Pep Guardiola is prone to hyperbole. Whether it comes from a dizzying infatuation with the game or a more cynical predilection for performance art remains a matter for speculation, but Guardiola certainly isn’t shy in showing the full rainbow of his emotions. Nathan Redmond can attest to that; Lewis Dunk too.
Phil Foden is a slightly different issue. It’s less than two months since Guardiola described the young midfielder as the most talented player he’s ever seen and yet Foden has since spent just ten minutes on a Premier League pitch.
It contrasts to the last time a bright young English thing flared across the Catalan’s radar. In 2011, following Barcelona’s Champions League victory over Arsenal, Guardiola waved away the British media fascination with Jack Wilshere and claimed that his club’s reserve side had ‘many’ players of equivalent style and ability.
That bruised English football’s ego. You can tell, because Guardiola is still pursued today by the quotes he gave that night. As recently as last January, he was asked whether Foden, too, would be unremarkable in a Barcelona context.
“No. This guy is special.”
He also told a story about arriving in England for the first time and being told by a giddy Txiki Begiristain about an electrifying talent in the City academy.
“And the first season he came one day, two days to training and I said: ‘You’re right, Txiki, this guy is good’.”
Which makes the current stand-off confusing. Returning to City after two fine appearances for England’s U21s, Foden restated his desire for opportunities while, rather cryptically, expressing his hope that Guardiola might have the opportunity to watch his performance against Turkey.
It was forthright and bold, perhaps even a little cheeky, but then Guardiola wanted that – he has publicly challenged Foden to fight his own cause.
“He is a shy guy. I would like him to talk more to me, but all the time I go to him and speak to him, so he still looks at me like a little bit [too much] with respect like a manager.
“And, after two or three seasons, it’s not necessary. But it’s normal, he is 19.”
It’s worth remembering Guardiola’s past and his historic treatment of young players. Particularly at Barcelona, where he never allowed age or inexperience to distract his judgement – Sergio Busquets being the obvious example.
In 2007, Busquets was a member of Guardiola’s B team at Barcelona. Upon the latter’s appointment as senior head coach, Busquets was quickly promoted, ultimately making his debut against Racing Santander in September 2008. It may well be a case of a different player playing in a different side, in – of course – a completely different type of competition, but the parallels with Foden are just too tempting to draw.
Guardiola saw a perfect component in Busquets, someone who could equip his side with the necessary defensive attributes, but who could also serve as the connecting piece between the defence and midfield.
So what is the deficiency in Foden? He’s young, but we know that Guardiola doesn’t really care about that. He lacks experience, but then he’s never been discouraged by that either. In the context of Guardiola’s career, the idea that a player should be overlooked on account of being shy, or unwilling to make his own case vociferously, seems quite bizarre.
What also doesn’t tally is this habit of limiting Foden’s game time even in situations which invite experimentation. His ten minutes for the season came against West Ham, who were already 3-0 down and beaten by the time he took the pitch. And while it’s easy to understand why he wasn’t risked during that strange game with Tottenham, or the back-and-forth affair against Bournemouth, that he remained on the bench for the processional win over Brighton is harder to rationalise.
A reasonable logic would be that the more Foden plays, the more valuable he would ultimately become. Maybe he would even become bolder and more willing to challenge Guardiola’s selection in the way that he’s being encouraged. And yet the opportunities to endow him with that kind of confidence aren’t being taken. If anything, Foden’s place in this squad is being allowed to become more tenuous and these public challenges, while presumably not intended that way, run the risk of making him feel less secure.
It’s a fascinating little dance between the two. Ordinarily in this situation, when a head coach uses the media to manipulate the performance of a young player, the tactics being used are very plain. Jose Mourinho, for instance, was fond of being overly-aggressive in his criticism. He was notoriously prone to shaming players, in the hope that – presumably – the negativity would disturb an equilibrium and provoke whatever new trait or habit he craved.
The result was often a variation on Stockholm syndrome – the Luke Shaw dynamic – in which the tension which develops between the two eventually becomes a kind of dependency. Shaw must have loathed Mourinho at times, really hated him for degrading him so often, but towards the end he worked extremely hard to please him.
Guardiola says nothing by accident either. But he isn’t prone to victimising players and nor do his challenges contain the same hint of threat. Habitually he’s more optimistic and, presumably, this is a strategy designed to serve Foden’s best interest, rather than to plant false flags around a topic which is of growing national interest. But the means by which this situation can evolve remains unclear.
One of the obvious obstructions is a lack of definition. Foden is exactly as advertised – he’s supremely talented, but we’re still not quite sure what he is within a Premier League context. Is he an attacking midfielder, is he more of a deep-lying playmaker, or is he that modern ‘tweener type, the one that bounces between the boxes?
That cannot be truly known until he plays and, as a result, it’s still not really clear with whom he’s competing for a position in the City side. It seems such an obvious flaw in Guardiola’s plan: say Foden does become more forthright, does start barging his way into the office and demanding to start. As positive a statement as that would make about his self-confidence, on what basis would Guardiola actually include him? Or, at least, how could he include him without first properly measuring his effect against dangerous teams in important situations?
Maybe it characterises one of the ways in which Guardiola has changed over the last decade. At Barcelona, you can imagine him taking particular joy from experimenting with a Foden-type talent and, quietly, thriving on the contrarianism which comes with using a homegrown player to displace an established star. Those are different situations, of course, with contrasting obligations to perpetuate a native style, but it’s still a fair evaluation The experimental Guardiola has, to an extent, become more pragmatic. The signature style is still there and the football he coaches still gleams with aesthetic virtue, but the priorities seem to have changed. Guardiola is about points tallies, goals and trophies, and there doesn’t seem quite as much emphasis on his imagination.
Where that leaves Phil Foden, who knows. The situation is unusual and the way forward for him isn’t particularly clear.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter