He’s been in and around the football scene for 3 years now; we all remember that skinny 17-year old boy winning the player of the tournament at the U-17 World Cup, but it’s only now that Phil Foden has started shining at Manchester City. At the time of writing this, Foden netted twice and recorded an assist in a 5-0 thrashing of Premier League side Burnley, where he deservedly won man of the match for his performance. It goes without a shadow of a doubt that Foden is one of the best U-21 players in the world currently and with club legend David Silva’s departure at the end of the season, he would slot in beautifully as the left-sided central midfielder at Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

Phil Foden is City’s stand-out homegrown player, from the same academy that Jadon Sancho trained at. Having been at the club since the age of nine, he has been a blue through and through. He screams versatility; Guardiola has previously deployed him at LW, RW, CM, as an advanced midfielder and a false 9 as well. At club level, Foden has 4 goals and 2 assists, 3 of those goals coming this past week against Arsenal and Burnley after the premier league restart.

“I don’t have words. It’s a long time since I saw something like that. His performance was on another level. He’s special” exclaimed former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola about Phil back in July 2017 after a pre-season friendly against Manchester United.

The purpose of this tactical analysis is to explore how he would fill the void left by David Silva’s departure at the end of the 19/20 Premier League campaign.

Player Overview

The 20-year old Foden has a rather skinny profile, about 5′ 5” height and traditionally operates as a central midfielder. Like mentioned above, he has demonstrated his flair as an advanced midfielder, right-winger and as a false 9. His low centre of gravity is one of his strengths and is often seen gliding across the field and cutting in from the right hand-side of the field dictating play. He possesses excellent close-control, balance, coordination and often displays his dynamism in midfield and dribbling style, much like David Silva. With a better eye-for goal. He can be seen dropping in deep where he judges pass channels and ultimately either plays it to the wing or advances forward himself, his dribbling ability helping him open up his body to receive and pick out a pass well. His mastery in taking progressive first touches set him up brilliantly for the pass or the dribble.

He has played most of his games on the left hand side of the traditional 4-3-3 for Guardiola’s City. City usually deploy a narrow 4-3-3 which morphs into a 4-3-1-2 depending particularly on the positioning of Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne. Here, Foden is given almost a free role in the middle to conduct play. Guardiola’s system is conducive for any attack-minded player to thrive; it allows De Bruyne to play higher up than most Central midfielders in the Premier League. Having one midfielder behind the ball when possession is lost means the CM (here, Foden) can press to win the ball while not being totally susceptible to the counter. Sometimes, the team manages this with 3 attacking midfielders on the field, which is quite a spectacle.

Foden has featured in 16 appearances this season in the league with 3 goals and an assist to his name. These numbers definitely do not do justice to the player Phil Foden really is and the player he is destined to become.

Positioning 

Let’s take a quick look at Foden’s 19/20 season heatmap in the Premier League.

Phil Foden 2019/20 season Heatmap

The image clearly shows Foden’s positioning. The darker red regions on the left depict where he prefers to operate from; the left-Central midfield. From here, he has a few options, namely linking up with the left-back (Benjamin Mendy or Zinchenko) or left-winger (Raheem Sterling) in the form of short and quick one-two passes. He provides excellent weighted balls into the box as well as deliver a threaded through ball to Aguero or Jesus in the final third. Passing channels provided by him (on his few starts and other appearances) along with hybrid-AM Kevin De Bruyne allow him to break the lines with ease and often provide the deadly ball.

What we can also see is that Phil, just like any left-footed player, likes cutting in from the right to have a shot on goal or spraying the penalty area with crosses. Hence, it is apparent that he enjoys functioning on the two half-spaces of the pitch.

Foden also assumes control of the play even from the centre of the pitch, shown by the orange regions, where he is given the freedom to roam and dictate the tempo of the game.

His role as an advanced midfielder is perhaps the most stand-out attribute of his from the image. Just like any attack-minded midfielder, Foden enjoys marauding into the box with his pace and acceleration while his technical ability help in beating the wingbacks and centre-halves with ease.

Phil Foden, hence, assumes numerous positions on the pitch and is a very versatile midfielder.

Movement

Phil Foden is young, but his reading of the game and positioning has been applauded by his manager and teammates. We now take a glimpse of some moments from matches where Foden has excelled and demonstrated his skill.

Foden successfully dribbling past opponent players under pressure

With pressure from four other players and passing channels blocked, Foden assesses the situation well and weighs his three options. He could have played a lobbed through ball to David Silva in the centre. Passing back (indicated by the red arrow) would result in dispossession as there are three opposition players converging for a tackle. Notice his stature as he opens up his body, facing the goal to ultimately play the ball to Sterling (indicated by a green arrow). This could well have resulted in a pre-assist.

Foden cutting in from the right hand-side

Foden has a few passing options here. There are three players marking Aguero, on the edge of the box. He, however, is free to have a shot on goal, very reminiscent of Arjen Robben. Foden ultimately decides to play in a crossed ball to his teammate (indicated by a green arrow) at the left end of the penalty area, resulting in a very concrete goal-scoring chance.

Foden dictating play at the base of a counter attack

Foden loves dictating play from the middle. Here we see him advancing forward with the ball with two teammates making a run in front and two behind him for a counter attack. He breaks the lines with ease; as he notices a lot of free space in front of Mahrez and sets him up with a targeted lobbed ball.

A brilliant dribbler

Dribbling is one of the strongest attributes of Foden’s game. He averages around 4 dribble attempts per 90 with a completion rate of 73.7%. He is incredibly balanced and a natural at 1-v-1 attacking having the pace and acceleration to glide past his opponents with ease. Often, Foden doesn’t even need to rely on his trickery with his feet to beat his man. His quick burst of pace does the job for him ever so well.

Foden dribbling in the half-space under pressure from 3 Arsenal players

Foden possesses impeccable technical ability and close control, which allow him to dribble better and retain possession in tight spaces, evading the press with ease. He can often be seen collecting the ball very deep in the pitch and then running forward. He specializes in side-ways dribbles across the width of the pitch to create space for himself which help manoeuvring the ball into open areas for a teammate making a run. He is brilliant at take-ons as well; owing to his intricate footwork and acceleration to beat his opponent. What perhaps makes him even deadlier is the combination of raw pace and dribbling, which at times is so effective on transitions and the counter. Foden is equally competent on the wings as well as central zones, and since he has been given a lot of freedom in his role, he provides an even greater challenge for his opponent

Foden advancing forward; he is an efficient ball-carrier

Foden’s repertoire also includes an impressive ball-carrying ability both under pressure and in a free-role. He is extremely composed on the ball while facing both his own goal and the opponent’s and his efficient shielding allows him to retain possession for longer. With around 47 total ball-carries per 90, Foden also averages close to 32 touches in the middle third and around 30 in the final-third of the pitch which shows he is comfortable in both zones. It is usual to see Foden finding pockets of space in the penalty area to run into as well, and has around 5.19 touches in the Penalty area. His short stature and height provide for a low centre of gravity which allows him to quickly change direction while in possession thus deceiving the opponent and create space for him to run into. Besides, opponents also find it difficult to dispossess Foden, clearly shown by the 0.5 times per 90 dispossessed stat.

Passing

Passing is one of the biggest strengths an attacking midfielder can boast of. Foden is an exceptional passer; he has an 89.5% passing accuracy and even with the 0.58 through balls per 90 he completes, it is a great stat. He is commonly seen advancing forward with the ball in the two half spaces of the field, on the left side of the 4-3-3 and even likes linking play with the full back and winger, depending on which side of the field he is.

Foden dictating the nature of play from deep in the midfield

He utilises an array of short, quick passes, long passes, crosses and through balls which he performs exceedingly well both in attacking and defensive roles. His dribbling ability allows him to attack forward spaces and provide passes at which time the opponent is left on the ground trying to decipher if he would pick either the pass or the dribble.

Foden linking-up in the middle with a teammate and advancing the play forward

He shows mastery at passing all over the pitch, but his ability is best demonstrated on the right half-space, where he can open up his body facing the pitch and the goal, making use of his stellar first touch and drive either horizontally or forward. At this point, he usually provides a cross cutting in from the right, a through ball or a reverse ball inside the penalty area or even link-up in the flanks with the winger or the right back. Exploiting open spaces with a lobbed pass is one of Foden’s stand-out traits, and he is often seen playing the long ball upfront from the middle of the pitch. His reading of the game allows him to quickly judge potential passing channels and play a nicely weighted ball creating space for a teammate making a run either next to him in the middle or wide.

Foden collecting the ball from the wingback and linking up with the teammate in front

Strengths 

Foden is mercurial in a number of aspects of the game; his stellar playmaking and link-up ability, his attacking prowess, an eye for goal all of which combined with a defensive instinct provide for a very solid base for a midfielder still only 20 years old. It is clear that he will be learning much more under one of the best coaches in Guardiola for years to come, having already achieved a great deal early in his career.

The following is an expanded radar graph of Phil Foden’s stats from the 2019/20 season of the Premier League.

Radar showing Foden’s strong and weak areas (Image from StatsBomb)

At first glance there are number of stand-out traits where he excels at. Remember, this is based of only a mere 16 appearances this season, including 3 starts.

Foden is a brilliant passer of the ball, which is possibly something an ideal midfielder should be best at. His pass%, through balls, and key passes are top notch; ideal for a Central midfielder. His quick feet, balance and coordination coupled with pace make him a brilliant dribbler of the ball as well as supremely gifted close control, which proves deadly on the counter. These attributes indicate his flair and creativity on the pitch as well as his vision to pick out a pass.

According to the radar, it is clear that he can handle pressure very well- rarely dispossessed, working well with tight spaces whilst also being a successful shielder of the ball while making runs. Occasional long shots on goal cutting in from the right are a regular for Foden, as is for any right-winger. He relies on short, quick passes and rarely picks out a long ball. Furthermore, he is more or less press resistant, with great pass receiving skills. His off the ball movement provides for dynamism between the defensive and attacking lines and his stellar 1-v-1 ability is one of the best in the City squad. He is an aggressive ball winner and tackler, with eagerness to regain lost possession with his incessant runs and pressing.

Although unexplored largely with the Man City first team, he is also a unique set-piece taker.

This not only qualifies Foden as a long-term David Silva replacement, but is also exactly the sort of player Pep Guardiola loves coaching; a technically astute midfielder. He will learn much more from Pep’s tactics in the future.

Foden decided to commit his long term future to the club by signing a contract, though having few starts and appearances for the club. It is clear he loves the club he plays for and has great mentality. His strengths provide for a solid scout report.

Weakness

Foden is young and skilled, and even with the amount of trophies to his name, there is a long way to go for the youngster still only 20 years of age.

For starters, he has a very frail frame- skinny build and rather short. His physique is far from convincing and needs a lot of work. Often Foden has been criticised for the wrong runs and decisions he makes on the pitch, and while that totally alright for someone still so young, there is scope of improvement. His aerial ability is not up to the mark and that will need work as he progresses. These will, over time grow in number as the player matures and gets integrated as a starter.

Conclusion

Phil Foden already has 2 Premier League medals to his name by the age 20, with several other accolades such as the Player of the tournament in the U-17 World Cup in 2017. This analysis has outlined that there is absolutely no doubt that he one of the best young players in the world currently and has a very high ceiling.

“He is skinny but he is a fighter” was used by Pep Guardiola to describe his young midfielder. In my personal opinion, he would be a brilliant fit to City’s first team as a long-term player, and undoubtedly a worthy heir to David Silva. Only time will tell how far the “Stockport Iniesta” really goes.

Anukarsh Mukherjee
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