left in high-level football.
As Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City go from strength to strength, improving this season on their superlative performances of last term – which led to unprecedented, record-breaking domestic success – it seems a mere formality that Foden will add to an already-impressive trophy haul in the coming months.
Still, though, he could be forgiven for getting itchy feet.
With almost a third of the 2018/19 season in the books, Foden has featured in five of City’s 11 Premier League games. The grand sum of minutes those appearances amount to: 65.
Even adding in his two League Cup starts – one of which came against Oxford United of League Two – and his single, three-minute Champions League cameo, the midfielder has still only seen 248 minutes of action this term.
Foden is close friends with Jadon Sancho, the fellow England youth international who left City last year to sign for Borussia Dortmund, feeling his pathway to regular game time at the Etihad was blocked.
Sancho is only two months older than Foden yet, thanks to the first-team opportunities he has received at Signal Iduna Park and the alacrity with which he has taken them, the Dortmund teen is now a full England international. Sancho’s situation in Germany, relative to his own, will surely not have escaped Foden’s attention.
Sancho has already featured in 455 first-team minutes in the Bundesliga alone this season, rewarding manager Lucien Favre’s faith in him with four goals and six assists.
The English winger is also trusted by Dortmund to perform in high-stakes fixtures, as evidenced by his two Champions League starts and a scoring substitute appearance in the 4-0 evisceration of Atlético Madrid in October.
And Sancho is not the only English 18-year-old starring in the Bundesliga this season. Arsenal prospect Reiss Nelson already has five goals from six appearances on loan with Hoffenheim in the German top flight.
Foden has just 18 months remaining on his current contract at the Etihad, meaning both player and club are entering a key year and a half with respect to the youngster’s future.
If and when his deal expires, rival clubs will be able to snap Foden up for a minimal compensation fee; City would not only lose a young player of elite potential, they would also miss out on the millions upon millions he’d otherwise command in the transfer market.
Dortmund, ready to pounce, are reported to be monitoring Foden’s development and contractual situation at City. The Bundesliga leaders have consistently demonstrated a faith in young players, stretching back much further than Sancho’s emergence, and currently have seven players aged 23 or under with more than 400 league minutes under their belt.
“Of course Phil is special, but he is a young player so we have to be patient,” Guardiola told Sky Sports in August, amid calls for the teenager to be given the chance to replace then-injured Kevin De Bruyne.
“His behaviour is important. On and off the pitch he is excellent, that is the first step to becoming a good player. He will play a lot of minutes and have games to play and go step by step. We cannot forget he is 18 so he is young.
“Be patient, work hard, listen and see what happens, we will help him to be a better player.”
If Foden is to continue on his planned developmental path at City, patience will be key. Pressure is high at a club expected to win the Premier League every year and make serious headway in the Champions League; there is little margin for error and therefore few opportunities for still-developing players to start games.
The superlative performances of Bernardo Silva this season are a slight inconvenience for Foden on a personal level, too. Having played predominantly in a wide attacking berth last term, the Portuguese playmaker has deputised expertly for De Bruyne in a more central remit, a position Foden might have forced himself into the reckoning for had the former Monaco man not taken his own opportunity so well.
The major feather in City’s cap remains Guardiola. The Catalan tactician in not only a world-renowned coach the game’s best player itch to work with, but also an adept developmental manager with a proven track record of turning high-potential youngsters in to genuine stars; beyond the obvious improvements the likes of Lionel Messi and Raheem Sterling have made under his tutelage, his work in trusting and moulding Sergio Busquets and Joshua Kimmich among others speaks volumes.
As long as Foden is able to direct envious glances in the direction of his peers flourishing on the Continent, though, City are operating on a constrained timescale. They must continue to show the young midfielder that his development is best served by staying put, and that means playing him more.