Phil Foden is emblematic of England’s new breed. This is what can happen when you embrace different cultures and look outside your bubble.
Sometimes you get those moments during a game in which you let out a sudden yelp and notice you’re at your feet with your head in your hands.
Maybe your phone or the TV remote clatters to the floor and you see yourself looking a bit stupid as those around stare with their eyebrows raised.
The majority of those moments come from last-gasp goals, but other times the event is less obvious.
“That’s brilliant. That’s absolutely brilliant. The way he took it, the way he turned, the way he accelerated.”
Martin Tyler’s disbelief continued to unfold: “This is special, by the way. Very special.”
Gary Neville agreed.”It’s mesmerising, honestly.”
There are only a handful of players able to afford us such times of inexplicable exuberance. Traditionally they have not been English, but now our homegrown players make up some of the most exciting in the world – and none more so than Phil Foden.
The commentary was during April’s Carabao Cup final. Foden had received the ball on the halfway line. He took three touches past Giovani Lo Celso before he was floored by Sergio Reguilón. It was obviously an exquisite piece of close control and acceleration for all those watching at home to enjoy, but it was the astoundment from the commentators at the game – one a former player, the other an assistant coach – that provided an insight into how just absurdly brilliant the manoeuvre was.
It’s been a meteoric rise for Foden this season. When he signed a new contract at Manchester City in 2018, there were jokes that he would be sitting on the bench for another three years.
He had made less than 20 appearances up until that point and there also were questions asked about his ability in general by outsiders of the club.
Phil Foden agrees to sit on the bench for six years
— Neil Custis (@ncustisTheSun) December 10, 2018
Both English and local with world-class players scattered around him, of course he would shine soon.
Since his new deal he has made over 100 appearances for the club. And this extraordinary last campaign proved any final naysayers wrong still further. It was another League Cup and Premier League medal to make for eight major honours for the 21-year-old.
In the Premier League he made 4.1 ball recoveries per 90 minutes and ranked fifth-highest in terms of English players for passes into the final third (18.41). He also excelled in take-ons (2.12) and chance creation (2.01).
But you need more than just numbers or a new hairstyle to tell Foden is the most technically gifted English footballer since Paul Gascoigne or Wayne Rooney.
There was a four-second pause after the ball had left Foden’s feet in which Sky Sports co-commentator Andy Hinchcliffe finally managed to pick his jaw back up. “I’m sorry,” he finally blurted out. “But that’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Foden had managed to regain a ball heading out of play from an overshot pass and somehow forged a surging run into the Aston Villa box before being fouled. The whole process took somewhere between three and four seconds.
The amazement came not only from the skill he had just witnessed but the fact it was an English player producing it. This is not common; it is special.
La Masia gifted the world numerous perpetrators of brilliance. Traditionally, the players were relatively small and had technical and passing ability to rival any other. Such qualities have rarely been found in English players. And that’s probably why it’s joked that Foden is the Stockport Iniesta. It juxtaposes the exotic, technical footballers of Spain with our brutish, pint-guzzling own.
The name was kind of funny for a time, but now comparisons to the 37-year-old world and European champion don’t seem to generate that same smile. Such associations ring more true than sarcastic.
By his raw talent, Foden is leading a new generation of English players and will be emblematic of the nation’s exciting and youthful progress at the Euros..
There was a crisis fewer than ten years ago over the lack of great English players. “The English game is all about heart, ours [Italy, Portugal] is all about brains,” Jose Mourinho reportedly once said. “Football played only with the brain is not beautiful, but football played only with the heart is not successful.”
Mourinho wasn’t the only one to notice. “It’s a fundamental problem of quality,” Arsene Wenger told The Guardian in 2007. “But why aren’t there good players from England? Someone has to do something. The kid coming from South Africa or Brazil is better than those here.”
The issue was even the subject of a documentary by Gary Lineker in 2010, ‘Will England win the next World Cup?’, following the nation’s dismal performance in South Africa. The programme asked the simple question: if England has the most popular, strongest and most successful league in world football, why aren’t its greatest stars born there?
Fingers were pointed to the next generation’s preoccupation with the PlayStation; others blamed the rainy climate that kept children indoors; some thought the problem was happening on the pitch with kids being told to clear their lines or make a pass instead of taking on their man.
Another reason cited was parents being abusive and shouting at their children. This created players who favoured the easy option.
But the FA recognised and acknowledged 47 years of hurt and made a number of reforms in 2013. Soon the more high-brow academies told fervent parents watching they would have to be silent or their child would be ejected from their school.
Gareth Southgate, then boss of the under-21s, along with 1,000 other coaches, led a Licensed Coaches Club Conference at St George’s Park with the general theme being ‘developing creativity’.
When he asked the group of 20 boys ‘who was creative?’, Southgate told BBC Sport only four put their hand up.
“And yet we were able to show before the end of the session that they had all done creative things and all had fantastic individual ability,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Premier League saw more foreign players playing and so youngsters grew up with new heroes with extrinsic names. This was a time when players like David Silva, Cesc Fàbregas, Juan Mata and Santi Carzola starred, while Alan Shearer, Tony Adams, Andy Cole and Gary Neville were a distant memory.
Even Rooney was dubbed by David Moyes during his Everton days as “one of the last of the street footballer; part of a dying breed”.
Martin Keown noted in 2015 how England’s top league was ‘gradually becoming more like La Liga, with the emphasis moving from building a solid team from the back to throwing men forward to outscore your opponents.’
But this wasn’t just because of the influx of foreign players. England had started to move away from its own Allardycian style and incorporate other nations’ blueprints into its own.
Just two seasons ago, game time for English players aged 21 and under at Premier League clubs was at its highest level in 12 seasons. Ten years ago there were 16 British managers in the Premier League; last season there were only eight.
Embracing outside models seems to be paying dividends for the nation’s international prospects.
Lineker once described Paul Gascoigne as the most gifted footballer he played with and Foden’s recent hairstyle change has evoked memories of the great man and the 1996 tournament – particularly as England have Scotland in their group once again.
But unlike the team of ’96, Foden will be joined by a raft of other predominantly creative talents in the team. Jack Grealish, Eredivisie alumnus Mason Mount and the Bundesliga’s own Jandon Sancho and Jude Bellingham all make up England’s freakishly strong attacking assortment.
Spain dominated football some ten years ago because they embraced a Dutch approach to disrupt and redefine their game. England have followed suit by encouraging players to develop in foreign leagues, abandoning traditional ideas for fresh, cross-national ones.
Four of the best under-21 players in the world on ESPN’s recent list were English, while seven of the 22 that started the Champions League final are in Southgate’s Euro 2020 squad. It’s reward for embracing different cultures trickling through into the system, thus strengthening our own.
Indeed, Foden will enter the tournament as just one of a wide array of great attacking options at England’s disposal. But he’s sure to come away having made the biggest impact of them all.
Like a marker in history, his performances will notify Europe that England’s embracing of multiculturalism and welcoming of foreign entities into our game has manifested in a new breed of player: no longer just boisterous lion-hearts, but also gifted dribblers with superb control and a turn of pace. Foden comprises all the best parts of the greatest philosophies across Europe.
And some fans, like those who decide to boo as players knee, will be head in hands and yelping at his every delightful touch, all blissfully unaware they would not be enjoying such experiences had our nation always conformed to their own closed-off mindset.
Jacque Talbot is on Twitter
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