The time is approaching when Pep Guardiola has to to show that actions speak louder than words when it comes to Phil Foden.
Manchester City’s manager has been gushing in his praise for the 20-year-old midfielder during his time at the Etihad, hailing him as “the best player he’s ever worked with” and the natural successor to David Silva.
But while Guardiola has indeed given Foden more minutes on the pitch following Silva’s departure from the club, it seems the Catalan has a conundrum when it comes to finding him a niche in his team.
Foden has started seven of City’s 12 games this season and has come on as a sub in three more.
Only Raheem Sterling and Ferran Torres have scored more than the three goals he currently has under his belt.
So it’s not as though the player City fans call the ‘Stockport Iniesta’ will be slapping in a transfer request.
But Foden has started City’s last three Premier League games on the bench.
And on Sunday, there was a bizarre scene 10 minutes from the end of the 1-1 draw with Liverpool that seemed to illustrate the quandary that Guardiola faces.
Foden was stripped and ready to come into the game when Guardiola placed an arm around the midfielder’s shoulder and uttered a few last words of encouragement.
But then Kevin De Bruyne assured his boss that the ankle knock that had seen him spend the previous 10 minutes limping heavily was not enough to force him off.
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And with the champions dead on their feet, Foden’s afternoon was over.
After a blistering opening salvo in which they had City on the ropes, Jurgen Klopp’s side dug in for a point.
But with De Bruyne clearly struggling and both Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri instructed to sit deep in a bid to guard against Liverpool counter-attacks, Guardiola also decided to protect what he had.
Perhaps the Catalan has had his fingers burned too many times and is opting for a more cautious approach in a season where the points tally to lift the title is likely to be a lot lower than in the previous three years.
That seems ironic, given that City now appear to have the genesis of a formidable central defensive partnership in the shape of Aymetic Laporte and Ruben Dias.
Does Phil Foden deserve to be handed a spot in the starting XI? Have your say here.
But Guardiola does indeed seem to have become more conservative since Leicester and Leeds exposed his team’s continuing frailties on the break.
And if Pep 2.0 has decided that the Gundogan-Rodri axis solves that weakness then something has to give.
Especially in the big games that often decide the outcome of the title race.
If De Bruyne is fit, he plays. In fact, as Sunday proved, he plays even when he isn’t 100 percent.
With Riyad Mahrez left out of the squad to face Liverpool, Foden would have expected to have been starting.
Much of his time in City’s team has been spent in wide positions, despite him being a player who loves to operate from a more central role.
Instead, Guardiola opted for another 20-year-old against Jurgen Klopp’s side in winger Torres.
The £21million signing from Valencia made way for another frustrated midfielder when Bernardo Silva got the nod in the second half.
Playing wide doesn’t feel natural for either Foden or Silva.
They will have linked up with England and Portugal respectively this week hoping to feature in their more favoured position.
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