Have England seen the best of Phil Foden? Even Foden himself does not think so. “Definitely not,” he admits.
There are reasons for that. “You have to learn to play with different players and what they like best – running behind or wanting balls to feet,” he says, while taking a break from Al Wakrah’s temperatures in the mid-30s and sitting down in the vast, air-conditioned sports hall that forms part of England’s World Cup base camp. But there’s also a belief he has had “enough experience” to know those little details by now.
Widely regarded as the most naturally gifted English player of his generation, Foden is yet to consistently display his undoubted ability in an England shirt. Since making his debut, he has only scored twice. Both came in one game, a routine 4-0 win over Iceland, exactly two years ago today.
It’s not as though he hasn’t come close to adding to that tally. There was the shot against the post in the early stages against Croatia, during England’s opening game of Euro 2020, when the Manchester City youngster came within a whisker of making his major tournament debut especially memorable. “It could have turned my tournament around had that gone in.”
And yet as a moment, it rather summed up Foden’s international career up to this point. You could make a case for the 22-year-old to be the unluckiest player in Gareth Southgate’s squad over the past two years, with his opportunities limited by illness, injury or the looming threat of suspension. Every time Southgate wants to give him an extended run in the side, something somehow gets in the way.
Foden still has regrets over the flamboyant piece of skill performed at the end of a training session that led to him breaking his foot and missing the final against Italy.
“It was literally nothing, doing a bit of long passing after training and I decided to do some kind of touch and I just felt something in my foot, I couldn’t walk over,” he recalls. “It is strange how things happen sometimes. It was quite bad actually. They said to me it was an injury you don’t see very often.”
But even when he has played, there has been a sense of potential untapped. Foden is yet to nail down a regular position in England’s line-up. That has not necessarily been an issue at City, with Pep Guardiola’s more fluid interpretation of roles and duties, but it feels necessary in Southgate’s more rigid set-up. Foden would happily play anywhere for England, of course, but having largely been confined to the wing, he has his eyes on a more central role.
“I see myself playing behind the striker in the future or one of the eights or tens at City. Hopefully in the future I can play there more and show more of my game.”
A central role would certainly mean fewer rivals for a place. England’s talent is heavily concentrated out wide to the point where even a player of Foden’s ability cannot be certain of their place. Whether he or Bukayo Saka starts in attack with Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling is the closest call that Southgate has to make before Group B’s opener against Iran on Monday.
If Foden has one unique advantage over the competition, though, it is that he is a World Cup winner. “I don’t think they realise,” he says. “I’m going to have to tell them that I’ve already won the World Cup, aren’t I?” Foden scored the goal in the under-17s final five years ago that put England ahead on the night. And despite being one of six members of that squad to since earn a senior cap, he is the only one to make Southgate’s 26-man cut for this tournament.
“I do remember strongly the team just being so confident,” he says. “Not being big headed, but we just knew that we were going to win the World Cup because of how good we were and the talent we had… Even when we were behind in the final, you could just see we carried on playing the same way and just believed that we were going to win it. It was so good just to be a part of that group. It was very special.”
Foden sees similarities with this squad.
“Definitely. It’s the same here,” he adds. “Obviously from the Euros, making it to the final gives the team a big lift. I think Harry [Kane] has already touched on it. He sees us as one of the favourites. We’ve just got to be confident and believe in that.”
That under-17s win was hailed at the time as the sign of a brighter future and Foden was its brightest spark.
England’s chances of success in Qatar – or at least having a successful – will be helped greatly if Southgate can finally extract the best out of a player who could prove to be a generational talent.