Phil Foden's balletic dribbles are the closest thing English football has to Lionel Messi

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·6 min read
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Phil Foden's balletic dribbles are the closest thing English football has to Lionel Messi
Phil Foden's balletic dribbles are the closest thing English football has to Lionel Messi

He is the once in a generation talent, the wonderkid, the Harry Potter of football, who casts a spell with magic in his feet. He is the chosen one, destined for greatness.

It is time to believe the hype. Phil Foden is the player we hoped he would be, a superstar in the making.

Not since Paul Gascoigne has England had a player who can do things others cannot and make it look so beautiful, so graceful and effortless.

Foden can do for England this summer what Gascoigne did at the World Cup in Italy 31 years ago and must start under Gareth Southgate at the Euros.

But it is not just Gascoigne who Foden can be compared. His gift is far greater than that. When you see him glide over the grass, sending defenders one way while he goes the other, the ball attached to feet so quick they are a blur to anyone trying to dispossess him, it is Lionel Messi that comes to mind.

The natural instinct is to resist that. Messi is arguably the greatest player of all time, an indisputable master of his craft.

Foden has done nothing compared to the Barcelona legend, and in terms of output, no one would argue he is anywhere near the Argentine (although his tally of 51 goals and assists in 120 club games is not dissimilar to Messi's tally of 60 in 110 at the same age).

But when it comes to that one single facet of his game — dribbling — the technique and style are similar.

Aside from being very left-footed, Messi and Foden share a low centre of gravity and a surprising capacity to accelerate over short distances considering their slight frames. Like Messi, Foden is extremely hard to unbalance and has the agility to slip and sway away from defenders, like a boxer escaping the ropes.

Recalling facing Messi in the 2009 Champions League final, Rio Ferdinand said: "Normally you get to hit someone in the chest and he was just going underneath it." They use their diminutive stature to their advantage with quick changes of direction.

The most striking technical similarity though, and the thing that separates Foden from most English players, is the ability to receive the ball on the back foot. Also referred to as taking the ball on the half-turn, Foden loves to let the ball run across his body to his left foot while side on to the opposition's goal. This allows him to turn the attack forward with an economy of effort. Other players, perhaps anxious to control the ball and protect it from the defender, will take a touch with their 'front foot' (the one nearest the passer), forcing them backwards or sideways. It is a small detail, but it leaps off the screen when a young English player masters this skill.

Once the ball is under their spell, it is the sheer number of touches Messi and Foden take — and the speed of them — that makes life so difficult for defenders. It can be several touches within a few seconds, the ball under their complete control.

Defenders get drawn into tackles, mesmerised and then tricked. They can sometimes look favourites to win the ball, before a lightning quick touch lays the ball off or beats them. It is a classic show and take it away technique, but few do it so well. It is a skill based on intuition and pinpoint timing — and is almost impossible to coach into players.

And whether it is close-range passing and moving or long-range spreading of the play, Foden brings others into the game. He is a scorer (14 goals this season) and creator (10 assists). Against PSG, Foden played a key role in both City’s goals. He scored the one that clinched the win over Borussia Dortmund in the quarter-final too.

They can kick him. They can bump and bruise, but they cannot keep him quiet. Foden, like Messi, keeps coming and is in a perpetual state of motion with and without the ball.

But perhaps the thing that allows us to be even more excited about Foden in terms of England is that he has Gascogine’s gifts, but seemingly without the flaws.

He has been moulded and shaped at Manchester City — and the FA to an extent — into a player who can adapt his game to the role he is asked to fill.

He has been impeccably handled by Pep Guardiola and whatever debt English football already owes to the Catalan for the enjoyment we have watching City play, his greatest gift to us could well be Foden.

Guardiola had seen the way Barcelona nurtured Messi and brought that expertise in his approach to City.

Phil Foden's balletic dribbles are the closest thing English football has to Lionel Messi
Phil Foden's balletic dribbles are the closest thing English football has to Lionel Messi

Foden was brought into the side and taken out. He was criticised in a paternal way. He has not been overexposed. He has been given the time and space to learn how to perform as part of a team.

We were all guilty at some stage during Foden’s late teens of asking whether he should be sent out on loan to play more.

Foden himself was reported to have grown a little frustrated, but Guardiola knew exactly what he had and what he could be. Now we no longer have to talk about potential or question whether he is ready.

Wayne Rooney was even younger than Foden when he got us excited, making his full England debut when he was just 17, three years younger than Foden is now. Rooney was special in his own right, but he was not the same player at 28 as he was at 18. There are a myriad of reasons for that, but perhaps the main one was Rooney had played four full seasons by the time he was 20.

Foden has been protected from that and now his understanding of the game and life goes hand in hand with his talent. His challenge now is to turn what he has into a long and successful career, for club and country.

That is what the greats do. It is what Gascoigne and Rooney, as brilliant as they were, could not maintain. That is what separates Messi from the rest, he remains as focused and as dedicated to football now as he was when he burst into the Barcelona team all those years ago.

We are told by those around him that Foden is the same. He is motivated by one thing only, the love of football, of playing and winning. He has mastered Messi's dribbling ability, and if he can take a leaf from his book in other areas it could be very exciting indeed.