Jude Bellingham is the Real Madrid star but it is Phil Foden who reminds me of Zinedine Zidane

Jude Bellingham (left) and Phil Foden celebrate - Jude Bellingham is the Real Madrid star but it is Phil Foden who reminds me of Zinedine Zidane

He was Manchester City’s star of the season, a deserved winner of player of the year, and there is every chance he will run the show at Wembley on Saturday. Now another challenge awaits Phil Foden this summer.

It is time to win the full acclaim and appreciation of his country.

Foden remains in that category of top-class English footballers more synonymous with brilliant performances for his club. In his case, that’s because the standards he has set in a Manchester City shirt are so outrageously good, England performances have been underwhelming in comparison.

Foden has not consistently produced for Gareth Southgate yet, to the point where at the last World Cup it never felt he was fully trusted. There were moments when I can remember screaming at the television for the manager to get Foden on the pitch.

Part of the problem is England do not play like City – they’re obviously not as good – and Foden is yet to find a position where he is comfortable showcasing his abilities.

There is a comparison to be made with Jude Bellingham, who heads to this year’s European Championship regarded as one of the best players in the world, a possible Ballon d’Or winner if Real Madrid win the Champions League, and the man who most England fans believe Southgate should build his team around.

Jude Bellingham celebrates winning La Liga with Real Madrid - Jude Bellingham is the Real Madrid star but it is Phil Foden who reminds me of Zinedine Zidane
Jude Bellingham is a winner of La Liga with Real Madrid in his first season - Getty Images/Alberto Gardin

Bellingham is a phenomenon, yet for me Foden is England’s most naturally-gifted footballer. I know how that will be taken by those cherry-picking parts of this column. To suggest Foden is a ‘better player’ will be made to sound like a criticism of Bellingham. It is far from it. You can prefer John Lennon’s songs to Paul McCartney’s and still admire the genius of both.

Foden and Bellingham are different profiles of footballer, but there are aspects of the City player’s game which set him apart from anything England has ever had.

Bellingham follows the tradition of complete, multi-dimensional midfielders. Tactically, he is a dream player for Southgate going into this summer’s tournament. He has excelled as a No 10 for Real, looked sensational when playing as a No 8 for Borussia Dortmund and you could see him playing as a No 6 later in his career.

There is a swagger and self-confidence about Bellingham which has stood out since his England debut. Bellingham does not just walk on to a stage. He owns it. Wherever he has been – whether Wembley or the Bernabéu – his demeanour has been, ‘Look at me. I’m here, and I’m going to dominate’.

With regards to Foden, I am not sure England have ever had a similar style of player of such a level. Foden has more in common with the typical Spanish or Portuguese players, his technique setting him apart.

The highest praise I can offer is whenever I watch Foden and see that first touch, control and balletic movement in tight spaces, the first players who spring to mind are Zinedine Zidane and Andrés Iniesta.

Foden has that same talent to run in possession as if he is slaloming, his boots with a magnetic attraction to the ball.

We do not see Foden in the same way as Bellingham because we have seen him grow within the City set-up, making his debut as a slightly shy 17-year-old alongside the huge personalities in a side packed with world-class talent. His role has evolved year upon year to the point where he is now on the threshold of taking over from Kevin De Bruyne as City’s creative hub and most exciting player.

As is often the case with local-born players emerging through the ranks, the scale of that achievement can be taken for granted. It can be a lot tougher for academy graduates to hit the heights Foden has reached at their boyhood club. First, there is the obvious hurdle of getting into the starting line-up of an expensively-assembled squad, where a manager can always buy a ready-made player rather than patiently wait for a youth product. Once in the team, the locally-produced talent will never get the fanfare of being a big-money summer signing, unveiled amid a blaze of publicity.

When established, it’s not better to be one thing more than the other – fans love to see ‘one of their own’ excel – it’s just that perceptions can shift when players move clubs and produce the goods. Cole Palmer’s brilliant impact at Chelsea is a good example. There were many who felt Palmer, not Foden, should have been PFA and FWA Player of the year. Look how tough it was for someone as good as Palmer to get into City’s side. The move was right for him, and he has deserved all the praise coming his way, but in many ways it makes Foden’s success even more impressive.

Cole Palmer with the Premier League's Young Player of the Season award - Jude Bellingham is the Real Madrid star but it is Phil Foden who reminds me of Zinedine Zidane
Cole Palmer had to move to Chelsea to play regular first-team football - Getty Images)/Darren Walsh

Foden will probably spend all of his peak years at City where – like the rest of us – they will always remember the young boy who became a superstar, rather than see him as the incoming hero who proved himself worthy of the hype of a massive fee.

There is so much to like about Foden’s personality, too. When watching a rival team, there is a tendency to dislike the biggest personalities. Foden, a bit like Bukayo Saka at Arsenal, is impossible to dislike. He is a low-maintenance footballer who loves the game and never gets involved in any nonsense on or off the pitch. You never notice any entourage or PR team around him feeling the need to raise his profile when things are going well, or hear him complaining about any criticism on those rare occasions he has a bad game for his club, or is not a guaranteed pick for his country. Foden was not selected for the Champions League final this time last year. That is a massive blow for any player. Look at his response this season and you have the character reference you need.

It’s a bit of a cliche in football about ‘doing your talking on the pitch’. There is so much chatter around certain players you need headphones to drown out the noise. Foden’s career so far is pure football joy.

Pep Guardiola hugs Phil Foden - Jude Bellingham is the Real Madrid star but it is Phil Foden who reminds me of Zinedine Zidane
Pep Guardiola's faith in Foden has been rewarded - Getty Images/Robbie Jay Barratt

The dilemma for Southgate is how to get the best from him and Bellingham at the same time, so we can avoid a rerun of the Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard debate.

A midfield trio of Foden, Bellingham and Declan Rice sounds ultra-ambitious, but it can work, especially if Southgate uses a hybrid full-back moving into the centre as most top sides now do. You’re not telling me that England’s group opponents demand two holding, defensive midfielders. Bellingham has the physicality to help Rice when needed, so as to facilitate Foden playing inside. Alternatively, Foden playing on the left and drifting inwards is no different to his role at City when De Bruyne plays. The issue then is England’s lack of a natural left-back to get up and down the pitch, should Luke Shaw be unavailable.

Whatever the set-up, picking Foden and Bellingham should never have been seen as a ‘problem’. With two of the best players of this – and any – England generation, the focus must be on how exciting it will be finding a solution.

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