Pep Guardiola's drastic change for Phil Foden might just solve England's problems

Phil Foden was anonymous during England's Euro 2024 opener against Serbia
-Credit: (Image: Offside via Getty Images)

Pep Guardiola has already offered a bold tactical solution to England’s Phil Foden problems.

Gareth Southgate’s men secured all three points in their Euro 2024 Group C opener against Serbia on Sunday, winning 1-0 thanks to an early Jude Bellingham header. But it was far from a vintage performance as England ceded control in the second half and allowed Serbia to grow into the game, grinding out a slim victory thanks to a solid defensive and goalkeeping display.

There was plenty of scrutiny post-match as viewers sought to identify the Three Lions’ shortcomings, with Foden’s performance – drifting in from the left flank – receiving much criticism. The Manchester City star and Premier League Player of the Season was anonymous for large parts of the game and failed to have any kind of impact without an overlapping left-back and occupying the same space as Harry Kane and Bellingham.

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It gave way to critics calling for him to be dropped against Denmark on Thursday, while others blamed Southgate for not utilising him in a central-attacking midfield position. However, City manager and tactical genius Guardiola provided another alternative on how to utilise Foden back in 2023.

Having yet to deploy Foden there in his career, Guardiola claimed the midfielder has the potential to flourish in a deeper role. That is despite the 24-year-old scoring 27 goals last season and largely being seen as an attacker, either through the middle or on the wings.

"When Phil plays as a right-winger, he can do it," said Guardiola. "In the beginning when he played as a left-winger, he played well. In the middle he can play right, left, in the pockets - no problem.

"What I would like in the end is that he plays as a holding midfielder, or one of two holding midfielders. For that, he needs to understand the game as a whole, in everything, not just 'me'.

Foden has thrived under tactical genius Pep Guardiola [L]
Foden has thrived under tactical genius Pep Guardiola [L] -Credit:AFP via Getty Images

"But at the same time, he has this instinct, natural, like the big talents, in the final third. I’m not going to stop him. I’m not going to step in and say, 'Don’t do that!' Because he’s unique."

Discussing the prospect of Foden moving further back in midfield, Guardiola added: "Sometimes it is the step one has to gain as a football player, playing in that position which carries some duties for the team."

The Spaniard’s words at the time caused a stir due to Foden’s guile, final ball and eye for goal being more suited to an attacking role. Yet similarly technical players such as Bernardo Silva, Xavi Hernandez, Santi Cazorla, Andres Iniesta and even Luka Modric have flourished by dropping deeper in the past, becoming integral to build-up play in the second phase of the attack.

It is important to note that Guardiola was likely offering his thoughts in terms of Foden later on in his career, when his pace declines and he has gained enough tactical knowledge to successfully play deeper. And Foden himself even revealed early on in the season that his favourite position is in the No.10 role, currently occupied by star man Bellingham for England.

Foden in a deeper role could aid England's midfield problems in the long term
Foden in a deeper role could aid England's midfield problems in the long term -Credit:Getty Images

But a player with his passing ability and press resistance playing alongside Declan Rice in the double pivot may kill two birds with one stone for Southgate – not having to drop one of his most talented players while solving the midfield problem.

Southgate experimented by playing Trent Alexander-Arnold, who primarily figures at right-back for Liverpool, in the middle against Serbia. His interception was crucial in the build-up to the goal – but he clearly lacked the legs and spatial awareness under pressure to become England’s very own Toni Kroos, as his advocates had hypothesised.

Foden’s midfield experience could make him just that – though Kobbie Mainoo, Adam Wharton and Conor Gallagher remain ahead of him in the current pecking order for that role. Meanwhile, other more natural options for Southgate on the left wing include Anthony Gordon and Eberechi Eze.

Spain's 2010 World Cup-winning midfielder Cesc Fabregas argued that getting the best out of Foden is not down to the manager but the player’s desire and mentality himself during his punditry for the BBC. Whether Southgate decides to drop him, play him in a different position, or the Stockport man finally decides to rise up to the occasion at international level, England’s Foden dilemma must be solved if they are to win this tournament.