Man City v Tottenham: Foden back at Wembley to live boyhood cup final dreams all over again
Phil Foden was man of the match when Manchester City won the EFL Cup final last season, a breakout display from which he hasn't looked back.
Chatter rippled quickly across the Wembley press room, a buzz of excitement quickly following. It was the first thing most people looking at hot-off-the-press team sheets mentioned.
Since describing the playmaker as "a gift" in the aftermath of his maiden senior outing for Manchester City against Manchester United in the 2017 International Champions Cup, Pep Guardiola persistently had his use of Foden questioned.
The teenager wasn't playing enough, then he wasn't starting enough, then he wasn't starting enough meaningful games. Guardiola maintained he had a plan and it absolutely did not include Foden going out on loan.
But there he was in the first XI for a major cup final. He responded by turning in a man-of-the-match display as City beat Aston Villa 2-1 to win a third consecutive EFL Cup.
They will look to make it four in a row against Tottenham at Wembley on Sunday and, in the interim period, Foden has scarcely looked back.
A serious player
His outing in the 2020 final was Foden's 61st appearance for City, going back to a competitive debut from the bench against Feyenoord in the Champions League in November 2017.
Those initial steps of his career saw him make 24 starts and play 2,439 minutes. His knockdown for Sergio Agüero to open the scoring against Villa was a 10th assist to sit alongside 10 goals.
In a little over a year since, Foden has almost doubled his appearances with 56, and 38 starts contribute to a major leap of 3,598 minutes played.
The returns those appearances have yielded do much to explain his status as a one of Guardiola's go-to men, to the extent it is possible he will be afforded the luxury of a rest against Spurs, given City have a Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain on the horizon and a Premier League title to wrap up.
That might not be the most advisable course of action, given City's record of won 26, drawn three, lost one when Foden starts this season. The sole defeat came in the second Premier League game of the season against Leicester City in September.
That win percentage of 86.7 per cent drops to 68.2 (W15 D3 L4) when Guardiola opts to take Foden out of the firing line.
"His influence in our game is massive right now," the City manager told Sky Sports after another man-of-the-match showing at Villa's expense in midweek, where Foden netted a first-half equaliser in a 2-1 win before his twinkling feet mercilessly goaded opposition right-back Matty Cash into a red card.
"He is becoming a serious player for us," Guardiola added.
23 - Only Kevin De Bruyne (24) has been directly involved in more goals in all competitions for Manchester City this season than Phil Foden (23 - 14 goals, 9 assists). Starring. pic.twitter.com/4DW7zZ6wfJ— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 21, 2021
Pep's most prolific youngster
Last season's EFL Cup final was played out in front of a capacity Wembley crowd, for whom the Super League was a rugby league competition. It truly was a different world.
Whatever this disorientating reality is, Foden is making it his own.
In the period since he has scored 19 and laid on a further 11 in all competitions, with his minutes-per-goal figure down from 244 to 189 and shot conversion up from 13 to 16.5 per cent.
Such sharp shooting saw him score the winner in both legs of City's Champions League quarter-final win over Borussia Dortmund, the latter rasping strike leading to a cathartic and emotional embrace with Guardiola.
Unsurprisingly, Foden is far outstripping his expected goals (xG) figure of 11.8 since the 2020 EFL Cup final, while an xG 9.8 aligned almost exactly with his 10 goals beforehand.
This higher output is because, much to the profound discomfort of Cash and others, Foden has evolved from the scheming midfielder of his youth to an explosive and versatile wide attacker.
Only Kevin De Bruyne with 24 has been directly involved in more City goals than Foden's 23 this season, thanks to his 14 goals and nine assists.
Looking further back across a career where Guardiola has worked with some of the finest young talent in the game, Foden's overall 29 goals and 21 assists give him 50 goal involvements – more than any other player before turning 21 under the former Barcelona Bayern Munich boss.
The England international's 29 goals are also unmatched among that age group, with Bojan Krkic also scoring the same number for Guardiola's Barcelona.
This weekend is unlikely to be the last time Foden graces Wembley this year, as a starring role with England at Euro 2020 surely awaits – the 20-year-old having taken to international football effortlessly.
50 - With his goal against Aston Villa last night Phil Foden reached 50 combined goals and assists for Manchester City (29 goals & 21 assists). He is the only player to record 50 goal involvements for Pep Guardiola before turning 21. Blessed. pic.twitter.com/Fh57YjFZ8m— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 22, 2021
From boy to main man
"He was a boy when I arrived, at 17 years old he trained every day with these guys and played more minutes," Guardiola said on Friday.
"Now he is stronger with his physicality, but it is normal. He is still at an age to get stronger, play more minutes and have more experience.
"He has the ability to play in different positions. That's why he is a better player but still, like every player, he can be better. It depends on him."
In this week of all weeks, as he hauled his boyhood team to a vital win, there was something delightful about watching Foden's star continue its unchecked and rapid ascent since that surprise cup final call.
When the modern City began stacking up trophies almost a decade ago, he cheered them on from pitchside as a ballboy. Now, he plays a pivotal role in everything they achieve.
Given his employers' involvement in the tawdry Super League debacle, it will be an incredibly long time until any vaguely romantic notions can be pinned to Manchester City as an organisation.
But Foden's story, that of a young man living out his childhood fantasy every week, playing the football from all of our wildest dreams, is one any fan can cherish. Its appeal is something the suited goons and hedge fund cretins will never understand.
When Foden plays, in those moments of velvet first touches, darting dribbles and thumping finishes, all the nonsense melts away in the face of pure footballing talent. Guardiola was right, he really is a gift.
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