What do we expect from Phil Foden?
And is he doing it?
“A football team is like a piano. You need eight men to carry it and three who can play the damn thing.”
— Bill Shankly (attributed)
Data is from FBRef unless stated otherwise.
When was the first time you watched Phil Foden play football?
For me, it was at the Under-17 World Cup in 2017. England came into that tournament among the favourites after losing the Under-17 European Championship final on penalties to Spain earlier that year. The most high-profile name in that team, Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, had only been made available by his club for the group stage matches. After that, he was flown back to Germany, and the rest of England’s core had to show their quality. Manager Steve Cooper played Foden on the right, but he was very much the creative hub in England’s 4-2-3-1 shape. With Foden on the right, Morgan Gibbs-White as the number ten, Callum Hudson-Odoi on the left and Rhian Brewster upfront, England had the attacking talent to blow everyone away. This time, they tore Spain apart 5-2 in the final to lift the trophy, with Foden named player of the tournament.
Under-17 achievements are notoriously poor predictors of senior success. Of that England squad, the only players currently integrated into Gareth Southgate’s plans are Foden, Marc Guéhi and Conor Gallagher. Elsewhere, Jadon Sancho looked like he was going to be a superstar before things went very wrong at Old Trafford. Callum Hudson-Odoi, the youngest player in the squad playing a year up because he was just that exciting, is currently struggling for minutes under Cooper at Nottingham Forest. Emile Smith Rowe is on the fringes of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal and doesn’t look like adding to his three senior caps. When was the last time you thought about Golden Boot winner Rhian Brewster?
But England’s group have undeniably fared better than the other three semi-finalists. The only Spaniard from the tournament currently playing for a “top” club is Ferran Torres, and he’s in and out of Xavi’s Barcelona side. Brazil’s only man from their squad currently in one of Europe’s top five leagues is Brenner, who hasn’t kicked a ball yet for Udinese thanks to injury. Of the Malian contingent, Cheick Doucouré has impressed for Crystal Palace, while Mohamed Camara has been reasonable enough for Monaco. But that’s it. There’s no doubt about it: Foden is the only legitimate top-end star to emerge from the 2017 Under-17 World Cup.
And yet, when people talk about him these days, they seem to have a tone of disappointment.