Phil Foden’s hidden brilliance against Norwich underlines why he is Man City’s title gamechanger – Dominic Farrell

Ilkay Gundogan glided onto Raheem Sterling’s pass in typically elegant style before drilling a cross that saw the aesthetics of the moment plummet.

Phil Foden sort of got off an attempt on goal, the ball sort of hit him. Either way, he probably should have scored.

But the Manchester City attacker would not be denied as he dueled with Ben Gibson and had his scrambled follow-up attempt cleared from behind the line by Grant Hanley.

The Premier League leaders had a 2-0 lead early in the second period after a testing first half-hour against Norwich City at Carrow Road. It was a crucial moment, from which an authoritative 4-0 triumph flowed.

At first glance, it did not look particularly pretty. On closer inspection, there was a little bit of Foden magic laced with tenacity.

The England international really did not have any right to burgle the rebound from the hulking Gibson, but he held off the Norwich defender and a deft drag back created enough room to shovel the ball goalwards.

In many respects, Foden’s first goal of 2022 encapsulated his season so far – not especially eye-catching because you know you’ve seen him do more impressive things but nonetheless effective.

This time last year, City’s standout academy graduate was taking full flight. He was finally a locked-in starter for Pep Guardiola’s first team but not in the playmaking role many assume would be his.

Foden was a threatening left-winger of devastating skill and productivity. No attacker has a fixed role under Guardiola but that was where he primarily thrived, finishing the 2020/21 campaign as City’s second-highest scorer behind Gundogan and with two more Premier League and Carabao Cup medals for his collection from him.

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He began this season late due to the foot injury that ruled him out of the final of Euro 2020, but a coruscating display on the left flank against Liverpool – as he tormented James Milner and scored City’s first equalizer in a pulsating 2-2 draw – suggested a trajectory was set.

However, since then, Foden has played largely as a central attacker – either as a lone false nine, one of two floating forwards or occasionally a more conventional striker.

On the face of it, playing this role under Pep Guardiola is every player’s dream. Basically, you’re getting to play at being Lionel Messi – who wouldn’t fancy that?

The reality is that more than a decade on since Pep unveiled his defining Barcelona gambit, teams are used to this line of attack. There isn’t a collective head loss when a team turns up without a centre-forward. City’s opponents will expect this to be the case and usually expect Foden to be their centre-backs’ closest point of reference.

It means a little less glamor and more serving the team’s wider needs by dropping deep to knit play together. Foden does that part of the brief very well. During 82 minutes on the field at Norwich, he completed 39 of 41 passes, with 33 of those coming inside the opposition half.

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The effectiveness of this neat-and-tidy supporting role can be judged in part by the prolific runs of City’s first-choice wingers. Raheem Sterling’s weekend hat-trick took him clear as the team’s top scorer in the Premier League this season with 10. Riyad Mahrez was unable to score for an eighth consecutive game but has 16 in all competitions.

Foden plays the central role better than either of Mahrez or Sterling and, so long as they’re in the goals, it looks like that is where he will remain.

There are few wingers in world football so easy on the eye, so from that point of view, this tailoring of his game is a pity. Last season, according to FBref. Foden completed 16 dribbles that led to a shot on goal in all competitions. He has not made one such contribution this time around.

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However, in 25 appearances this term, he has eight goals, having hit 16 in 50 last time around. Similarly, six assists mean he is on track to match or better 10 from 2020/21.

Foden remains very effective and a key part of City’s hunt for the three trophies that remain on offer. It might not be the bravura, future Ballon d’Or winner stuff we’d hoped for, but this will not be his long-term position and he will be richer for the experience.

The magic is still there and it is still casting a spell on opponents. You might have to look a little harder to find it, like a little diamond buried within a goalmouth scramble.

How do you think Phil Foden is playing this season? Follow City Is Ours editor Dom Farrell on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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