Premier League champions sometimes need goals from unlikely sources. Granted, they will usually have a striker trying to win a golden boot and a prolific attacking midfielder in the running for player of the year honours, but contributions can also come from less obvious sources, who choose the perfect moment to score their first goal in the English top flight.
There was Christopher Wreh for Arsenal in 1998, who netted for the first time in a Premier League game to secure a win against Wimbledon; 11 years later, Federico Macheda turned Aston Villa’s defence to score a famous winner for Manchester United.
The latest member of the club is Manchester City’s Phil Foden, who grabbed the only goal of a 1-0 win vs. Tottenham when he stormed in at the far post to convert Sergio Aguero’s selfless header across goal. The fifth-minute finish rounded off a well-worked move that began with Kyle Walker and Bernardo Silva combining on the right flank.
Foden was making just his second league start of the season, having previously been accustomed to featuring only when Pep Guardiola rotated his squad — in cup competition or for the recent home league game vs. lowly Cardiff — but his inclusion on Saturday was more about the game’s timing than its lack of difficulty.
Kicking off some 64 hours after the incredible, draining Champions League quarterfinal second-leg thriller between the two clubs, which ended with a City victory on the night but Spurs advancing on aggregate, the hosts could clearly rotate more easily at the Etihad Stadium.
Tottenham’s starting XI and system was about Mauricio Pochettino getting fresh players on the pitch rather than tactical concerns, which meant his line-up included no fewer than six players who have played at centre-back this season. Moreover, the away side ended the game with left-back Danny Rose in midfield.
Guardiola’s surprise starters were Foden and Oleksandr Zinchenko, who played an unusual “half-back” role that involved shuttling between left-back and left-central-midfield. That, in turn, allowed Foden to push forward alongside Aguero and constantly pop up in scoring positions; his winner was testament to aggressive, ambitious positioning.
Foden is hugely talented, with an authority on the ball that is rare among young English central midfielders, and his confidence at such a young age is reminiscent of that shown by Jack Wilshere when he broke through at Arsenal a decade ago.
The 18-year-old, though, is more adept with both feet than Wilshere; having already scored on Saturday, he later faked to shoot with his left foot, then checked back onto his right and powered a shot that was gathered by goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga.
Foden understands City’s system perfectly and his introduction to first-team football has been in a role that Kevin De Bruyne calls the “free eight.” In the second half, he played a lovely weighted ball that found substitute Leroy Sane and Foden’s substitution with five minutes remaining led to a standing ovation for the homegrown talent.
“Phil is an incredibly talented player, but we have to handle him in the right way,” Guardiola said after the game. “In this moment, today, we needed his capacity to press high, his quality to arrive in the box. At Newport (in February) he scored two goals; every time he has a chance to score a goal. He has the ability to play in small spaces. I trust him a lot.”
Guardiola has only used 21 players in the league this season and Foden is very much the 21st man, having logged 274 minutes; some 450 fewer than the next-least-used player, Fabian Delph, but he might be set for a bigger role as the season reaches its climax, following another injury for De Bruyne.
The Belgian midfielder left the game in the 38th minute after receiving treatment and his participation in City’s remaining games could be in doubt. Guardiola said he had not spoken to his medical staff, but believes De Bruyne suffered a muscle injury that will probably rule him out of Wednesday’s Manchester derby.
De Bruyne was City’s best performer as they amassed 100 points last season but, while he has starred at times in the current campaign, various injuries — particularly an ongoing knee problem – mean he has started only 11 league games.
His early exit here was not felt too severely; in fact, it actually helped Guardiola solidify his midfield as substitute Fernandinho dropped anchor, with Gundogan moving forward alongside Foden. The adjustment reduced Spurs’ counter-attack threat and, while there were still some nervy moments, Ederson’s prowess in goal, and in one-on-one situations especially, helped City close out a 10th straight league win.
Four more victories will clinch the title, but Guardiola has a decision to make at Old Trafford. Without De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva has tended to play centrally, or Gundogan has operated alongside David Silva. But it is arguable that none of those players replicate the directness and energy of Foden, whose latest display will make him difficult to overlook. So, will the teenager start on derby day?
“Maybe,” Guardiola said with the expression of someone who had not yet started thinking about upcoming games. “Maybe. Kevin’s not there, so we’ll see.”
Foden timed his arrival in Tottenham’s penalty area perfectly for his goal and might have done similarly with a run into City’s starting XI for the rest of the season.