• Guardiola sat in his office after training on Friday and announced to his staff that Foden would be starting against Tottenham the next day.
• Referee Michael Oliver clearly informed Alli that he was too close to Walker when the ball struck the right back’s hand but that is not relevant.
Sometimes a manager just knows. He doesn’t have to look at the numbers or canvass the room for supporting opinions. It is an innate sense; more than a common old hunch. Gut feeling is an upmarket guess. But Pep Guardiola wasn’t guessing about Phil Foden.
He sat in his office after training on Friday and announced to his staff that Foden would be starting against Tottenham the next day. He wasn’t asking for their approval; he was telling them the call had been made. Foden was ready. This was his time.
“My inspiration,” Guardiola later called it, with a grin. “It was a good decision — because we won.”
Indeed they did. And handily, Foden scored the only goal of the afternoon — his first in the league and a potential game-changer for Manchester City. Tottenham should have had a penalty when Kyle Walker handled in the second half while challenging Dele Alli.
Referee Michael Oliver clearly informed Alli that he was too close to Walker when the ball struck the right back’s hand but that is not relevant.
Walker clearly moved his hand up to the ball. The situation happened so quickly for Oliver and I am sure that when he gets a chance to look at it again, he will accept that it’s a penalty. When VAR is introduced next season, this kind of incident will be punished.
The January win over Liverpool at home aside, this is possibly the most important three points of the campaign. Having lost to Tottenham in such mind-blowing circumstances on Wednesday, all eyes were on City for their response. It is Liverpool who are said to have the momentum of champions right now. Could City restore their own impetus after such an emotional defeat?
That they did may serve as inspiration of a different kind as we reach the season’s climax. Their next game is away at Manchester United — and who wouldn’t be up for that? Win at Old Trafford and City will be three matches — Burnley away, Leicester at home, Brighton away — off the title. From here, motivation takes care of itself. Yet overcoming the mental and physical exhaustion of Wednesday could not, at first glance, be guaranteed. Make no mistake, this was an enormous result.
And Foden’s presence was vital. Not just for the diving header that won the game but for the energy a teenage presence at the heart of the team provided. Guardiola deployed him in a central role, behind Sergio Aguero, always involved, always in a position to demand the ball. And Foden does.
The 7.2 miles ran by Phil Foden in his 85 minutes against Spurs on Saturday was more than any City player. He has the humility to talk about learning from every last one of his team-mates, but the confidence to play as if he fits right in. Their interaction with him is telling, too. When man of the match Bernardo Silva whipped in his cross for Aguero after five minutes, the striker spotted Foden’s run and directed his header across goal rather than towards it. He trusted Foden to score, just as Guardiola trusted him to start. These are impressive judgments. Aguero wouldn’t tee up a teenager who wasn’t ready for such an occasion, no matter what position he took up; and Guardiola wouldn’t throw Foden in without understanding he can expect patience from the player no longer. He wasn’t gambling on an 18-year-old.
He was giving a bona fide Manchester City player his due. In 2011, when Guardiola’s Barcelona played Arsenal in a Champions League last-16 tie, Jack Wilshere performed magnificently in the first leg. Before the return, Guardiola was asked if he had many young players like Arsenal’s shining starlet at the Nou Camp. His reply — that they had plenty in the B team — was devastating, if possibly unintended, put-down. The same question was asked of him about Foden on Sunday. Plenty where he came from at La Masia, Pep? “No,” he answered, deadpan. “So what is it about him? Guardiola was pressed. “He’s special,” he insisted. And, plainly, he is.
Even Mauricio Pochettino, who knows about developing the pathway from academy to the first team, is convinced of it.
“He’s a fantastic player,” the Tottenham manager conceded. “It’s not easy to play and start at a team like Manchester City so it’s a massive, massive achievement. When you watch him play you can feel his quality. He’s a player who can be similar to David Silva, because he has the characteristics of a No 8 with a lot of good quality to play with the No 9.”
The comparison with Silva seems insightful, too, given that Guardiola admitted Foden’s inclusion was a response to the fatigue the 33-year-old must feel after involvement in 45 games this season. Long-term, one imagines it is Silva’s role that Foden will play — although, if anything, he is a more natural ball-carrier — and once he claims a regular place in the team it is his current superiors who will face a battle to muscle him out.
It is no exaggeration to say that Foden has been on Guardiola’s radar since he was still at school. Foden was 15 when the new manager was informed of his potential on his first day in the job by Txiki Begiristain, City’s director of football.
When I first landed here, Txiki told me, “Meet one player — he is 15 years old. You have to know him”. And I did. After one day, two days, he came to our training session and — wow. I said, “You are right, Txiki — this player is good”. Of course, with young players you have to be careful.
“As quick as you go up, you go down. Sometimes you have to handle that situation a bit, but we didn’t have any doubts. Every time Phil played he was outstanding, he was the top, he was at the level to be a Manchester City player — and it isn’t easy to be in this team, or any of these teams like us, or Tottenham. But he’s able to do that. I am so satisfied. I see him in every training session and he has something special. And I see many players as a manager. So many, and this guy has something that is difficult to find.”
“Yesterday, I was in the office and David Silva has played a lot of games and I said, ‘I think Phil is ready — I want to give him a chance’. A manager does not always follow the rule book. It can be something you feel and I felt this guy had to play.”
It was a training session at the end of last week that afforded Guardiola the final proof Foden was ready. He had started a home game against Cardiff at the start of the month, too, but Tottenham — Champions League semi-finalists — at a time when any result other than three points would prove fatal, was an elevation in class again.
“Yes, he trained incredibly,” Guardiola recalled. “That is especially hard for the ones who did not play in the middle of the week. Training is never easy for them and Phil is sharp, he’s positive, so focused. And we needed this type of attitude, to be aggressive in the first action because Tottenham are an incredible side the way they get in behind us with the ball, the way they attack our back. Long ball, second ball, they are like Liverpool. You see them, how tall, how strong, and they play right in behind the full backs and attack, with Son Heung-min, with Lucas Moura.”
“It’s so tough. We suffer, particularly in the second half because we could lose the Premier League.”
Yet they didn’t lose the Premier League. They survived, they held fast, they got their momentum and their mojo back and extended their winning run to 10 games — the best of any Premier League team this season. And while Pochettino made City goalkeeper Ederson the man of the match, this was an impressive display from a team under immense pressure. Made all the more impressive by the 18-year-old at the heart of their victory. But Phil Foden didn’t look like a hunch. As Guardiola would confirm, he looks an absolute racing certainty.