The story of Foden's rise to Man City superstar

By Adrian Kajumba 18 May 2024
Phil Foden through the years

Adrian Kajumba chronicles midfielder's journey to becoming the 2023/24 EA SPORTS Player of the Season

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Adrian Kajumba looks at Phil Foden's journey to becoming among the elite of Manchester City's stars and the 2023/24 EA SPORTS Player of the Season.

“I don't have words. I would like to have the right words to describe what I saw," Pep Guardiola began, as he struggled to process what he had just seen from Foden and tell the assembled press.

"You are lucky guys, believe me, you are the guys who saw his first match in the first-team at Manchester City.

"I've not seen something like I saw today for a long time. His performance was another level. He's a City fan and loves the club. He's a gift for us.”

It was back in July 2017 when Foden left Guardiola in awe with his display in a pre-season friendly against Manchester United in America.

Foden v Man Utd

The diminutive 17-year-old had more than held his own against the likes of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick in his opening taste of senior action, earning him the adulation of his manager.

Countless moments in the years that have followed have justified Guardiola’s praise and why he was so determined to stress to those present that they were privileged to witness the start of something special.

Not least the many Foden, now 23, has delivered during a standout campaign in which he has inspired Man City to the brink of the title and now been crowned the 2023/24 EA SPORTS Player of the Season.

It is an award that has been a long time coming. 

Foden's academy years

“We have this little guy who is pretty good,” the PE teacher at Stockport’s Bridge Hall Primary School said when a Man City coach, there to train the Under-6s, asked the school if they had any other handy footballers.

Foden was that little guy. And from there his Man City association began.

He was only four at the time and had to wait until he was nine to sign for his boyhood club. But he was able to begin honing his skills in Man City training sessions and his talent was quickly evident.

Former City Academy manager Jim Cassell said: "The head of our programme, Terry John, called up and said, 'You've got to come and see our training session, I think we've seen somebody really special.' "

"I can remember seeing him play in our Under-9s team. He was just fantastic.

"He almost manipulated the ball without touching it. His balance was so good, and body positions excellent. He was just such a natural. Unusually special for somebody of that age.”

It was not unusual back then for Man City’s coaching staff to go out of their way, making time in their already packed days, to try and catch a glimpse of Foden in training whenever they could.

And Foden, a one-time Etihad Stadium ballboy, is proud that he has been able to make his way through all of the age groups to reach the first team.

His youth-team battles with Chelsea, as the two clubs developed into main rivals in underage football, are among the standout memories from his academy journey. 

One of his fondest was scoring in the 2017 FA Youth Cup final against Chelsea, with Guardiola watching from the stands.

Foden v Chelsea

Some of players from that match will be very familiar to football fans.

Burnley’s Arijanet Muric, Jadon Sancho (on loan at Borussia Dortmund from Man Utd), Bayer Leverkusen’s Bundesliga champion Jeremie Frimpong and Real Madrid’s Brahim Diaz were some of Foden’s team-mates back then.

Reece James, Trevoh Chalobah, Conor Gallagher, who remain at Chelsea, plus Marc Guehi, Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi, now at Crystal Palace, Man Utd and Nottingham Forest respectively, lined up for the opposition.

It was around this time that Foden was coming to wider attention.

In May 2017 he scored as England lost their Under-17 European final against Spain 4-1 on penalties.

He was then a big reason why they gained revenge against Spain to win the Under-17 FIFA World Cup in October of the same year. Foden scored twice more in the 5-2 final win and was named the tournament’s best player. 

A global audience was now getting to witness what City had been seeing for years. 

Development under Guardiola

A month later, in November 2017, Foden was handed his competitive club debut by Guardiola in a UEFA Champions League tie against Feyenoord. 

Foden MCI debut

And the star he has gone on to become shows the value of his patience and trust in Guardiola’s methods along with being testament to his considerable qualities.

Guardiola has managed the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi, but it is Foden who he has hailed as “the most talented player I have ever seen in my career as a manager”. 

Not that such high praise meant preferential treatment. Foden has had to bide his time to become what he has, something that was not always easy.

He found his lack of minutes at times “really tough” leading to “a few conversations” with Guardiola about the situation.


The main message in response from Guardiola was “be patient.” 

He has had more established names ahead of him such as Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez, which was both a blessing and a curse.

Foden PL goals/assists since 20/21
Season Goals Assists Goals + assists Played
2020/21 9 5 14 28
2021/22 9 5 14 28
2022/23 11 5 16 32
2023/24 17 8 25 34

Experienced internationals to learn from but also obstacles to first-team football.

But the idea of Foden being loaned out to accelerate his development was always dismissed whenever it cropped up.

"No way. Impossible. He is going to stay with us many, many years,” Guardiola said.

He considered being at City and under his watch the best environment to enable Foden to flourish.

Foden, meanwhile, never thought about wearing another shirt, not even temporarily.

“I always see myself as a City player,” he said. 

And over the years, Guardiola has proved true to his word. Foden’s time and chances have increasingly come.

Foden's PL matches
Season Played Started Minutes
2020/21 28 17 1,613
2021/22 28 24 2,133
2022/23 32 22 1,843
2023/24 34 32 2,776

“He started throwing me in in massive games,” Foden told the official club podcast this season.

“I remember the Tottenham [Hotspur] game at home [in April 2019] when he started me. It was a shock and I ended up scoring the winning goal. 

“It was moments like that he was trying to prepare me for and I had to make sure I was ready.”

Foden in 2023/24

This season, especially Man City, have benefited from Foden being primed to maximise opportunity.

Man City have been without two of their most important figures, De Bruyne and Erling Haaland, for extended periods due to injury.

In their absence, Foden has been one of the stars to step up, decorating this season with numerous contributions vital to Man City’s quest for a record fourth successive title.

Foden’s 17 goals, including hat-tricks against Brentford and Aston Villa, make him Man City’s second-top league scorer behind Haaland. 

Only Rodri, Julian Alvarez and De Bruyne have more than his eight assists. 

No Man City player has created more than Foden’s 60 open-play chances.

He is also in their top two for Expected Assists (xA) and shots, and top three for Expected Goals (xG) and passes into the box, underlining his crucial role in their attacking threat.

Foden's goal threat in 2023/24
23/24 Total PL rank Club rank
Expected Goals 10.1 19th 3rd
Expected Assists 6.6 13th 2nd
Total shots 99 7th= 2nd
Chances created open play 60 8th 1st
Passes into box (inc. crosses) 138 34th 3rd

Foden’s goal contributions total of 25 is only topped at City by Haaland’s 32. 

His goal and assist figures are career bests for Foden, continuing his trend of season-on-season improvement. 

Foden has also never started more Premier League matches (32), made more top-flight appearances (34) or racked up more minutes (2,776) than he has this season.

And it is not just his game time which confirms his growing importance and the rising trust Guardiola has in Foden.

He has continued to be primarily used out wide. But his heat maps for this season, compared to last, show the increased licence to influence the game in central areas, as No 10 which Foden feels is his best position.

Foden heat and touch map

The position Foden now finds himself in is the sort he would have dreamed of when he was starting out.

"It’a been a hell of a journey,” he says.

One that has already contained so many highs, both collective and individual, with his coronation as the Premier League’s best player the latest.

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