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Phil Foden thrives using trusty old Pep Guardiola skill-gnome template | Manchester City

Phil Foden thrives using trusty old Pep Guardiola skill-gnome template | Manchester City
Phil Foden thrives using trusty old Pep Guardiola skill-gnome template | Manchester City

At times during the opening hour of this game it might have seemed to a casual observer that Phil Foden had walked on to the pitch with a handler in tow; perhaps some tolerant elderly relative, there to stand close but not really that close, to chase dutifully, prepared to let him show off his twinkly footwork, like some weary Sunday morning dad scrolling his phone in the park.

In the event this turned out to be Victor Lindelöf, Manchester United’s stand-in left-back, who did his best to track and chase and non-specifically hinder Manchester City’s outstanding attacker in what was, ultimately, a neck-crickingly one-sided 3-1 victory. This was a thankless security detail. Even with United’s deep-set midfield filling the spaces, Lindelöf simply didn’t have the physical capacity to stop this full-bore, mid-season version of Foden, who is just a different style of human, his feet moving too quickly, the tendons set to a different level of twang.

Perhaps Erik ten Hag might have acted earlier, done more to cover an outmatched duel. But Lindelöf was still out there on his own on 56 minutes, present but not exactly involved, as Foden took the ball from Rodri, a little further inside, the space starting to yawn and become simply too much, leaving Foden time to produce, out of the most tightly pressed moments, the perfect, curving, dipping shot into the top corner, hit with a beautiful ping straight out of the sweet spot. It was an act of extreme hard honed craft and skill, executed in the tightest of spaces, 1-0 down, and with City, at that stage, struggling a little with the deep swamp-defence of United’s back nine.

Marcus Rashford had given United the lead in the eighth minute with his only real contribution to the game; a single, beautifully pure, beautifully angry strike of the ball into the same top corner. After which United defended for 50 minutes like a group of trench foot‑and‑whisky infantrymen in the last days of the Western Front.

United give up shots like no other team. The plan, it seemed, was to stop that happening, to hurl bodies into the breach, to wall up the red line with willing flesh as Ten Hag set United up with seven defensive players in the starting outfield 10.

Phil Foden gave Victor Lindelöf a chastening afternoon in the Manchester derby. Photograph: Dave Thompson/AP

Scott McTominay was the top scorer in this United XI. It’s March. And for a long time it seemed to be working, kind of. Shots were punted in, bounced back, hit thighs and shoulders and backsides. Foden, however, would go on to win the game from another angle.

Ten Hag switched Diogo Dalot to the left after the equaliser to try to smother Foden’s influence. Pep Guardiola responded instantly, on the touchline in skinny grey slacks and priestly black rollneck, revolving his arms like a man operating an invisible clothes mangle at furious speed.

Foden went to the left and it was from there the second goal came, made by some lovely angles from Kevin De Bruyne and Julián Álvarez, and by Foden’s diagonal run.

He just had so much time, even surrounded by all those bodies, able to take two more steps and ease the ball past André Onana into the far corner.

Erling Haaland added a third at the death as the game fell apart a little. But this was Foden’s day. By the end he had nine shots, two goals, 116 touches, a 95% pass accuracy. It was his directness that stood out, his ability to play the razor edge in this team. Foden led City on Sunday. He has 11 goals and five assists in his past 14 games.

He is a genuinely interesting figure around here these days, almost a throwback to something. This is a powerful City team. Even De Bruyne has unit-status, a thickness, a way of running past but also through you, like a twinkle-toed rugby union centre.

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At the Etihad Stadium only Foden and Bernardo Silva in the City starting XI spoke to the longer‑term Guardiola heritage of small, skilful hyper‑technical midfielders, the skill-gnome template.

Guardiola hails ‘world-class player’ Foden while Ten Hag praises United – video

Thirteen years ago Guardiola won the Champions League at Wembley with a Barcelona team that seemed to be the template of what football would become under his hand, the skinny little hyper‑technicians, the dogs of pressing, football as a game of endlessly recycling Xavis.

Last season’s treble winners had an edge of power and physicality. Although at times on Sunday it was tempting to wonder if City were perhaps light on their usual craft, if John Stones taking the ball in midfield on a day like this really is always the best use of resources. Foden is born to play in those constricted spaces and he made the difference. He is still only 23, glides so sweetly, has begun to dribble more, to reach into the outer limits of his own capacities.

Gareth Southgate was watching at the Etihad Stadium. There is a feeling a first-choice England front four may feature the mouthwatering prospect of Foden on the left, Bukayo Saka on the right and Jude Bellingham behind Harry Kane.

Which is, after the hype years of quite-good and almost-there, actually, genuinely tournament-level good.

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