Phil Foden had the Gazza big tournament blond rinse and, in the end, he also had the tears. How the England midfielder was ruled out of the Euro 2020 final against Italy seemed to drift under the radar, partly because he was never going to start, the championship having rather slipped away from him – and not entirely because of anything he had done wrong.
But it was devastating for Foden and one that hindsight has cast in an even more frustrating light. Because how can anybody watch him running riot in the World Cup qualifier against Andorra on Saturday night or the Premier League game at Liverpool for Manchester City the previous Sunday and not wonder whether he might have been able to influence the final – even as a substitute?
Foden had hurt his foot in training during the countdown to the Italy match which England lost on penalties and, although it was described as minor at the time, it shattered his dreams. The injury turned out to be one of those that baffled a lot of people; ultimately, it kept him out for two months.
Foden has spoken about how he “just burst out crying” with Gareth Southgate and the England manager would also prefer to forget the moment when it was clear he would have to make do without him.
“As a dad, you are talking to a 21-year-old kid and you know how much it meant to all those players to be involved in that game,” Southgate said.
“So it is heartbreaking when you are sharing a moment like that with a player. It wasn’t a case of me having to rule him out. He just knew. He tried to run and knew it wasn’t going to be possible. It was a big blow for us.”
A brief recap. Foden had started the tournament in the team, flickering against Croatia in the opening tie when he hit the post after five minutes before being booked in the second half for a foul on Josko Gvardiol. Like everybody, he struggled in game two against Scotland. Then things spiralled out of his control. Foden was in Southgate’s lineup for the final group game against the Czech Republic only to be removed from the squad after Mason Mount’s close contact with a Covid-positive Billy Gilmour – and the requirement for him to self-isolate for 10 days. With Mount then unlikely to be ready for the last-16 match, Southgate felt he had no option but to protect Foden from a possible second yellow card against the Czechs and suspension from the last 16.
In came Bukayo Saka, who excelled, and Southgate knew he had to persist with him in the first knockout round against Germany. Foden was an unused substitute, as he was in the quarter-final against Ukraine when Southgate started Jadon Sancho. Foden did play well as an extra-time substitute in the semi-final against Denmark but the tournament had been disfigured for him on a personal level.
The injury represented the low point and it is certainly not easy for a young player to recover from such a testing experience. But Foden is not just any young player and Southgate has not been surprised to see him back to his mesmerising best so quickly. Having returned for City in the middle of last month, Foden found the ignition point in the win at Chelsea on 25 September, impressing as a false nine. At Liverpool, he played off the left and subjected the makeshift right-back, James Milner, to a torrid time.
“Look, in football you have to be resilient,” Southgate said. “From when they have been 12, 13 they have always been judged, always been assessed. Phil has got that toughness. I don’t doubt that is ever going to be an issue for him. He has that in his make-up. Whatever is thrown his way he will be able to handle it.”
Against Andorra, Southgate used Foden as one of the No 8s in a 4-3-3 system, although he remains unsure as to where he will eventually land in terms of his best position. He noted that Foden could play anywhere across the front line – “as a 7, 11, 10 or 8” – although he wondered whether the No 10 role in a classic 4-3-3 might be the fit. “If he was the 10 within that but with the capability to drop lower and build the play, at times, as he did here in Andorra … ” Much would depend in that set-up on the profile of the No 8.
Foden showcased the full range of his passing – some of his longer stuff felt laser-guided – plus his hunger to receive the ball and drive the team. Southgate has an extensive range of attacking midfield options but it feels unthinkable that, moving forward towards the World Cup finals, Foden, who was 21 in May, will not be at the top of the list.
“We’ve known since [Foden was] 15, 16 what might be possible and we are seeing that,” Southgate said. “His evolution at his club has been perfect, really. For lots of us, we were probably waiting for him to get established in that City team and you have to say that Pep [Guardiola] has managed that really well. Phil is flourishing. We know what is possible.”
Cue the expectation management. It was only Andorra. And, at Liverpool, it had only been Milner. “With respect to Millie, he played against Millie,” Southgate said, with a smile. “I am not trying to diminish what he’s shown and what’s possible. But I don’t want to create too much for him. The danger is we create too much and it’s too much to live up to. Let us just enjoy him. He is a special player, without a doubt.”