The area outside the Brentford penalty box proved inauspicious surroundings for Erling Haaland to make his first Manchester City start in two months. Tightly enclosed by Brentford’s physical back three and deep-lying midfield, Haaland’s long-awaited return was not marked with a goal – Thomas Frank’s side remain the only Premier League team the Norwegian has not scored against. Pep Guardiola shook his head. “I cannot imagine one striker in the world, surrounded by six players for Brentford, having a comfortable game,” he said. “Even the best won’t survive.”
Yet the narrow confines on the edge of the Brentford area were more favourable for a different profile of forward. The dominance and control that Guardiola’s teams exert on games means the sight of packed and organised opposition defences have often been the scourge of even his finest teams. But in Phil Foden, Guardiola believes City have produced one of the most efficient weapons against the dreaded low block that he has seen in his career.
“How he moves in the small spaces, I have seen many, many really good players in the small spaces but the impact, the feeling you have when he has the ball there, ‘Oh he can score’, that’s difficult to find,” Guardiola said. “This combination, moving between the pockets and then after, being like a knife. I have seen really few [like him].” It was high praise indeed from a manager who, at Barcelona, witnessed the devastating circles Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi would draw around defences, or at City the subtlety and precision of David Silva and Bernardo Silva’s attacking play.
A hat-trick against Brentford on Monday was the latest indicator that Foden can one day reach those heights. In 250 appearances by the age of 23, he can already count five Premier League titles and a Champions League among a haul of 16 senior trophies. But Guardiola now believes he is enjoying the finest spell of his career. “I said weeks ago that Phil is having his most influence on the team,” Guardiola said. “He’s reading the game really well, how he can play simple and be more aggressive. He always has the pleasure to score goals and the threat when he is close to the 18-yard box. How he runs for the team. He is an exceptional player.”
Foden’s impact was pronounced in December and January, when Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne were both absent. It felt more significant that it remained even as the team’s big hitters returned on Monday night, starting together for the first time since the opening day. Foden’s second Premier League hat-trick took his tally for the season to eight, bringing his overall contribution to 15 goals and assists. With it, he is only two short of his best of 17, set last season, already ahead of his totals from the previous two campaigns when he was also part of a title-winning team.
Foden’s sense of timing has become more apparent, too. In the recent past, there have been suggestions that many of Foden’s goals have arrived when City have been comfortably ahead in games. City have fallen behind in each of their last four away games in the Premier League but Foden has now scored the equalising goal twice, a crisp strike to beat Jordan Pickford at Everton and his quick finish past Mark Flekken on Monday night. There has been more value to Foden’s levels of production of late.
His manager reflected that Foden is beginning to take more responsibility. Certainly, without Haaland and De Bruyne, and with City faltering in the Premier League when they departed for the Club World Cup in December, Guardiola needed others to step up. In response, Foden, alongside the excellent Julian Alvarez, has found another level in his game. De Bruyne’s five-month absence has inadvertently shown City a glimpse at a succession plan and the results speak for themselves.
It’s a measure of Foden’s maturity, a sign of what the youngster could be in City’s future. “At the end, we have the space to take over from Kevin and Bernardo [Silva],” Guardiola said. “It’s experience he gets and then he will lead the other ones. Now he’s being led. Since day one he doesn’t care about experience or feeling the pressure. The player from the academy, at this level, with this consistency and all the trophies, if he focuses on that, he will have a successful career but it depends on him.”
Foden is the street footballer who grew up in City’s academy. With the tactical side of his game engineered by the eight years of working under Guardiola and playing alongside the most expensively assembled squad in world football, his natural instincts for flair and invention have remained. “He can achieve whatever he wants,” his manager concluded, and after Foden’s latest statement display it felt like there was no limit on what Guardiola could begin to imagine.