Sunday 18 August 2019

Jonathan Liew: 'Pep feels he's hit the jackpot after going all in on Foden'

 

Manchester City's Phil Foden celebrates scoring their first goal on Saturday. Photo: Reuters
Manchester City's Phil Foden celebrates scoring their first goal on Saturday. Photo: Reuters

Jonathan Liew

The Etihad Campus, Friday. Pep Guardiola is in his office, preparing for Manchester City's third game in quick succession against Tottenham Hotspur - plotting strategies, pondering combinations - when he suddenly gets a flash of inspiration. Something his opposite number Mauricio Pochettino won't be prepared for. All of a sudden, with perfect clarity, an insight: Phil Foden must start tomorrow.

"Managing is not a book, like you follow the rules," Guardiola will later say. "Sometimes it's something I feel. This guy has to play today. And you do it."

*****

Houston, July 2017. Guardiola strides into the press room at the NRG Stadium unable to shift the grin from his face. He's just seen the future.

"I don't have words," he says. "I would like to have the right words to describe what I saw today."

Guardiola is a man often prone to extreme hyperbole. Often he even looks like he believes the words coming out of his mouth. But after watching Foden's first-team debut against Manchester United in a pre-season friendly, he doesn't need to confect admiration.

"I've not seen something like this for a long time," he says. "His performance was another level."

What Guardiola has just seen is a 17-year-old running the midfield against Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard. He tackles and he shoots and he spirits the ball away from defenders and he runs himself into the ground. He seems to take particular pleasure in toying with Herrera, at one point sending him out for breakfast with a sneaky heel turn.

Speaking to the assembled press afterwards, Guardiola promises them: "You are lucky guys, believe me. You are the guys who saw his first game in the first team for Manchester City."

*****

On Saturday morning, Guardiola informs Foden he will start. The 18-year-old admits to being "a bit surprised, but always ready". He scores the winning goal as City maintain their title challenge with a 1-0 victory.

That's not all Foden does. He's instrumental both in attack and defence: taking more shots and making more dribbles than any other City player, making more tackles than anybody other than Bernardo Silva, playing an instrumental part in the aggressive high press that time and again forces Tottenham to give away possession in their own half.

When Foden hands Bernardo his man-of-the-match award live on Sky Sports after the game, Bernardo hands it back to him.

"This one's for you," he says.

Even Mauricio Pochettino is moved to praise.

"A fantastic player," Pochettino says. "You can feel the quality that he has. He's similar to David Silva. He can play like a No8, an interior, with a lot of quality in between the lines. He can score, arrive to the box, shoot from outside the box. He has the capacity to read games, to find space, to try to create problems for the opponent."

With Kevin De Bruyne limping off injured during the first-half, and City facing Manchester United on Wednesday night, an unlikely prospect has presented itself. Could City's central midfielder for their biggest derby since the de facto title decider at the Etihad Stadium in 2012 be a player who was at that game as an 11-year-old ball boy?

*****

April 2012. Manchester City 1-0 Manchester United. Vincent Kompany heads in the goal that sets City on the path to their first league title in 44 years.

Foden was at the opposite end of the pitch, behind Joe Hart's goal, when Kompany's winner went in. He remembers it like it was yesterday.

He remembers the noise, the way the Etihad sizzled and surged and eventually sucked the ball into David de Gea's net. He remembers occasionally tumbling over the advertising hoardings trying to retrieve the ball.

"Great memories," he smiles now as he is reminded of that game.

He knows City will have to put in a similarly monumental performance on Wednesday night.

"It's very difficult to go to United and play well," he says. "But I know we're capable of doing it. If we win this one, we're a step closer."

Foden was eight when City's recruitment coordinator Joe Makin first spotted his potential at primary school in Stockport. Eventually City didn't just take him into their academy but paid for his schooling, sending him to St Bede's, a private school in Whalley Range.

And so while Foden's first-team debut in Houston may have felt like a new beginning, it was also a culmination of the long and tortuous process by which any talented child footballer eventually makes it to the biggest stage. The opportunities and minuscule and the hazards are numerous. Rival clubs. Unscrupulous agents. A lack of desired physical or emotional development. Injuries and illnesses.

Often, as the likes of Jadon Sancho and Brahim Diaz have shown, the final step is the hardest of all.

Try and total up everything that City have invested in Foden's development - wages, bonuses, training, education, accommodation, food, facilities, staff hours - over 10 years. It wouldn't be outlandish to posit a figure in the millions.

The point is this: even for a club of City's resources, when you've thrown this sort of time and care and money and expertise at a young footballer there's a fair amount of pressure to make a success of it.

When the ethos of your club is about harvesting local talent and providing it with a path to the first team, then at some stage you need to back up your words with deeds. City are all in on Phil Foden.

*****

Saturday afternoon, the Etihad Stadium. At Pep Guardiola's press conference, Foden is the name on everyone's lips.

"I am a genius," Guardiola jokes, and like all the best Guardiola jokes it comes barbed. The City coach has rarely hid his disdain for results-based judgements - especially if the result is close - but he's prepared to wear this one.

Eight years ago, when he was Barcelona manager, Guardiola once disdained the merits of Arsenal's Jack Wilshere, saying he had "many players like him" in the reserves. Now, one reporter cheekily turned the question back on him. Does he have plenty of Phil Fodens in the junior ranks?

"No," he says.

Asked to elaborate, he expands. "This guy is special. When I just landed here, Txiki (Begiristain) told me I had to meet one player, 15, 16 years old: 'You have to know him.'

"And my first season, we did. One or two days a week, he would come to training sessions. Then last season, he started to train with Brahim and Jadon Sancho a little bit. Then after, he is part of our team.

"With young players, you have to be careful. As quickly as you can go up, you can go down. But we don't have any doubts. Any. Every time he played, he was a star. And he's 18 years old. That's why I'm so satisfied. This guy has something difficult to find."

For all the hoopla over Foden's performance on Saturday, he remains a work in progress. He'll need to continue developing physically.

The knowledge of when to commit to a run and when to stand off: that will come with experience. Occasionally against Tottenham he looked a touch over-zealous in the challenge. Most of all, he needs to get a run of games in the side.

That could be easier said than done.

"Next season he has to fight with Fernandinho, with Riyad, with Kevin, with Gundogan," Guardiola pointed out. "But I trust him a lot."

On Wednesday, at Old Trafford, around an hour before kick-off, we'll find out just how much. (© Independent News Service)

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