Phil Foden is master of the small spaces and player of the season

Ryan Baldi
Phil Foden is the best player in Premier League
Phil Foden is the best player in Premier League

On April 1, the Football Writers’ Association emailed its members to announce that voting for this season’s men’s and women’s Footballer of the Year award had opened.

Last year’s men’s selection was easy; Erling Haaland was breaking scoring records for the soon-to-be Treble winners in his first season in England. The year before, Mohamed Salah was the outstanding candidate, claiming the award for the second time.

This year is different. There is no 40-goal scorer. No vintage, injury-free season for a Salah or a Kevin De Bruyne. No Premier League newcomer taking the top flight by storm. The FWA don’t mandate a shortlist of candidates; members are at liberty to select whomever they desire. But their email included a rundown of six suggested frontrunners – two from each of the sides currently locked in a three-way title race. A firm argument could be made for each, but still none stood glaringly above the others.

Then two days later, Phil Foden scored a hat-trick.

READ: Phil Foden makes our Premier League team of the season so far

The writers – like the fellow pros voting on the PFA’s own version of the award – must resist being prisoners of the moment and allowing one stand-out recent display to disproportionately colour a season’s work.

But this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill hat-trick, if such a thing exists; this was not a case of a player filling his boots at the tail end of a lopsided victory. This was a player delivering for his team in a high-leverage situation, against high-calibre opposition. And it was the continuation of a trend.

Foden scored his treble in a 4-1 win over Champions League-chasing Aston Villa, by some measure the trickiest fixture any of the title contenders faced that particular midweek, with Arsenal having already beaten Luton and Liverpool set to face Sheffield United the following evening.

It was Foden’s second hat-trick of the season, after one registered in a 3-1 away win at Brentford in February, and it showcased the full gamut of sharpened scoring skills that have seen him reach a career-high single-season return of 21 goals for the campaign already. The first was a free-kick struck from 20 yards, the second a powerfully driven finish from inside the box and the third a spectacular 25-yarder into the top corner.

“We needed him today,” Pep Guardiola said post-match. “I said a few weeks ago, this is his most influential season in terms of goals and assists. When we play simple, he can be more aggressive and he has the pleasure of scoring goals, he’s a threat when he’s there. How he runs for the team is exceptional.

“He loves to play football. When you see players playing in the street, he has that culture. He loves to play… in terms of how he moves in small spaces and after, the impact [in the box], he has the feeling, ‘Oh, he can score.’ You have to be aggressive. I’ve seen few like him.”

That City’s quest to retain the Treble they won last season is still alive at this late stage despite lengthy absences for De Bruyne and Haaland is in large part due to Foden’s versatility and maturity as both scorer and creator.

His tally of 21 all-competitions goals is already higher than City’s second-top scorer from last term, when Julian Alvarez scored 17. It is the highest by a second-ranking scorer at the Etihad, in fact, since the 2019/20 season, when Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus each scored 23 goals behind Raheem Sterling’s team-high 31.

Foden’s scoring output has helped compensate for Haaland’s drop in productivity this season – through a combination of injury and the occasional three-game drought, the lab-created goal-getter has only scored 30 goals in 36 games this term. And with De Bruyne missing so many games, Foden has stepped up creatively, too. Only Julian Alvarez (eight) has provided more Premier League assists for City this season than Foden’s seven.

For years now, there has been debate over the England star’s best position – is he hindered by being stuck out wide too often? Should he play as a No.10? But, as his performances and productivity this season have shown, it doesn’t matter where he plays; only what he does.

De Bruyne’s half-season injury lay-off afforded Foden more opportunities to play centrally, and his Villa hat-trick was plundered from a central attacking-midfield starting position. But he can, and does, play regularly and equally effectively from the left or right of the second line of City’s attack. His man-of-the-match two-goal display in last month’s Manchester derby at the Etihad, for example, saw him start on the left wing.

Wherever he plays, Foden is a master of small spaces. Whether moving outside to inside from the flanks or inside to out as a No.10, he has finely tuned the art of sliding laterally to find space between the opposition’s lines of defence and midfield and present himself as a target for forward passes from deeper midfielders.

His street-honed close control and deceptive upper-body strength allows him to corral the ball and hold off defenders. His low centre of gravity enables him to pivot goalward and open yet more space for himself and his colleagues. And in the attacking third he possesses sharp speed over short distances to break in behind backlines and a low, hard shot across the goalkeeper and into the far corner that is becoming a trademark.

This version of Foden is the realisation of the potential he flashed when he led England to the Under-17 World Cup in 2017 and as a teenager taking his first steps into a star-studded City senior team.

According to, Foden ranks in the 98th percentile among attacking midfielders and wingers in Europe’s top five leagues across the last year when it comes to goals per 90 minutes. He is in the 95th percentile for shots per 90, the 92nd percentile for non-penalty expected goals, the 90th percentile for assists per 90, the 85th percentile for expected goals assisted and the 90th percentile for touches in the opposition’s box.

By almost every metric used to measure the performance of the best players in his position, he is among the elite of the elite.

This is a level of play he always had in him. The scary thought for City’s rivals is that it is far from his ceiling. He is still only 23.

Foden’s importance to City this season is such that it is now best judged by the games he doesn’t play. Guardiola took his reigning Treble winners to Selhurst Park last weekend for a fixture with serious slip-up potential – City had won just two of their previous five games against Crystal Palace. De Bruyne started. As did Haaland, Rodri, Ruben Dias and John Stones. But with a Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu just three days later, Guardiola felt he couldn’t risk his key man. Foden was rested.

Foden has been everything City have needed him to be and more this season. He’s been the best player in the Premier League. He gets my vote.

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