28th January 2022

Making a Maestro

This issue explores the playing style of Phil Foden, otherwise known as the Stockport Iniesta. This is a kid that Pep Guardiola described as “the most, most, most talented player I have ever seen in my career as a manager” back in 2019. He’s been with Manchester City since he was six years old and if he retired tomorrow, his trophy collection would already be quite impressive. He’s chasing his 4th Premier League medal this season, which would sit alongside 4 Carabao cup medals, an FA Cup medal, and an U-17 World Cup medal. As I am sure will frustrate a serial winner like Foden, he also has two runners up medals, having lost the 2020/21 Champions League final and the rescheduled 2020 European Championships in the space of a few months.

Phil Foden’s breakout moment was the U-17 World Cup, which England won. Foden was chosen as the recipient of the tournament’s Golden Ball, awarded to the best player. He also received the BBC Young Sports Personality award for 2017.

Comparing Foden to a cohort of peers is particularly complicated as there is much debate over which position suits him most. Is he a left winger? An attacking mid? A false nine? To acquire a sense of how Foden compares to some of the top Premier League attackers in recent years, Foden’s metrics last season will be compared to some standout seasons of a few Premier League stars. The following have been chosen as appropriate comparisons:

  • Mohamed Salah 17/18: Salah is, in my humble opinion, the best winger in the league since he arrived at Liverpool. As one of Foden’s preferred positions is on the wing, comparing him to Salah will indicate the gold standard of that position. The 17/18 season has been chosen as this is Salah’s most impressive.
  • Raheem Sterling 20/21: Sterling is a more established City starter at the peak of his career. He plays at left wing, one of Foden’s preferred positions. This makes him direct competition for a regular starting place for both club and country.
  • Kevin de Bruyne 19/20 season: if Salah is the best winger in the league in recent years, de Bruyne is undoubtedly the best attacking midfielder.
  • David Silva 17/18 season: David Silva is the master to Foden’s apprentice.
  • The data for these comparisons was sourced from FBref and from Squawka’s comparison matrix.

    Watch Foden out of possession and you’ll see a player constantly observing, adjusting his position, looking for space to run into, asking for the ball. His decision making is exemplary. Foden is great in tight spaces, but also great at finding space. He has the ability to make an ambitious shot, but is sensible enough to look for a teammate in a better position.

    Foden offers something a little bit different in attack. The below quote from Pep came after Foden scored his first Premier League goal, the winner against Tottenham in April 2019, Foden would have been 18 years of age at the time.

    "He's so dynamic and adds extra intensity into our game. I wanted more attack and aggression in the box and he brings that to us with his work and ability. He did well today against top players." - Pep Guardiola

    Let’s have a look at some examples of his flair in attack.

    City run riot after Alisson errors! | Liverpool 1-4 Manchester City | Premier League Highlights

    Foden assists Gundogan at 01:59. He gets possession of the ball from an Alisson Becker error. He then runs forward and, despite being surrounded by 4 Liverpool players, picks out Gundogan and slots it across for a tap-in. At 02:45, Foden finds himself in a very similar position. First, he finds himself space on the right wing and controls the ball from Gabriel Jesus deftly, then runs into a more central location, shrugging off Andy Robertson before applying just the right amount of power to fire it into the back of the net. In shrugging off Robertson he cuts in, giving himself a more generous angle from which to shoot.

    The circumstances for these two chances were slightly different. For the second chance, where Foden opted to shoot, he found himself in a less tight angle, making his chance of scoring higher, and he also had no obvious pass. This sums up Foden’s decision making. He almost always chooses the best option: the choice most likely to lead to a goal, whether scored by him or a teammate.

    The below graph shows Foden’s expected goals and assists per 90 across all the seasons he has been a Premier League player. 18/19 sticks out like an anomaly. The unusually high rates might be the result of not having much game time in that season. Over the past three seasons, his expected metrics have improved. In particular, his xA generated per 90 is higher, indicating improved chance creation for others.

    When compared to the comparison group for expected goal contributions per 90, Foden’s output is similar to Sterling’s, but consists of more xA and less xG. His goal contribution rate is similar to David Silva’s, but Foden has a long way to go before reaching an xG rate like Salah’s or an xA rate close to de Bruyne’s.

    It’s a big jump to reach that level, but Foden is still young and is continually improving. Despite some injury problems this season, early signs indicate that Foden’s contribution in attack has continued to improve. He is now contributing expected goals and assists at a faster rate, placing him further up the rankings for these two metrics.

    xA per 90 npxG per 90
    2020/21 0.23 (ranked 12th) 0.31 (ranked 35th)
    2021/22 (as of January 25th) 0.34 (ranked 3rd) 0.44 (ranked 6th)

    Foden’s involvement in attack is not limited to assisting and scoring goals. He is vital in the build up of attacking sequences. Let’s look at Foden’s involvement in sequences which ended in a goal. All of his little flicks, passes, and touches add the element of surprise and innovation that earns his team goals. (Goal Involvement data from The Analyst)

    Foden’s already impressive number becomes even more impressive when adjusted for minutes played, where he tops the list. I believe this to be an indicator of how integral Foden will be to City for the next decade.

    Part of Foden’s usefulness in attack comes from his ability to keep hold of the ball. Foden has sticky feet. He excels at keeping the ball away from the opposition. Scrappy and determined, retaining possession and coping with pressure sets Foden apart from his peers. Indeed, when we compare Foden to our comparison group, he sticks out as being particularly strong for metrics pertaining to contests with opposition players.

    Foden’s reading of the game makes him a valuable asset in attack and it also positions him well to provide defensive cover when necessary.

    Both of the midfielders we are comparing Foden to have a higher rate of defensive actions, but Foden’s defensive contribution is notably higher than the two wingers in the comparison group. This paints a picture of an attacking player that always keeps himself busy, even out of possession. His particularly high rate of interceptions reflects his ability to read the game and predict the next move before it happens.

    Despite his excellent form for City, Southgate did not utilise Foden much at the Euros. Foden played 22.9% of the time for England over the course of the summer tournament. The next challenge for Foden is to fight for regular minutes both in the national team and at club level. This won’t be easy. Foden is part of the most competitive squad in the league and is fighting a brilliant cohort of attacking players for a spot in England’s starting 11.

    Over the years, Foden’s game time for City has increased exponentially. Despite this, he is still not played as often as some of the most established City players. Unfortunately, this season, his play time has been affected by injury. Remaining fit and playing the majority of minutes are key challenges for Foden going forward.

    Although it might seem that Foden has struggled for minutes at City, Guardiola has put a lot of trust in him. Foden is the youngest player to get 50 goal contributions under Pep Guardiola. From what we’ve seen above, it’s clear why Guardiola saw something special in him. With Foden, you get the best of both worlds: creator and a finisher, nerve and elegance, flair and pragmatism. This is what makes him a particularly special player and an exciting prospect for club and country.

    Copyright stuckintherondo. All Rights Reserved