Phil Foden bewitches Liverpool: this is the best young player in England
Let us take a moment to consider Phil Foden’s surging run. Never mind for now the goal he would score 10 minutes later to kill this game.
Park that exhilarating, high-craft goal. OK, stop looking at the goal for a moment.
Focus instead on the surging run to make the goal that broke this game open. It was a run that came at the end of passage of woeful Liverpool defending, but which was all the more thrillingly pure in its execution as a result, the game of football clearing its throat and letting out a perfect pitch C note.
Foden has always been an excellent dribbler. Dribbling is probably the wrong word. He glides and feints. When he beats his man it is an expression of greater balance and superior touch, a man who is simply better friends with the ball, the angles, gravity.
With 73 minutes gone and the score 1-1 at Anfield Foden took the ball from Alisson’s shanked clearance on the left of the Liverpool area. There were two players in front of him: the captain of Liverpool and the best left-back in the league.
Foden surged, swayed and pressed the throttle. There was no sense of show or flamboyance. This was cold. It was merciless opportunism, hidden in a lovely little miniature of fine-point skill.
Either way, he basically walked straight through those two red shirts, then nudged the perfect pass for Ilkay Gündogan to poach his second goal of the game and make the score 2-1.
At this point, and before we are allowed to consider Foden’s goal 13 minutes later – stop looking at the wonderful, captivating goal – it is worth noting his previous surging run.
This came three minutes earlier. It was Fabinho again. This time Foden spun away from him on the left, prodded the ball past, then reached down into that newly honed acceleration, drawing Fabinho into a panicked grab of the shirt and a yellow card.
Fabinho looked a little fried in that moment. Oh dear. It turns out this twirling little nightmare of technique and finesse can turn on the thrusters too – product, according to Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports, of training with a sprint coach.
Foden had been neat and quietly menacing until those final 20 minutes. From that Fabinho grab onwards he was irresistible, a 20-year-old who just looks ready now, whose emergence has been perfectly managed – a riposte to those who, as with Thomas Tuchel, have summoned up the tired old coming-over-here-neglecting-the-English-lads trope.
The game had been tight and even quite turgid in the first half. Anfield has been Pep Guardiola’s cursed earth, a ground he calls “that place”, venue for more defeats than any other in his managerial career. In recent years Guardiola has tended to blink here, to fiddle with his team. This time he went with the structure that has taken City a long way down what is now a 14-game winning streak: inverted full-backs, false nine, no space behind on the flanks.
The opening 20 minutes were tight, flat and contained. Foden touched the ball four times. Guardiola watched quietly, resplendent in ribbed beanie hat and fluffy gothic-glamour scarf, a look that said: ‘I am confident here. I feel calmly expressive. I possibly also have a cold neck.’
After half-time City shifted to a 4-4-2, with a little-man-little-man strike duo of Foden and Bernardo Silva. Within three minutes they had scored. It came from Raheem Sterling, who had already earned City a first-half penalty (Gündogan missed it) by erasing Trent Alexander-Arnold with a waggle of his hips.
This was a reconstruction, Sterling swaying past Liverpool’s right-back like a man avoiding a traffic cone on a busy pavement, then releasing the ball. Foden’s shot was well saved by Alisson, the rebound tucked in by Gündogan.
And yes, OK we can talk about that Foden goal now. There were seven minutes to go, City were 3-1 up, Sterling having added a third. Gabriel Jesus floated a pass out to Foden on the right.
This time he feinted to go outside, jinked inside, then spanked a shot hard and flat past Alisson and into the net. There was joy even in the way Foden just kept on running as the ball left his foot, perfectly balanced in his celebratory sprint.
Some things were settled here. Liverpool need a minor sporting miracle to catch the league leaders now. Best of all, there was an outline at Anfield of the clean, clear, pressure-hardened talent of City’s academy kid: the best young player in England, and currently playing a major hand in what would be an era-clinching league title.