Of all the questions facing Gareth Southgate as the countdown intensifies towards the World Cup there is one that has not been debated.
So much has been discussed about Harry Maguire, England’s formation, the lack of midfield options and, of course, the perennial Trent Alexander-Arnold question.
But what of Phil Foden? Watching Manchester City’s destruction of Manchester United on Sunday it was obvious that – as yet – England have not unlocked the Foden who plays for his club.
England are not City. But two-thirds of the City forward line against United were English – Foden on the right, Jack Grealish on the left – and just like Erling Haaland, Harry Kane is a world-class centre-forward.
England do not have a Kevin de Bruyne or a Bernardo Silva and Gareth Southgate’s critics will argue that he is no Pep Guardiola when it comes to coaching (in fairness, Southgate’s supporters would accept that as well) but there has to be a way of unleashing Foden that has not yet been found.
There is no doubt he is a generational talent. Guardiola picked up on that soon after arriving at City and his careful nurturing of Foden – in the face of the misguided clamour to send him out on loan – has been an object lesson in how to develop a talent.
England, too, have always promoted Foden. But he has yet to consistently show the exuberance and confidence for the national team, where the over-dependence on Kane and Raheem Sterling going into the World Cup has now become a problem. England lack dimension as a team. Stop Kane and Sterling and you stop them.
Two recent games highlight the difference. Along with Jude Bellingham, Foden – especially in the first-half – was England’s best player in the dismal defeat away to Italy in the Nations League. And yet he only had two touches in Italy’s penalty area and around half of his 59 touches in all came in his own half. It showed his relatively withdrawn role for England. The issue appeared that he was just not used enough of the ball. England could not get him involved – again they have no De Bruyne or Silva – and he was often isolated.
Contrast that with his performance against United when he scored his first hat-trick for City. At 22 years and 127 days Foden also became the youngest ever player to reach 50 goals (he now has 51) under Guardiola. Lionel Messi was 37 days older.
So against United, Foden had far fewer touches than when playing for England – just 37 – but eight of them were in the opposition’s area, scoring three goals, of course. It meant that his ‘action areas’ were far higher up the pitch and therefore also clearly far more decisive.
For England, Foden has still only made 18 appearances, a surprisingly low number although he has been hampered by Covid and injury, and scored just two goals. It is not a good enough return if he is to be one of the three forward players in the line-up. It is not good enough given his ability, either.
Foden himself probably wants to play a little deeper. For City and for England. Guardiola privately talked about him being David Silva’s natural successor and the Spaniard was usually a play-maker from one of the three midfield positions. Foden is quicker, arguably a better dribbler but does not quite possess Silva’s passing range or his ability to dictate tempo. Not yet anyway.
Guardiola is considering using him in midfield. He has always considered it – and has used him in a variety of positions, including as a ‘false nine’ - but it appears he wants him to mature first and develop his game.
Southgate has used him in midfield, also, and has even suggested his best position is as a No. 10 – where he craves to play.
In fact England are crying out for him – or someone else – to emerge in a creative role. As Southgate has admitted, and has been discussed ad nauseum, they have no midfield controller; no Luka Modric. Southgate wants to play a 4-3-3 but does not feel he has the other players to do it.
Either way England need to find a way of getting him on the ball more or, as Guardiola has done, getting him on the ball less but – crucially – in more dangerous positions. We do not see him making the runs across defenders as he did to score his first goal against United or showing the determination to burst through and claim his second. Maybe it is also because England simply do not look for him in the way they seek out Kane or Sterling or that they cannot pick him out.
England’s strength is attack. That attack needs to be serviced in Qatar but also unleashed. With Foden it is all the more important that this happens because he is certainly one of the England’s players who is not struggling for form with his club. And that cannot be said of all of those Southgate is planning to select.
It may well have been different for Foden had Euro 2020 not been such a personal disappointment for him despite England reaching the final. He turned up with dyed bleach blond hair and inevitably drew comparisons to Paul Gascoigne and Euro 96 – which did him no favours – and maybe it would have been lift off had his shot against Croatia after just five minutes of the opening game found the net rather than the post.
Foden then lost his place in the final group tie after being withdrawn – on a yellow card – after Mason Mount’s close contact with Covid-positive Billy Gilmour and after that was largely kept out of the team by Bukayo Saka in the run to the final.
The World Cup offers another chance because, without question, Foden is England’s most skilful player. If they are to succeed or at least play the attacking football they are capable of, Southgate needs to find a way of getting the best out of him.