It is two months since Manchester City’s last shot at silverware was aided by the introduction of Phil Foden into a central role and the next nine months could be influenced by the academy graduate’s evolution in that position.
Kevin De Bruyne’s injury in the Champions League final against Internazionale forced Pep Guardiola’s hand in Istanbul but Foden rewarded his manager by being a key influence on City’s eventual victory by the tightest of margins.
Foden has been groomed for a central role and spent pre-season working impressively with Erling Haaland in friendlies. It will be interesting to see where he starts in the Community Shield against Arsenal on Sunday.
It has been a summer of change at City that could affect Foden; Ilkay Gündogan, arguably the key man in City’s surge for the title, has departed for Barcelona and Riyad Mahrez has headed to Saudi Arabia, leaving Guardiola with a few things to ponder. Mateo Kovacic has arrived from Chelsea as a central midfielder but he is a very different player to Gündogan, while Mahrez’s more surprising exit is yet to be addressed in the market.
Foden has played everywhere from false 9 to left wing-back under Guardiola but is eager to call a position his own. If he were to operate as a No 8, he could be the man to bring the ball forward, finding pockets of space to open up teams with a low block. Without Gündogan, City have lost a ball carrier in the centre of the park and Foden has the confidence and arrogance to be his replacement.
Under Guardiola, Foden has spent much of his time on either flank, playing only 110 minutes as a No 10 last season. Arguably his best times at City have been while playing on the right but Foden feels he is best suited to operating behind a central striker. When the person in front of him is Haaland, it is an exciting prospect.
Without Mahrez, the 23-year-old could be forced to reprise his role on the right in the absence of a natural replacement within the ranks, although manager and player would like to avoid this being the norm and it will be an area City target in the market.
Guardiola enjoys testing new ideas to help his team’s style evolve and keep opposing managers guessing about how City will play. Foden is eager to get on the ball more, rather than spending time on the periphery waiting to act – he wants to be the puppet master at No 10. There is a school of thought that if things stay the same at City, complacency could creep in, especially after a momentous treble. It explains why the squad is being refreshed and why Guardiola is keen to keep bringing new tactical ideas to the fore.
It is six years since Foden made his City debut and he craves the influence that would come with a move inside. He has collected five Premier League titles and two young player of the year awards while being earmarked by Guardiola to be the heir to De Bruyne. The Belgium playmaker celebrated his 32nd birthday over the summer and endured some tough final months of the season because of injuries, culminating in his premature departure from the Champions League final. When fit, De Bruyne is still one of the best in the world and fitting him alongside Foden could have devastating consequences for opponents.
One man who will not be part of the City midfield at Wembley is Declan Rice, who is set to line up in the red and white of Arsenal. City were interested in the England international but could not match the terms offered by Arsenal to West Ham. It is likely to be Rice who will be in charge of stopping his international teammate, adding an extra layer of enjoyment to the sometimes tedious Community Shield.
“He can play everywhere,” Guardiola said of Foden. “In the middle, he has to be more careful in many, many aspects and maybe needs a little more time to realise what he has to do defensively especially. But of course he has something special in those positions; the quality in one-against-one, arrive to the box, sense of goal, so it is all there. It is massively important to have a player like him who you can use in five positions. With Gündo leaving, maybe he can play more in that position [No 8]. We will see”
The two men in question – Guardiola and Foden – will relish the opportunity to get the best out of one another. The manager knows he is working with an elite talent and getting him to reach his potential pushes Guardiola on, while Foden feels he has more to prove, despite all his accolades and medals. For Guardiola and Foden, adding to their honours list is important but they will want to show they are masters of their craft along the way.