Football Features

Foden For England: Why Southgate might follow Guardiola in replacing Sterling at Euro 2020

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:40, 15 April 2021

Phil Foden is the (young) man of the moment. Two goals in two legs in a Champions League quarter-final will do that.

Foden bagged a 90th-minute winner in the first leg at the Etihad and a 75th-minute winner at Signal Iduna Park. From a 2-2 aggregate scoreline to a comfortable 4-2 win, all thanks to the mighty left foot of Foden.

The forward (and he surely is a forward, no matter his ability to play midfield) even stole the post-match headlines with a tweet that appeared to call out Kylian Mbappé, ahead the semi-final showdown between Man City and Paris Saint-Germain.

On reflection it was obvious Foden himself didn’t make the tweet, instead a social media agency did it for him (mostly because the harmless tweet has now been deleted) and also that it didn’t really call out Mbappé, rather build hype for the upcoming clashes.

The furore about his tweet will recall Foden’s struggles earlier this season when he and Mason Greenwood were sent home early from England duty after a breach of Covid-19 safety protocols. The bumps on the road to becoming a superstar in these strange times.

And make no mistake, Foden is becoming a superstar.

After years of biding his time, of being patient when others clamoured for him to leave Man City and get game time, Foden is reaping the rewards of keeping himself close to Pep Guardiola’s genius. Foden has exploded this season, and not just in terms of cameo displays either.

Man City’s impressive squad means a degree of rotation is inevitable, and so Foden’s 24 appearances (14 starts) in the Premier League is impressive. But illustrating just how important he is to this Man City side is his ever-presence in the cups.

Foden has played every single game so far in the FA Cup, starting three of the four ties. He’s played 90 minutes in three of Man City’s four League Cup games too. And in Europe the 20-year-old has started all but one of Man City’s Champions League matches, coming on in the one he didn’t start. Foden’s completed 90 minutes on seven occasions. He’s become a mainstay.

And he’s responded to that with delivery. The Englishman scored the only goal in a 1-0 win away to Olympiakos in the group stage, ensuring Man City’s presence in the knockout rounds. He played well in both legs against Borussia Monchengladbach, and then he was the decisive figure against Dortmund.

In fact, Foden is just the fourth Englishman to score in both legs of a Champions League quarter-final, joining Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch. An impressive feat considering that, again, he is just 20 years old.

Speaking of England, a mark of how impressive Foden’s form has been this season is that the vast majority of predicted Euro 2020 XIs for England have him starting in them. Not just in the squad, in the starting XI.

What’s interesting, however, is that he’s usually in those hypothetical XIs alongside Raheem Sterling when, for Man City at least, Foden appears to have supplanted his compatriot at least in terms of the European side.

You can see why, too. Too often, what Man City have lacked most in Europe has been a directness of action. Sterling may have made a living tapping in Man City cut-backs but by nature he is a player who prefers to be on the ball, which makes him exactly the same as all of Guardiola’s other forwards.

Foden is different; yes, he can dribble and be on the ball but he is equally comfortable moving off it out of possession, and those kind of runs are essential to providing Man City the depth they lack.

Combine this with Foden’s dribbling style being sharp and direct (while Sterling is more about slowing down to jink around someone) as well as his readiness to shoot (where, again, Sterling likes to take touches unless it’s a tap-in) and you can see why he is a better choice to compliment the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.

And also… Harry Kane.

As we’ve seen this season, Kane is at his absolute best when he has players ready to run alongside him. Quick players whose style of play, even on the ball, is direct and driving. Gareth Bale, Lucas Moura and especially Son Heung-min. These players get the best out of Kane and he gets the best out of them. Foden is one of those players, Marcus Rashford is one of those players, Sterling… kind of isn’t.

Rashford is lightning fast, with dribbling that’s quick and direct, and he is always ready to let fly with a shot. His profile matches Foden’s, in particular when it comes to his capacity to score big goals (and he’s consistent with it, notching his second straight 20-goal season). With Foden and Rashford on the pitch, England would always carry a devastating counter-attacking goal threat, with Kane able to drop deep and play as the side’s No. 10.

This isn’t to say Sterling doesn’t belong in the squad. He an exceptional talent and obviously should go, but in terms of getting the most out the talent available to England, Foden absolutely must supplant him in the starting XI.

And if he does, it will be the final stage in Foden’s evolution from promising young man to top-tier superstar. It will be the moment when the football world stood up and in one voice acknowledged Foden’s genius. The young lad from Stockport who bided his time is now absolutely ready for the big time and Gareth Southgate must give him the stage and let him shine.