How Foden's brilliance broke down Aston Villa

By Alex Keble 4 Apr 2024
Phil Foden-Keble lead

Alex Keble analyses how Man City star pulled the strings to foil Unai Emery's game plan

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Alex Keble analyses Manchester City's emphatic 4-1 win against Aston Villa that keeps the pressure on title rivals Arsenal and Liverpool.

It briefly threatened to be an awkward night for Man City after heavy rotation in both sides created a subdued and occasionally disjointed match at the Etihad Stadium.

And then Phil Foden took things into his own hands.

Foden’s hat-trick made the headlines and yet there was more to his sensational performance than that.

Even more impressive than the goals was how Foden worked out Villa’s tactical flaws to solve this match.

By full-time it looked like a simple 4-1 victory for Man City, but this was not routine.

Despite injuries, suspensions, and rested players that left nine of Villa’s first XI missing, the visitors were dangerous on the break thanks to a smart game plan that could have worked for Unai Emery - had it not been for Foden’s brilliance.

Emery’s 4-4-2 involves a clever tweak in midfield

As we might have anticipated, Villa sat deep in a 4-4-2 formation that focused on squeezing space in the middle of the pitch, slowing Man City down and waiting for chances to counter-attack.

But this wasn’t quite as simple as Arsenal’s method three days earlier.

Concerned by how Pep Guardiola’s No 8s tend to dictate things, two Villa players were instructed to drop into the back four whenever the ball was on their side of the pitch.

On Villa’s right, Tim Iroegbunam was told to step back to follow Bernardo Silva and provide support against Jack Grealish.

Iroegbunam v Silva

On the other side, Nicolo Zaniolo dropped in to mark Foden, shuttling back and following his man at every opportunity.

Zaniolo v Foden
Guardiola’s use of width causes Villa problems

For the first hour it mostly worked, although Man City still created several good chances because Guardiola had learnt from the Arsenal match.

On Sunday, it took an hour of a narrow and claustrophobic match for Guardiola to bring on Grealish and Jeremy Doku, who provided pure width to pull Arsenal out of their shell.

Emery will be a little annoyed that Guardiola started with that width this time, stretching Villa’s back five until space appeared.

Most notably, Doku’s assist for Rodri’s opener was the result of Zaniolo and Lucas Digne – stretched wider than they expected – getting a little muddled. Zaniolo neither tracked Doku nor closed down Foden.

Doku goal
Villa counter-attack like Emery’s Sevilla and Villarreal

This is hardly the first time Villa have looked to play a purely counter-attacking game under Emery, but it’s difficult to recall an occasion when they burst forward in such high numbers – and seemingly out of nowhere.

Four or five times Villa had a man advantage tearing into the Man City half, evoking those famous European nights at Sevilla and Villarreal when the defending team would spring into action and suddenly find themselves bearing down on goal.

It was intelligent and fine-tuned tactical planning that handed Villa those chances.

Emery recognised there are gaps on either side of Rodri and instructed his players to hit Zaniolo and Morgan Rogers as soon as they won back possession.

These two, occupying the columns of space either side of Rodri and in front of the centre-backs, then looked to carry the ball forward before releasing Villa’s rapid frontline.

And the speed in their attack seemed to scare the Man City centre-backs into retreat, opening up a too-large gap between Rodri and the defensive line, hence that cavalry of claret and blue shirts charging into space.

Aston Villa breaks

The best example was Villa’s equaliser, which highlighted all of Man City’s defensive issues in this game. Notice how Rogers and Zaniolo broke either side of Rodri; how Rico Lewis was caught ahead of the play, and how the centre-backs were in retreat.

Villa goal v City
Foden works out how to break Villa’s midfield

Even at 2-1 down early in the second half Villa were still in the match, but you could sense that Foden was beginning to pull the strings long before his well-taken second goal.

Whether receiving a note from his manager or working it out on his own, something dawned on Foden - if Iroegbunam and Zaniolo were told to drop back, that meant there would be space to be found around Douglas Luiz.

He certainly found it. Drifting further infield to avoid Zaniolo, and no longer seeking possession out wide or close to the Villa goal, Foden ghosted into pockets of space between Douglas Luiz and Zaniolo, a noteworthy shift from his first-half performance.

Below are his touch maps from the first half and the second half. Not only did he take more touches in the second image (46 to 33, despite playing 15 fewer minutes), they were in deeper areas where Villa’s back five could not touch him.

Phil Foden first-half touch map v Aston Villa H 202324
Phil Foden second-half touch map v Aston Villa H 202324

Both of his second-half goals were scored around the "D" with no Villa player near him, a testament to the deftness of his movement after the break.

It was an irrepressible performance, and one that will no doubt leave England fans hoping he plays a more central role – literally and figuratively – at Euro 2024.

But to assume Gareth Southgate could get that kind of performance out of Foden is to misunderstand why and how the 23-year-old starred on Wednesday night.

It took an ultra-deep Villa defence, defined by midfielders dropping into the backline and a team stretched nervously by wide wingers Doku and Grealish, for Foden to discover those spaces.

England can’t do that at an international tournament. Almost no team in the world can, except for Man City.

Foden, then, is in the perfect place to realise his talent.

And performances like this – not the goals he scored, but the way he solved the Villa puzzle before tearing them to shreds – suggest he is ready to fill Kevin De Bruyne’s boots whenever the time comes.

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