With Manchester City still dusting themselves off from a bruising Manchester Derby on Sunday evening, there are suddenly quite a few questions emerging about Pep Guardiola’s squad and the rebuild he now faces in the summer.
That Pep possesses arguably the greatest attacking cohort of players in Premier League history is obvious. The wealth of riches at his disposal in the attacking third of the pitch would leave most managers salivating into their notebooks. And yet, their disjointed and blunted performance against Manchester United should not be chalked off as just one of those days. Despite the bounty of attacking options, Man City simply could not pick the lock at Old Trafford against a stubborn and well-drilled rearguard.
One player in particular who stood out as a tactical conundrum in the midst of their 2-0 defeat was highly celebrated local lad Phil Foden.
Selected to play wide right in an attacking three, Guardiola had clearly enjoyed what he had seen at Wembley from the 19-year-old as City held on to beat Aston Villa 2-1 in the Carabao Cup the week before. Foden had a productive afternoon that day, despite playing away from his customary central position on the pitch.
His impressive display saw him notch an excellent assist for Sergio Aguero and ping a neat array of passes around the park which underscored just what a natural footballer the lad from Stockport is despite his junior years and lack of big game action.
However, this eye-catching form simply evaporated at Old Trafford. Sure enough, there were glimpses of quality as you’d expect; one decent diagonal ball to Raheem Sterling failed to bear fruit, but by and large, this was a muted display from the youngster as he struggled to have an influence on proceedings in a position that looked increasingly alien to him.
A lack of mobility, creativity and overall stagnant rotation of positions from the front three saw United manfully contain City’s attacking triumvirate with their compact 5-3-2 formation out of possession. Luke Shaw, Brandon Williams and Nemanja Matic were able to stifle any space afforded to Foden on the right and were stoic in their efforts all night as wave after wave of City attacks petered out.
Phil Foden’s game by numbers vs. Man Utd:
19% of passes forward
1 chance created
1 shot on target
Looked uncomfortable playing before stoppage time. ⏱ https://t.co/IkQnt0Q9lL
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) March 8, 2020
Only with half an hour of the game remaining was Foden moved into his more natural central position, with Riyad Mahrez thrown on to try and find more joy out wide. City immediately looked more dangerous after the switch around and Foden too looked more comfortable during the final 30 minutes, although derby glory was ultimately to allude him.
Guardiola is famous for keeping his players on their toes and expecting each and every member of his squad to be adaptable to a myriad of positions. Foden’s joy at Wembley against Villa was of course very encouraging but his blunted display against United was a moment to bring the teenager back down to earth.
With Kevin De Bruyne injured and David Silva only making the bench, it did rather feel that Foden had been somewhat ratcheted into a formation that doesn’t suit his skill set. Yes, his display against a relegation threatened side was encouraging, but this was an invigorated top-six side, unbeaten in nine games, was this really a time for tinkering and hoping for a repeat?
Foden’s ability is there for all to see and he is trusted by Guardiola, that much is clear. However, in such a big game, there was a sense that the Catalan coach didn’t want to leave him out but equally couldn’t justify allocating a space for the teenager in his best and most effective position.
Against United, City missed the visionary craftsman’s touch that is so often provided by a De Bruyne through ball or a moment of magic from Silva to unlock a stubborn defence. With Foden looking more like a square peg in a round hole out on the right, the whole team looked disjointed and far too easy to contain, something we have hardly ever associated with Man City in recent years.
With David Silva’s days dwindling and a cavernous gap opened up in the title race between Guardiola’s men and Liverpool, there is a case to be made for City to throw caution to the wind in these remaining league games. If Foden is in serious consideration to take up some of the burden left on the squad by Silva’s imminent departure then it would surely make sense to fully entrust in him, a run in his most natural and effective position on and give him the chance to really showcase what he can do there.
Tinkering and trying to fashion formations to allow Foden to be crowbarred into the team may well prove to be counter-productive for all invested in the talented youngster’s future.