Like a modern John Barnes, Foden is at risk of being England’s conundrum

<span>There were times in the first half of Sunday’s win against <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Serbia;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Serbia</a> when <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Phil Foden;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Phil Foden</a> got in <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Harry Kane;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Harry Kane</a>’s way, moving into the striker’s space.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>

History repeats itself. Twenty years since Sven-Göran Eriksson nudged Paul Scholes to the left flank to make space for Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the middle, conditions are ripe for furious arguments about another creative talent being wasted in a team lacking balance, all because narrative has it that England’s coach is shoving square pegs in round holes again.

Phil Foden, then: what’s going on there? Why does he look so Scholesy? Two theories have been posited since his muted display during England’s win against Serbia: one, that he is being constrained by Gareth Southgate’s functionality; the other, that Foden’s struggle to impose himself in an England shirt has nothing to do with the system and is down to a player who needs to be more Jude.

Related: Have England ever really had an all-rounder like the brilliant Bellingham? | Barney Ronay

“A player of this class doesn’t need to be told by the coach what he needs to do,” the former Spain midfielder Cesc Fàbregas said during the post-match coverage on the BBC. “He needs to want it more than the rest.”

Fàbregas went on to say that Jude Bellingham, England’s match‑winner against Serbia, is a little above Foden when it comes to personality and game awareness. But the critics will still come for Southgate. Why stick Foden on the left? Pep Guardiola would never do that – apart from when he started Foden there in 10 Premier League games during the 2023-24 season.

The best players adapt. It isn’t where you start that matters, Southgate says, it’s where you end up with the ball. Contrary to received wisdom, Scholes did not mind his wide role. Although he eventually became a deep-lying orchestrator, he was often playing on the left for Manchester United in the period before Euro 2004.

If the Scholes comparison does not quite fit, however, perhaps attention should shift to Bobby Robson’s experience with John Barnes, who was never able to reproduce his outstanding Liverpool form for England. It was the greatest enigma of Robson’s coaching career and, in Southgate’s case, the concern has to be that Foden will be remembered like Barnes: incredible for his club, a conundrum for his country.

There is time to find the fix. Foden was the best attacking player in England this past season, scoring 27 goals in all competitions, and his talent is outrageous. Not for nothing is he nicknamed the Stockport Iniesta, with his low centre of gravity, close control and sudden bursts of pace.

But it is yet to happen with England. Foden has four goals in 35 caps and few standout performances. Given licence to roam inside against Serbia, he started well and got on the ball, but conviction was lacking. Afterwards Southgate, perhaps aware of the potential talking points, praised Foden for using his technical ability to keep the ball during a difficult second half for England.

It seemed like slim pickings. From a creative perspective, there were times in the first half when Foden got in Harry Kane’s way, moving into the striker’s space, crowding him out, negating him on Serbia’s behalf. Passes were misplaced. Over on the right, Bukayo Saka produced the incision for Bellingham’s goal. Foden did not make any chances. Kane likes to drop deep, turn and play those beautiful through balls. Foden is not going to be running beyond the striker, though. He’ll be scheming in the pockets.

Part of it may be systemic. England were lopsided, everything slanted towards the right. It was not easy for Foden to play in front of the right-footed Kieran Trippier. The angles were limited. When Foden cut inside, taking defenders with him, it needed Luke Shaw to overlap from left-back.

Shaw’s impending return will hopefully make a difference. Yet in the current setup, there is an argument that England would be better served by having a more conventional presence on the left wing. They have still not fully replaced the goals and directness of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling.

Foden is a more intricate, more layered talent. He is a product of City’s academy and has spent his club career under Guardiola. With City, the moves are synchronised and specific. England are inevitably more improvisational. Saka can just be a winger and play as he does for Arsenal.

Foden is different. He likes quick combinations and interchanges. There is an idea of him as the new Gazza, a free spirit, but is it really true? City are the ultimate structure team. Does Foden boss games from the middle? Or would he flit in and out? He played as a No 10 against Iceland and disappointed on and off the ball. He has not done enough to make Southgate push Bellingham deeper.

Saka, meanwhile, is more decisive for England than Foden, who is said to have a yearning to play on the right. It is an understandable wish given that Foden is drawn to his left foot. Think of his best goals for City – the strikes against Real Madrid, Manchester United and West Ham. Each time, he makes use of an overlapping run from a teammate, cuts in from the right and wallops a left-footed shot into the top-right corner.

Southgate’s England, though, are not Guardiola’s City. Foden can seem out of place. Whether that is Southgate’s fault is questionable. At some point Foden is going to have to find a way to fit in.