After recent eye-catching performances against Chelsea and Liverpool in the Premier League, Phil Foden’s 2021/22 season probably won’t be remembered for the man of the match display he produced for England in a routine 5-0 win over international minnows, Andorra.
It could, however, hold a significance in retrospect. While Foden has been used as an attacker at Manchester City this season, deployed as a centre forward for the aforementioned win over Chelsea last month, Gareth Southgate experimented with the 21-year-old in a deeper role and might well have stumbled on something.
Foden played alongside James Ward-Prowse as one half of a double pivot and was highly influential as the Three Lions claimed an emphatic victory. With Tammy Abraham, Jesse Lingard, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho on the pitch from the start, England had plenty of attacking outlets and Foden was the supply line to them.
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Only Sancho (four) played more key passes than Foden (three) while nobody played more through balls than him (three). Foden’s pass completion rate of 94.7% was also the second highest of any player that started the game - an impressive figure given how many risks he took with defence-splitting passes.
This unusual deployment of Foden could present Southgate with a way to evolve his team ahead of the 2022 World Cup. While England enjoyed a good Euro 2020, making a run all the way to the final, they could do with imposing their own game on more opponents. Foden in a deep role could help the Three Lions achieve this.
Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice started all seven of the matches England played at Euro 2020. Southgate valued the structure and protection the two anchors gave his team as England went five games without conceding a single goal. And yet Phillips and Rice did as much to hold England back as they did to support them.
To go all the way in Qatar, England will have to do a better job of stepping up. They need to push their midfield platform 10 yards further forward in order to make better use of their bountiful attacking talent. Foden as a midfield quarterback, as he was against Andorra, alongside one of Phillips or Rice, not both, is certainly an option.
Jack Grealish and Phil Foden playing for England against Andorra.
Image credit: Getty Images
It perhaps shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that Foden thrived in such a role. Not only does the 21-year-old have the technical skill set to dictate matches with the ball at his feet, he has spent the last few years training and playing alongside Kevin de Bruyne, arguably the best deep-lying midfield playmaker in the game right now.
Andorra might not have done much to keep England out, tougher tests will come, but Foden has the potential to be Southgate’s de Bruyne. The 21-year-old can both offer England structure when they need it and attacking verve when they are required to play their own game in the opposition half. This is what de Bruyne does for Belgium and Manchester City.
There’s no doubt England have the individual talent to win the 2022 World Cup. In the international game, only France can claim to have as many top level options in as many positions as the Three Lions. Southgate’s job is to come up with a system and approach that gets the most out of those options.
As one of the most naturally talented players of his generation, Foden could play a number of different roles for the national team - Southgate surely feels the temptation to field the City player in attack as Guardiola has at club level this season. But his most valuable one might just be the one he performed against Andorra.
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