When Pep Guardiola was asked about Phil Foden’s lack of game time in recent months for Manchester City, for a moment his face remained expressionless. It’s the look the City boss gives when he’s mulling over the best way to answer what must seem, to him, mundane questions.
Pep’s press conferences this season have been full of those. Has Erling Haaland adapted to City? Have City adapted to Haaland? Does Jack Grealish need to score more?
No doubt Guardiola is bored stiff by such questions, but the way he chose to speak about City’s homegrown talent, the player fans want to see start more than anybody else, told you all you need to know about how he regards Foden.
“If you pretend to say that I’ve lost trust with Phil, forget about it. Phil is our diamond,” Guardiola said on Friday.
Before City’s 4-1 win against Bournemouth on Saturday, Foden has started just four of City’s 15 matches in all competitions since the World Cup.
During those dark days of January and early February when City – with a Premier League financial charges cloud hanging over them – were serving up stodgy, uninspiring football, some supporters even wondered if this was the beginning of the end for Foden at the Etihad. City clearly needed him on the pitch, but week after week he started on the bench.
In response to speculation that he and Foden had fallen out, Guardiola revealed that a niggling ankle injury took its toll and prevented the 22-year-old from being more involved.
In recent weeks Pep has hinted that perhaps Foden’s head wasn’t quite in the right place either, that he wasn’t meeting the manager’s ‘happy faces only’ requirement.
Now, with a goal and assist performance on the south coast, Foden has shown that he isn’t far from his best, and that he can play a key role in the title run-in.
How Foden can help City
A criticism of City in recent games is that they haven’t made the most of Haaland’s runs, that they haven’t always fed him when he’s been crying out in hunger. In the 1-1 draw with RB Leipzig that was partly tactical, although Guardiola admitted City’s midfielders and attackers could improve in that aspect.
Foden clearly has great chemistry with the Norwegian striker, as his assist and constant dizzying link-up play at the Vitality Stadium showed.
Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish has been excellent in recent games, but when he is on-song, Foden gives a little more directness. He’s more inclined to play vertically than cautiously, he gets City moving and taking risks in the same way that Kevin de Bruyne and Julian Alvarez do.
A passive, struggling opponent like Bournemouth suited his style in a way a tricky, transition-based Leipzig – a game Guardiola was desperate not to return from with a deficit to overcome – perhaps does not.
That isn’t to say that Foden will not play against the ‘big’ teams this season, but Guardiola has to pick and choose when is best to use his array of weapons.
For a player who is supposedly having an underwhelming season, eight goals and four assists in 22 league outings isn’t bad. This campaign, Foden has made a league goal contribution every 105 minutes.
By comparison, the rates of Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka, both of whom are on-track for career-best seasons, stand at 115 and 122 respectively.
When the time is right to play more directly and go for the kill, rather than look to control games through short passes in midfield, then Foden has shown he is ready to play a key role once again.