Phil Foden Paints Manchester Sky Blue

By the end, the Manchester Derby wound up right where you would’ve expected. Whiling away the final minutes of stoppage time, victory assured thanks to a multi-goal lead, Manchester City’s players idly knocked the ball around for one of those humiliating games of keep away that, especially when performed at the expense of your most hated rival, taste like champagne. The home crowd, drunk off the happiness of yet another brilliant display, punctuated each City pass with an “Ole!” and serenaded the visitors with that old favorite, “You’re Fucking Shit!” But if there was no shock in the result itself, a 3-1 City win, or in the fact that the match had already been over well before the final whistle, it was perhaps a little more surprising just how long it took the Citizens to cement the win, and who it was who went about doing it.

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Manchester United fans would’ve been hard pressed to find any real reasons for optimism coming into the match. The Red Devils’ season has been awful. The only reason this awfulness doesn’t enjoy a bigger place in the overall narrative of the current season is because of how utterly commonplace awful seasons for the red side of Manchester have become. Their noisy neighbors may not be in quite as fearsome form as at other times—though they’re getting there—but the Citizens still boast the most loaded squad in all of Europe. For United, Sunday’s derby was as much about avoiding embarrassment as anything else.

And at the start, fortune seemed to smile upon them. Coming out in a midfield-clogging, hyper-defensive, counterattack-centered setup, it only took United eight minutes to find encouragement through the opening goal. A simple punt over the top from goalkeeper André Onana found Bruno Fernandes, who’d broken behind City’s back line. The Portuguese midfielder, playing as a false 9 on the day, charged into enemy territory, held onto the ball while awaiting reinforcement, cut a pass back to Marcus Rashford, and the Englishman demonstrated his world-class ball-striking by smashing in a first-time shot from way outside the box that Ederson had no hope of saving. The goal validated United’s conservative tactics, buoyed their spirits, and set them up well to at the very least prevent the kind of ass-kicking they must’ve been most interested in avoiding.

The rest of the first half remained more or less in United’s favor. Sure, Man City went on an attacking rampage, taking a whopping 18 shots during the first 45 minutes, but the Red Devils limited the Citizens to only a couple big chances, were able to consistently threaten on the counter, and relied on some magnificent stops from Onana to maintain their advantage. City never felt particularly frustrated by United’s gameplan, and it was obvious they’d have their chances to get back in it, but with neither of City’s two big stars, Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland, looking particularly sharp, you couldn’t rule out the possibility that United might actually pull this one out. But then Phil Foden had his say.

Foden is not an established, proven superstar the way Haaland and De Bruyne are. He’s also not a one-man gameplan the way Jérémy Doku and his unstoppable dribbling have been. The 23-year-old is, however, one of the sport’s major young talents, and for years now the question was when, not whether, he’d take that next step and become the kind of player capable of not only playing in but leading a team of Man City’s size and ambition. Well, that day has come, and Sunday’s performance was just the latest example of how good Foden is right now.

About 10 minutes after halftime, Foden equalized the score by more or less equalizing Rashford’s strike in terms of sheer talent and wonderment. Collecting the ball out near his starting position on the right wing, Foden drew in his defender, took a couple touches inside to improve his angle, and with a frighteningly casual swing of his left foot let loose a wicked shot that flew into the top corner of Onana’s goal. Foden’s goal changed the whole mood of the match. No longer was there any real sense that City might come away empty handed, and instead a go-ahead goal felt like only a matter of time. The Citizens had to be patient in pursuit of the deadlock-breaker, but once again it was Foden who delivered. This time out on the right in a more central position, Foden played a one-two with substitute Julián Álvarez that saw him receive the return pass in United’s penalty area, which Foden knifed through and from a tight angle hit a hard and low shot that Onana touched but couldn’t keep out. With two shots, originating on either wing, Foden succeeded where De Bruyne and Haaland hadn’t and gave City the lead in a key game.

Sunday’s brace was no outlier. For the season Foden has 11 goals and seven assists in Premier League play. He’s racked up those numbers playing on the right, on the left, and centrally, flexing the versatility and ruthlessness he’s become known for. In doing so, Foden has been Man City’s best player all season, and at last is the non-negotiable fixture in the City team that it was clear he always could be even as a teenager competing for minutes with the likes of De Bruyne, Silvas David and Bernardo, Leroy Sané, Raheem Sterling, and Riyad Mahrez.

Man City is as great of a team as it is because it can pack the pitch with more genuine match-winners than anybody else in the world. De Bruyne, Haaland, Rodri, Silva, Álvarez, Doku—all of them have the ability to take over games and turn losses or draws into big wins practically by themselves. It’s been clear for a while that Foden could count himself in those ranks. But this season he’s gone even further, becoming one of the central figures around which the entire team revolves. That he’s doing so as a homegrown talent gives him an resonance none of his teammates can match. It’s next to impossible for the present City season to end with as much tangible success as last year’s. But behind this flourishing Foden, the local kid who’s come better than good, there’s a good chance fans will remember this year with as much affection as any other.

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