How Phil Foden has developed into Manchester City’s outstanding player

<span><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> celebrates his spectacular goal at <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Real Madrid;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Real Madrid</a> where he underlined his centrality to his team.</span><span>Photograph: Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images</span>

If you weren’t an experienced Pep Guardiola watcher, you might have assumed there was something seriously wrong with Phil Foden’s spectacular goal at the Bernabéu on Tuesday night. Finger jabbing, face creased with aggression, Guardiola strode on to the pitch to clutch Foden’s face with such vigour that he not only squished Foden’s cheeks but made his ears flap. But that’s just Guardiola showing affection.

Perhaps it is because he sees something of himself in Foden. Johan Cruyff would tell the story of looking for a technically skilful holding midfielder in the Barcelona reserves in 1990. “They told me this boy Pep was the best, so I looked for him in the B team but he didn’t play. I looked for him in the youth team but he didn’t play. Eventually I found him in the third team. I said to the coaches: ‘You said he was the best?!’ And they said: ‘Yeah, but physically …’ And I said: ‘He will grow.’” Citing the mantra that if you’re good enough, you’re big enough, Cruyff took Guardiola into the first team and made him the pivotal player of the team that won four successive La Liga titles and the 1992 European Cup.

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Foden can relate, according to Mark Allen, who was Manchester City’s academy director during the player’s formative years. “Phil wasn’t the biggest,” said Allen. “Physically there was no way he could compete. But he was smart enough to work around that. His frustration came when he saw players in his group being promoted into older groups. While he had the ability to do that, it wasn’t wise or prudent to push him into overage groups where it was significantly more physical. I had several conversations with him about that.”

Never the ugly duckling – he was always a protege and won the Golden Ball in England’s Under-17 World Cup-winning team – Foden has nonetheless evolved rather than bursting on to the scene fully formed, like Wayne Rooney. He has been slower to come to this point than his opponent on Tuesday night, Jude Bellingham, whom he overshadowed.

Foden at 23 is the outstanding player in what may well be the best team in the world. Player of the match against Real Madrid, he received 7/10 from L’Équipe, a rare honour where marks in the famously stingy French newspaper rarely get above six.

Aside from being held back when peers were promoted to older age groups, there was the whole issue of whether Guardiola would ever trust him in a midfield that contained David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva. Game time was initially limited and it seemed he might be the homegrown academy player swamped by expensive imports but, when David Silva left in 2020, his moment had come.

A giant leap forward came during lockdown when Foden, guided by his adviser Owen Brown, started working with the Liverpool Harriers athletics coach Tony Clarke, first on the track and then, as restrictions tightened, in Foden’s back garden. “We were working on his running gait and getting him to understand acceleration,” said Clarke. “Usain Bolt doesn’t hit top speed until 40m into the race. But a footballer doesn’t often run 40m. Sprinting has three phases: acceleration, transition and flight but footballers should be mostly in the acceleration phase. Phil was going straight into flight mode and overstriding. He skipped the acceleration and transition. So we were working on the first six to eight steps: head down, knee up, driving the hip down, which is where all the power comes from.”

Sprint training for footballers though is very different from what it would be for Bolt, accounting for rapid changes of direction and the fact that no 6ft 2in, 13-stone defender is trying to take you out in the Olympic 100m final. By focusing on his initial foot plant and directional change, his times significantly improved over five metres, as did his range of movement. At the World Cup in Qatar, he was England’s third fastest player, behind only Kyle Walker and Marcus Rashford.

As lockdown restrictions eased, Foden and Clarke moved to Macclesfield’s municipal athletics track, an unprepossessing place on the edge of town, in terms of glamour far from the Bernabéu. Here he was introduced to Clarke’s fartlek sessions, the word meaning speed- play in Swedish, a form of running developed in 1930s Scandinavia that evolved into modern interval training. Two x 90sec, four x 60sec, four x 30sec and four x 15sec was a typical session.

Foden told friends he felt “like a rocket” and was as fit as he had ever been. “Word was coming back from training that he was in unbelievable shape,” said Clarke.

A 4-1 win against Liverpool in February 2021, in which Foden starred as player of the match and scored a spectacular goal, made outsiders sit and take note. Barney Ronay wrote in these pages: “Stop looking at Foden’s exhilarating, high-craft goal for a moment and focus instead on his surging run to make the goal that broke this game open.” Jamie Carragher, who moves in the same scouse circles as Clarke, mentioned on Sky that Foden had been working with an athletics coach. Since then Clarke has been inundated with footballers and is working with Grace Clinton of Tottenham and the Lionesses and Liverpool’s Missy Bo Kearns.

Foden was still very much the wide attacking player rather than trusted, as he was at the Bernabéu, to be centre stage. In May 2022 Guardiola said: “With time he can play centrally but right now, he’s best suited on the wings. [In the central positions] there has to be the pausa.” Guardiola’s Spanish word invokes the image of David Silva hovering over the ball before sliding in a perfect assist for Sergio Agüero. Lionel Messi was always quick but was even better at decelerating so fast that a defender would be left running off aimlessly into the distance. Foden is dubbed the Stockport Iniesta by City fans but the Barça midfielder who inspired that moniker also had the ability to slow the game; Foden has always been more full throttle.

“It’s because he’s from Edgeley,” says a friend, speaking of the Stockport suburb in which Foden grew up. “Although he’s a product of the academy, he’s also the last of the street footballers.” Foden will show you the concrete playground next to the bookies where he played his childhood games, vying with older cousins and teenagers as an underdeveloped eight-year-old. It was bollards rather than jumpers for goalposts, but nevertheless an old-school development plan more akin to the 1950s than the 2020s, instilling the aggression required to play with older boys and the 100mph style of a box-to-box player. Until recently he still enjoyed kickabouts there.

It is hard to refine an English footballer built this way but Guardiola seems to have succeeded, the executive functions of Foden’s football brain increasingly sparking into life. You can also see how much he now relishes shouldering goalscoring responsibilities: the strike with which he equalised on Tuesday was the fourth time he had attempted that long-range shot in a 15-minute spell.

For now Foden may well be rested against Luton on Saturday so that he is ready to resume the battle of the English No 10s against Bellingham and Real Madrid on Wednesday, though De Bruyne will also be in contention for the role. Not long ago England would bemoan the lack of creative, technical players. Now somehow they have too many, all of whom have to be squeezed into the starting XI at Euro 2024 this summer. And both Bellingham and Foden have legitimate claims to be the best players in their respective leagues at present.