Phil Foden’s future position at Man City depends on one missing ingredient

Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden

After another of Leeds’ many panicked clearances upfield, Phil Foden retrieved possession out by the halfway line. His first touch not only killed the dropping ball dead but sent Daniel James out the ground for an ice cream. Kalvin Phillips was shown even less mercy, as a swift and nimble change of direction left his sliding challenge looking lame and desperate. Foden charged onward, escaping the advances of another two defenders, and was unfortunate to see a penetrative through ball blocked on its way into the penalty area.

It was the extraordinary piece of skill that Foden seems contractually obliged to produce at least once a game nowadays, like the frankly ridiculous first touch that caught Real Madrid and his own team-mates off guard in midweek. In that moment at Elland Road on Saturday, you were left in no doubt that you were watching the most technically gifted English player of his generation. Yet it was also an example of why he is not a central midfielder. Not yet, anyway.

Or at least that is Pep Guardiola’s opinion. The Manchester City manager trusted Foden as one of City’s nominal three midfielders at Elland Road as that allowed Kevin De Bruyne to rest ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final second leg in Madrid. It is not a position that Foden usually plays. This was the third time that he had taken up such a role during City’s league campaign this season but the first time that he has started there.

Guardiola has tended to fancy Foden in other areas of the pitch. Having initially established himself as a starting left-winger, he has often played as the false nine this season. His manager sees plenty of possibilities.“I think he can play in all five positions up front – wingers both sides, striker and attacking midfielder in the pockets. He can play all of them. With time, he will be more capable of playing in the positions in the middle,” Guardiola said.

But why can’t he play them already? “He still does all actions at high speed and sometimes you have to have some pausa,” he explained.

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Pausa is a not-so-secret component in Guardiola’s tactical philosophy and perhaps what makes the whole thing come together. It is a bit like bullet time in The Matrix. In the maelstrom that is modern football, where your opponents are pressing high and your team-mates are exploiting space, it is the ability to stop, put your foot on the ball and find the pass that brings order to the chaos.

Phil Foden was in sparkling form at Elland Road

David Silva had pausa. “Sometimes he slowed the rhythm to increase the rhythm,” Guardiola said of his former player. By taking a moment to find the right pass, Silva brought fluency to disordered attacks in an instant. During his early days in the City squad, Foden was constantly compared to Silva and touted as his eventual heir. He has just about everything you could want in a player but he does not have pausa, according to Guardiola.

“Now he has the energy of youth and maybe winger suits him better a little bit right now. All the actions are so, so quick,” Guardiola said. “Phil’s rhythm is always high. It’s good because it’s aggressive and we need it, but sometimes he needs a little more in that position.” He knows Foden can do it, though. “That is only a question of time. He can do it without a problem,” he added. “I’m pretty sure because when I started to see him in the academy at 15-16 he played the position of Kevin and he played really good.”

Foden was not only playing in De Bruyne’s position at Elland Road but taking up his responsibilities too. City went ahead through two set pieces – the first from a Foden free-kick, the second from a Foden corner. De Bruyne would normally be the leading candidate to take both but his stand-in ensured his absence was not felt. “The secret of set pieces is about the taker. With a good taker, you have a chance,” Guardiola said. “Today Phil, especially in the first goal was fantastic at putting the ball in the right position.”

Foden set up City’s third too, finding Gabriel Jesus on a simple counter-attack, but it was his dead ball delivery that Guardiola picked out for praise. Fittingly, perhaps, that is precisely the type of situation where your pausa counts for nothing. The game has stopped. It is simply a matter of getting the delivery right and putting it on the correct head. Foden executed both exceptionally well, in what was a man-of-the-match display. This is a player who has it all in his manager’s eye, except from one missing ingredient, but that means it may be a while before we see him in the centre of City’s midfield again.

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