Foden dominates in smaller spaces – and hat-trick shows there might be more to come

Ahead of Manchester City’s trip to Brentford, it was reasonable to wonder whether Phil Foden might feel a little peripheral in Pep Guardiola’s side.

After all, this was the first time since the opening day that Guardiola was able to call upon Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland from the outset. De Bruyne provides the creativity, Haaland the goals. Then there was Bernardo Silva darting inside off the right flank, and Julian Alvarez providing another goalscoring threat from an advanced midfield role. What would Foden, stationed out on the left, be offering?

By full-time, three goals later, that seemed like a daft question. City, even with all those superstars back and together in the same side, relied on Foden to avert another disaster against Brentford, having lost both games against them last season, and ultimately recorded another comfortable victory.

Foden’s role was unquestionably different. During the period when City were without both Haaland and De Bruyne, Foden was often fielded in a No 10 role, a rare luxury for a creative player these days, but then there are few Premier League players better than Foden at receiving the ball and protecting it in tight spaces. And the spaces, against compact opponents and in today’s high-tempo football, are tighter than ever.

Brentford Manchester City

Here, Foden played from the left, a position that, to be frank, doesn’t suit him. But he was afforded license to go wandering across the pitch, popping up in inside-right positions more often than left-wing positions throughout the first half. With City basing their play largely around De Bruyne, with Silva moving inside to allow the Belgian to overlap and Haaland tending to make near-post runs rather than hanging back towards the far post, Foden further overloaded that side.

At times, it felt like City were playing without any serious attacking threat down the left. Josko Gvardiol offers much less going forward than Kyle Walker. You wondered whether Guardiola would be better off with Nathan Ake on that flank, and Gvardiol as a central defender.

But Foden justified his central positioning with three well-taken goals. The first showed an inability to anticipate the play, reading where Ethan Pinnock’s miscued-headed clearance would fall. Foden worked out that he had time to bring the ball down on his chest, but then needed to get a shot away quickly. Mark Flekken, the game’s best player until Foden got going, was wrong-footed.

The second was a centre-forward’s goal, a glancing header that came from a De Bruyne cross from the left. It was interesting how much time the Belgian spent on that flank in the second half, as if Guardiola had realised how little City threatened down the left in the first period. That, of course, allowed Foden inside even more.

The third, meanwhile, demonstrated understanding with Haaland — Foden could have taken Rodri’s straight pass himself, but Haaland gave him a shout, told him to leave the ball, and then slipped in the onrushing Foden to complete his second Premier League hat-trick, after last season’s 6-3 thrashing of Manchester United. Foden is regarded as an attacking midfielder with lots of creative skill, but he’s recorded 43 Premier League goals compared to 25 assists. He is a goalscorer more than a provider.

“We needed him today,” said Guardiola afterwards. “I said a few weeks ago, this is his most influential season in terms of goals and assists. When we play simple, he can be more aggressive, and he has the pleasure of scoring goals, he’s a threat when he’s there. And how he runs for the team is exceptional.

“He loves to play football. When you see players playing in the street, he has that culture. He loves to play…in terms of how he moves in small spaces and after, the impact (in the box) he has the feeling, ‘Oh, he can score’. You have to be like a knife and be aggressive. I’ve seen few like him.”

Foden has seemed particularly useful this season against the challenge that often causes City problems — the low block. He was outstanding in a scrappy 2-1 win at Luton, when he constantly received the ball between the lines. He was also excellent in a 2-0 win over Sheffield United in City’s final game of their historic 2023 and was involved in both goals. He scored a crucial equaliser out of nothing when City were trailing 1-0 at Everton. His impact on the bigger games — a 1-0 loss at Arsenal, a 1-1 draw against Liverpool — has been less obvious. But maybe those will be the games, in the second half of the season, where De Bruyne and Haaland take charge. In the smaller spaces, Foden is king.

Afterwards, Guardiola pointed out how unusual it is for a player to have made 250 club appearances at the age of 23. Oh, and to have won 14 major trophies too. But there’s probably still more to come — especially at international level. Whereas once Foden seemed competing with Jack Grealish and Mason Mount for roughly the same type of role, now there’s minimal competition. If Foden can play alongside Haaland and De Bruyne, and still prove his side’s best player, it’s clear he should be considered one of the best attacking players around.

(Photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

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