Phil Foden has been given a man-marking job while on England duty this week. The 20-year-old has been told to stick close to Conor Coady. That way there will be no repeat of September’s incident in Iceland when the Manchester City midfielder and Mason Greenwood breached coronavirus protocols by bringing girls back to the team hotel.
Such a scenario is unlikely to happen again in any circumstances. Foden was mortified when he was rightly sent home in disgrace by Gareth Southgate and horrified by the backlash. For three or four days after his return home, Foden avoided contact with some of his closest confidants, conscious that he had let his family and friends down as well as England. He was relieved and delighted to be recalled to the squad for the match against Ireland and the Nations League fixtures versus Belgium and Iceland.
The player’s representatives suggested that Foden shadow Coady in September when he received his first call-up to Southgate’s squad. The Wolverhampton Wanderers captain is a model professional and a stickler for detail, the sort of team-mate who is always on time and dressed in the correct official apparel at get-togethers. Foden’s advisors reiterated the instruction before the squad gathered this week. Coady is happy to help, recognising that the youngster could develop into an important figure for England in the next few years. The centre-half’s humorous condition was that Foden had to promise not to roast him in training.
Coady can afford to joke. Foden, by contrast, knows that his situation is no laughing matter. The City man is ambitious and has worked hard since his ignominious return from international duty. Greenwood has gone into a slump and there is growing criticism about the 19-year-old’s work ethic and lifestyle seeping out of the Manchester United camp. Foden has kept his head down.
There have been no complaints from Guardiola about the academy graduate’s attitude and application. Foden is from a deprived part of Stockport and was described by one City insider as a “rough-arse kid”. His favourite hobby is angling. In the summer when the squad were given some time off, the majority of the first team hired private planes and jetted around the globe. Foden went fishing in the Potteries. He was thrilled to reel in a sizeable fish and delighted when the site’s proprietors asked him to pose for a photograph with his prize. He was less pleased when the framed picture arrived: The owners had photoshopped a Stoke City kit onto his catch. His favourite pastime reflects the down-to-earth nature of his character.
The most polished side of Foden’s personality is on display on the pitch. He is disdainful of older, established Premier League players who seem more concerned with ‘Hollywood balls’ than effective but less eye-catching passes. Even when he was a teenager, he was different from his highly-rated contemporaries. When he played with Jadon Sancho at the City academy, the Borussia Dortmund winger delighted in trying to twist opposition full backs into the ground. The contrast with Foden, who was always looking for the simple ball, was marked. Now, at this stage in his career, results are more important than personal glory.
Even so, he is highly competitive. When the details of the top flight’s fastest sprinters were released last season, Foden was irritated to find himself in fifth place. He trains with Tony Clarke, a sprinting coach from Liverpool Harriers, and is determined to improve his pace. “I’ll be first next year,” he told anyone who would listen.
At City they believe that Foden has barely scratched the surface of his ability. His speed is just part of his threat. He has quick feet, enviable strength and balance, can beat defenders and has the knack of appearing in the right place at the crucial moment in the penalty area. Southgate has a formidable array of attacking options, but Foden could develop into one of the best.
As a young player, Foden is remarkable for his maturity on the pitch. If his development in other areas of his life catches up with this grown-up approach to football, City’s brightest prospect will be on course to become the next superstar for club and country. His rehabilitation for England starts now. Foden knows he cannot afford another mistake.