Has Phil Foden’s stunning form handed Man City a Kevin De Bruyne problem?

It may not prove the most helpful of tips to beleaguered defenders but Pep Guardiola has thought of a way to stop Phil Foden from finding the net. “If we play s**t, he is not going to score goals,” he rationalised. And if the flaw in that theory, as many an opponent can testify, is that Manchester City rarely play badly, perhaps it reflected the sense that Foden can look unstoppable.

There are games when he seems so. Aston Villa arrived at the Etihad Stadium fourth in the table, albeit with a depleted team, and conceded three times to Foden: twice from outside the box, once from around 14 yards, to three shots with a combined xG of 0.41. The free kick, the steered first-time finish, the thunderbolt that Jack Grealish compared to Wayne Rooney: all struck with his left foot, but very different types of goals. Little wonder, then, that Guardiola said: “He can do whatever he wants.”

And if he couldn’t three days earlier, when the City manager removed him early against Arsenal after what he felt was one of his worst performances of the season, it has nevertheless been a campaign to show that Foden has taken his game to another level. The facts suggest so: Foden’s treble against Villa took him to 21 goals: 25 could be in his sights, maybe even 30. “He has goals in his veins,” added Guardiola.

Foden shone with Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne rested (Getty Images)
Foden shone with Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne rested (Getty Images)

The billing has proved deceptive. The Stockport Iniesta? Even before the most prolific season of his career, Foden had scored more times for City than Iniesta did in 674 games and 16 seasons for Barcelona. The new David Silva? The Spaniard left City after a decade of unobtrusive artistry that brought him 77 goals. He seemed to prefer to set them up. Foden, with 82 in some 165 fewer games, is already above him in City’s all-time scoring charts.

And he is a goalscorer. “He has a natural talent, a gift,” said Guardiola. “He is special for the pace and work ethic. He has an incredible sense of goal. You have the feeling when he is attacking the last line that he is going to score. When he arrives there, he doesn’t need a lot of touches. Today in football, the most difficult thing is to score goals and when you have that, it is a gift for the team, absolutely.”

Part of the difference with Silva and Iniesta is that Foden is faster, more direct, more predatory. They would caress the ball towards teammates while Foden is happier to hammer into the top corner. Another lies in that willingness to attack the penalty area. Foden sounded more like Frank Lampard when he gave an insight into his mentality. “I’m always trying to arrive in the box; that’s where the goals are at,” he said. “You get at least five a season by arriving into the box late.”

Arguably Foden’s scoring statistics are still more impressive than they initially appear. None of his 82 are penalties. Any set-piece is a rarity. Foden sounded self-deprecating when he said: “I don’t actually take free-kicks, I don’t know why I took that one.” Were Kevin De Bruyne on the pitch, he presumably wouldn’t have had the opportunity.

Pep Guardiola insisted City need Foden and De Bruyne together in midfield (Getty Images)
Pep Guardiola insisted City need Foden and De Bruyne together in midfield (Getty Images)

And if there has been a De Bruyne-shaped obstacle to his ambitions to play in the middle, maybe the player Foden will end up replacing, albeit not as a duplicate, is the Belgian. Some 14 of his 21 goals this season have come when the vice-captain was not on the pitch. With De Bruyne rested, Foden took centre stage against Villa.

It was a night to support his own theory that he is at his best as a No 10, with a licence to roam wherever, though when he plays on either flank, he is never pinned to the touchline. “I seem to have some really technical play in the pockets and out wide, I can do that job but I prefer it in the middle,” he said.

He is most likely to be rampant when he can rampage anywhere. The dynamics of the team dictate that he often plays wide. Guardiola is willing to use him and De Bruyne as twin No 8s. “We need both, and both in this position. He can play in the middle with Kevin,” he said. But against better opponents, Rodri tends to have company in the deeper role, Foden a remit on the flanks.

But he has played a game of patience over the six-and-a-half years since his City debut. His apprenticeship has brought him five Premier League titles and a Champions League, but it is almost complete. The question of the succession may be resolved this summer, maybe next. Over an injury-hit year, a sense has suddenly developed that the end to De Bruyne’s magnificent City career is nearing. And it has been defined more by assists than goals, like Foden he has lent an extraordinary productivity in the final third. And when he does eventually make way, perhaps Foden’s calling will be clear: not as the new Iniesta or Silva, but as City’s successor to De Bruyne.