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Pep Guardiola’s next Man City project? Why Phil Foden should move into midfield to lock down starting berth



It was only the first half of the Champions League final, but Manchester City fans had a sense of dread as they saw Kevin De Bruyne struggling. The Belgian needed treatment on the floor, and though he continued to play, it was clear he was in agony and couldn’t continue against Inter. There was a sense of deja-vu, as De Bruyne had been forced off in City’s previous Champions League final, which they had lost to Chelsea in 2021.

Luckily for the Premier League champions, they had a top-class replacement ready to come on in Phil Foden. The born-and-bred Blue, who has spent his life with the club and is perhaps their best ever homegrown player, was raring to go, and he more than made up for De Bruyne’s loss in his 65 minutes on the pitch.

Foden gave City urgency and energy as well as his usual grace, and played a key role in City’s eventual winning goal. He made a diagonal run back across goal to draw two Inter defenders away before switching the play to Manuel Akanji, who found Bernardo Silva, leading to Rodri to smash home the loose ball.

Foden also produced one of City’s best moments in the game and came closest to getting a second goal. Receiving the ball from Rodri, he spun past Federico Dimarco and tore his way through Inter’s defence and into the box to bear down on Andre Onana, but couldn’t get enough power on his shot.

Even if he should have done better with the shot, it was both a reminder of Foden’s ability to produce a moment of magic out of nothing and that he is too good a footballer to be a substitute. With Ilkay Gundogan gone, there is now a hole in City’s midfield, and Foden should be the man to fill it.

It is hard to make sense of Foden’s 2022-23 season. He couldn’t have begun it any better, starting all of City’s nine opening league games, predominantly on the right and left wing, and scoring six goals while adding three assists. He was at his best in the 6-3 thumping of Manchester United, grabbing a hat-trick while dovetailing to devastating effect with Erling Haaland, who also got a treble.

But a poor performance in the 1-0 defeat at Liverpool led to Pep Guardiola benching him for City’s next three games, with Riyad Mahrez and then Julian Alvarez taking his place. He returned to the line-up for the final game before the World Cup against Brentford and scored in the 2-1 defeat, the only home match City lost all season.

Foden had a strong World Cup, starring in England’s wins over Wales and Senegal plus starting the quarter-final defeat to France. But when he returned, he was back on the bench for the games against Leeds and Everton.

He forced his way back into the starting line-up against Chelsea and Manchester United, but a foot injury in the derby defeat at Old Trafford sidelined Foden for a month.

When he returned to fitness, he came back with a vengeance, scoring four goals in three games against Bristol City, Bournemouth and Newcastle. His resurgence, however, was interrupted by a recurrence of the foot injury, and he then had to undergo surgery to treat appendicitis, putting him out of action for another month.

By the time Foden had recovered, City were in ruthless form and Guardiola had struck upon a winning formula which he did not want to stray from. The man known for ‘Pep Roulette’ suddenly had a very consistent starting line-up, and for most matches, unless he wanted to rest players, the team almost picked itself.

Foden started against Leeds and Everton late in the campaign, but only because Guardiola had one eye on City’s Champions League semi-final tie against Real Madrid. He played no part in the first leg at Santiago Bernabeu, and just six minutes of the second leg.

The forward did start City’s final three league games of the season after the title had been secured, and scored against Brighton. He was looking back to his best and seemed to be staking his claim for a starting berth in both the FA Cup and Champions League finals.

But he only got on for 13 minutes against Manchester United at Wembley, and if it hadn’t been for De Bruyne’s injury, he might not have got on in Istanbul at all.