There was a moment, shortly after the half-hour mark, where Fred came at Phil Foden and enveloped Manchester City’s false nine in a web of limbs. There seemed no graceful way out of the ungainly challenge and most players might have found themselves in a heap on the ground, happy to take the free-kick. But Foden delicately unpicked his legs from this temporary entrapment before floating away, almost as if the Manchester United midfielder had done little more than blow down the back of his collar.
It was pretty much the way of things all afternoon, United thinking they had Foden marshalled only to find, in the next breath, that they had nothing of the sort as the game’s best player teased and tormented those in red shirts.
But for the goal he richly deserved, this was a performance that had a bit of everything and, if you did not know better, you would think Foden, an attacking midfielder by trade, had been playing as a centre-forward all his life. On the opposite side, United had two midfielders deployed as makeshift strikers but combined Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba (name me another supposed top player who delivers so many substandard performances) could not get close to offering an iota of what the chameleon Foden gave City in attack.
“We’ve got … Guardiola” sang City’s jubilant, gloating fans when Riyad Mahrez arrowed home goal No3 in the 68th minute. But they also have Foden and, if anything is going to persuade the Catalan to hang around at the Premier League champions for a good while yet, it is surely the prospect of helping England’s best footballer to realise his full, frightening potential. It is, after all, doubtful Guardiola has had a more thrilling pet project than those days at Barcelona when he and Lionel Messi formed an unstoppable alliance.
There were all manner of little nuggets and insights from Foden here to feast and marvel over. Certainly, at times, you had to remind yourself this kid is 5ft 7in and barely 70kg wet through. For all the vision and deft touches and clever movements and explosive turns of pace, it was his aggression and hard running that resonated as much as anything.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka was sent flying off the ball in one instance after Foden careered after the hapless United right-back and shoulder-barged him out of the way. Rodri felt sufficiently confident in another instance to ping the ball into Foden’s feet as three United players descended on him. Foden held off the attentions of Victor Lindelof and laid off the ball to Joao Cancelo before being fouled. Time and again, Foden - utterly relentless - sprinted from one side to the next to press United’s defenders, the contrast with the ambling Pogba as defined as the chasm between the two teams.
Roberto Firmino, in a false nine role, and Mohamed Salah had made fools of Lindelof and Harry Maguire in Liverpool’s 5-0 rout of United at Old Trafford last October and Foden did something similar here. Lindelof must have felt like he was chasing a shadow all match, the Swede pulled in all sorts of directions and places he did not want to go by Foden.
The tone was set in the 28th minute when Foden nonchalantly scooped the ball over the head of Lindelof before chesting the ball down and cracking a shot at David De Gea. He saved and Bernardo was thwarted on the rebound before Kevin De Bruyne tucked home the rebound. In the 40th minute, Foden raced in behind Lindelof to receive De Bruyne’s through ball, with the United centre-half grateful his tormentor dragged his shot wide.
It was like a recurring nightmare. Even from deep, Foden wreaked havoc, at one stage dropping short, sucking in Lindelof and receiving Cancelo’s headed pass on his chest before scooping a perfectly weighted angled pass over the top to release Bernardo for yet another attack as his marker wore a look of complete dishevelment.
It did not feel like there was anything Foden could not do. He held up the ball with the strength of a strapping No9 and drifted into the half spaces that left Lindelof and Maguire unsure whether to come out and, when they did, Foden was always a split second ahead of them, his next move already framed in that devilish mind of his.
He craved a goal and, if we are being critical - and no one is more critical of Foden than the player himself - there were one or two moments in front of the net where he might have done better. But we are really splitting hairs there.
This was a majestic performance from a majestic player.