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Why Phil Foden Won't Be Constrained by Usual Shackles on England Players

Why Phil Foden Won't Be Constrained by Usual Shackles on England Players

Saturday, 11 July, 2020 - 07:30
Phil Foden during the win over Liverpool; he has six goals and eight assists in 17 games. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images
London- Barney Ronay

There’s a game you can play that involves listing the most random internet voice to have brought you a disproportionately grave piece of world news. This is something that happens more and more at a time when just having internet access means everyone, everywhere is suddenly a source of breaking news.

And so we get to hear about the abdication of the Queen via a retweet from the bass player in Shed Seven, or discover Europe is about to be consumed by a tsunami through a trending online spat between Fiona Bruce and Darren Bent. This is the way now. The apocalypse won’t announce itself with a flash of light or an asteroid on the horizon, but via a sad-faced emoji from a recently retired New Zealand fast bowler.

It is a process that has loomed large through the current wall-to-wall football broadcasts. It seems fairly obvious that when the end of the world comes, as it should presumably within the next two weeks, the news will be broadcast to the nation by Jamie Redknapp, who is on TV pretty much all the time now offering constant heartfelt opinions. “Jamie, we’re hearing Russia has launched a pre-emptive nuclear warhead strike at key UK targets across the length of the nation.” “To be honest Kelly, I’m disappointed.”

Given a choice I’d probably want Graeme Souness to tell me the world is ending, if only because he could do it with the right level of sneering disdain, as though the world ending is some kind of vanity project for people with hairstyles.

Mainly, though, I want it to be Roy Keane. Firstly because Keane clearly wants this to happen, and would hugely enjoy it. But also because, for all his oddities, the way he appears on your TV screen like some moss-encrusted figure from a pre-modern tribal netherworld, Keane is also fiercely honest, and fiercely constant in his judgments.

This is a roundabout way of getting on to Phil Foden, who played well for Manchester City against Liverpool on Thursday in a game where Keane was a TV pundit. In outline Foden is perfect for Keane, whose key interest in life is bluffers and/or frauds, who is also very interested in English football hype. Here is a player who would seem to fall perfectly into this Venn diagram of obsessions.

As Keane prepared to speak during the Foden segment you could feel the crosshairs narrow, the corn start to stir. But the moment passed. There was neutral praise and murmured approval, a sense of some vital test having been passed; and in the process confirmation of what already seems obvious.

Aged 20, Foden is ready to go. Not only is he a very good football player, but he’s good in a way that seems very likely to stick. This wasn’t a given. Elite football is a thrillingly brutal business, and talent does not always translate into tangible impact.

True, there is a temptation to conclude you could pick a cured serrano ham to play alongside Kevin De Bruyne and you’d end up thinking, hmm, that desiccated pork shank mounted on a wooden board is actually quite decent and could, if pressed, do a job ahead of Eric Dier in the holding role.

But the other side of this is the reality of life at City. Perform or you’re out. And Foden has been performing. He has six goals and eight assists in 17 games, 10 of those starts. At the Etihad he looked a high-level player against a team that habitually squeezes the life out of opposition midfields.

True, it was an essentially meaningless game. But the evidence suggests the big occasion is unlikely to be an issue for Foden. See also the Carabao Cup final, or the key game against Tottenham last season.

Which brings us on to a wider note of interest. Foden will do well for City, where he looks like just another highly skilled young tyro. But with England he represents a genuine point of difference: not only an excellent midfielder, but one whose excellence is historically unusual in its tone and texture, notably free from the familiar tropes of the promising Englishman.

Foden doesn’t rely on speed or moments of explosive physicality. He doesn’t hare around “imposing” himself. His real super-strength is the ability to take the ball at speed with a range of high-speed gliding swivels, rotating his body into unusual shapes. He can dribble and pass and carry possession in areas where often, when England play in some unforgiving tournament field, the ball has appeared to be square, or coated in radioactive toxins.

And yes, Foden looks a bit like that guy. You know, the one we asked to do so many other things rather than just looking after the ball; and who still looks like a low-level missing element in the current England team.

This is no secret. For all the progress made there is a feeling England have spent much of the past two years rehearsing exactly how they’re going to lose their next semi-final. This is still an England team good enough to cuff aside mediocre opposition, but with a midfield too conservative to succeed regularly against better teams, as was the case with Croatia and Holland in the past two years.

The next step is for Gareth Southgate to become convinced England have a player good enough to hold and control possession against high-class opponents, without sacrificing the strengths they already have.

Careful management will be required, but also a note of fearlessness, the conviction that here is a footballer who can provide that note of difference simply by doing things that come naturally, without the need to flare the trumpets and announce the arrival of the once and future king, savior, of all albion.

Plus, of course, with the added irony that it might just be Pep Guardiola, guyed by some parts of the media as Fraudiola and Mr What-Is-Tackles, who provides England football with this elusive gift. I feel pretty certain even Roy would approve of that.

(The Guardian)

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