In the cold, actuarial sense, Manchester City’s season will be deemed a success or a failure depending on how many trophies they win. The team has spent so much money to acquire so many talented players that it more or less deserves its titles-or-bust mandate. But if you allow yourself to look past the raw numbers of wins and losses and pieces of silverware, and look at the things that make following the sport something more than mere stats on a ledger, you’ll see that the greatest prize City could win this year is if it can help hometown kid Phil Foden blossom into a full-blown star.
That Foden has the potential for stardom is unquestionable. In terms of sheer talent, he belongs in the group alongside Kylian Mbappé, Jadon Sancho, Trent Alexander-Arnold, João Félix, Matthijs de Ligt, and Kai Havertz as the next generation’s best bets for superstardom. The kid has everything to become an elite player in the modern game.
Foden is incredibly versatile, but if you had to peg him for a natural position, it would probably be as a No. 10. That’s because his most lethal skills are the ones he uses in the final third, at the peak of the penalty area. It’s in that area of the pitch where Foden can show off his intelligent movement between the lines, demonstrate his technical quality, take advantage of his body’s agility and elasticity to slip past or bend around challenges like a rubber band, combine with teammates either with quick one-twos or sharp runs or accurate through balls, and use the timing of his late runs or the power of his hard and accurate shots to turn good interplays into goals. Whether it’s facilitating and continuing possessions in dangerous areas, creating chances, or finishing them, Foden can do it all.
But it’s not just what the 20-year-old Manc can do in the business end of the pitch that makes him so valuable; it’s also all the ways he helps his team get there in the first place. Foden is always on the hunt for space in which he can receive the ball and help bring it closer to the opponent’s goal. When he gets on it, he’s great at turning and driving forward, using his close control and his aforementioned rubber-bandiness to elude or endure pressure. He can pass it long or short, in any direction (something that can’t be said of many of lefties, who are often so one-footed and one-directional that they don’t even bother to look to their right), accelerate the play or slow it down. Be it from a high central position as a No. 10, lower down as a true center mid, or out on the touchline of either wing, Foden knows where to be and what to do to get the ball into his feet and quickly move it and himself into threatening areas.
If you were designing an attacking midfielder to fit the demands of today’s soccer—resistant to pressing and adept at pressing himself, fast enough to take advantage of open space and technical enough to maintain possession when space is limited, essentially omni-positional and able to contribute in a large number of positions and areas on the pitch, able to assist and score, stamina for days—you’d end up with someone who looked a lot like Foden. The question with Foden isn’t whether he has the skills to become one of the world’s best attackers; instead, the questions are whether Foden will be able to consistently apply those skills when playing every week, and whether City will give him the chance.
That last point is why this season is so crucial. Of all the players listed above as his peers in potential superstardom, Foden has played by far the fewest first-team minutes, according to Transfermarkt stats. His 3,325 minutes are the least among that contingent’s cadre of 20-year-olds, followed by Félix’s 5,349 and his compatriot, and former City youth teamer, Sancho’s 7,069. Despite being just as talented as those other two, Foden has had a harder time breaking into his team’s starting lineup.
This isn’t necessarily a damning thing, and the situation makes total sense. Foden’s Man City is a cut above Félix’s Atlético Madrid and, prior to that, Benfica, and Sancho’s Borussia Dortmund. A club of City’s stature and its titles-or-bust mandate has less room to blood in even the most talented of young players, whose naive mistakes and inconsistency might drop a point or two here or there—points a team like City absolutely cannot afford to lose. To ensure it snatches every single point it can, City has built a super squad full of not only world-class starters, but also elite, veteran rotation players whom the team knows are reliable and proven when called upon.
For all the generational talent Foden possesses, all his skills have been mirrored more or less exactly by the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, and Bernardo Silva during the duration of his time at City so far. So it’s completely understandable how Man City could have a homegrown player as fantastic and promising as Foden, and yet not give him as much time on the pitch as his skills would seem to deserve. In fact, it’s that very dynamic that made Sancho decide to leave City rather than wait around for a spot to open up. Foden has thus far elected to stick around at the club that made him. Only time will tell whether that choice will work out for Foden as well as Sancho’s has, and whether Foden will have to change tack to get the playing time he needs to become his best self.
Thankfully for Foden and City, everything is poised for this season to be different. David Silva has left the club in the offseason, and by the end of the previous season, it appeared that Foden had surpassed Bernardo in manager Pep Guardiola’s heirarchy. That leaves City with a hole in its strongest starting XI, and Foden with a golden opportunity to seize it and make the 2020–21 season his own.
To that end, this season could hardly have gotten off to a better start. Foden started and played all 90 minutes in the Citizens’ Premier League opener against Wolves on Monday. “He played incredibly well,” Guardiola said of his young midfielder, and his assessment is hard to argue. Starting from the right wing, Foden was one of his team’s most dangerous attackers, demonstrated most clearly with his goal in the 32nd minute that gave City a 2–0 lead in a match that ended 3–1.
Manchester City has won and will continue to win a parade of trophies during its recent era of obscene wealth. The trophy celebrations have felt and will continue to feel great, and the decadently assembled pieces bought at no spared expense have and will continue to attain legendary status. But while the silverware is awesome and the love Citizen fans have for Yaya Touré and David Silva and Sergio Agüero and Vincent Kompany and the club’s other big-money imports is deep and real, there’s nothing that binds a club to its fans and its community more than watching a local, homegrown player become a star. Foden has the chance to be that for City. It’s a gift no one but Foden can provide, and no amount of money can buy. If it’s going to happen—and it’s looking like it might—it will need to happen now.