Why Man City's Foden has to be a Player of the Year contender

ESPN FC crew heap praise on 'special' Phil Foden after hat trick (1:50)

The "ESPN FC" crew laud the performance of Phil Foden after he scored a hat trick in Manchester City's 4-1 win over Aston Villa. (1:50)

It looks like Pep Guardiola was right all along about Phil Foden. The Manchester City manager always pleaded for patience when asked why the midfielder was being rotated, given game time every now and then and generally used as a reliable stand-in when more experienced teammates were rested or saved for a bigger game on the horizon. But Foden is now that player.

The 23-year-old sat out Saturday's 4-2 Premier League win at Crystal Palace, three days after scoring a hat trick against Aston Villa, because Guardiola wants him absolutely fit and firing for the much bigger challenge of facing Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu in Tuesday's UEFA Champions League quarterfinal first leg. He is now one of his manager's indispensable performers.

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"I would love to have Phil on the pitch -- I am not stupid," Guardiola said after leaving him on the bench for 90 minutes at Palace. "I would like to see him, but there is a lot of games, a lot of players, and that is why I decide for that.

"Look at the game Phil played against Arsenal, 96 minutes, and friendly games with the national team -- he could not move. So it is a lot of games and that is why we decide for that, but it's difficult to leave him out."

We are now in voting season for the big individual awards in the Premier League -- the Football Writers' Footballer of the Year and the Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year -- and Foden is as strong a candidate as any to win one or both of them.

It's hard to believe that the England international is 24 at the end of May. He seems to have been on the scene forever at City, having made his debut as a 17-year-old with a 15-minute substitute appearance in the Champions League group stage win against Feyenoord in November 2017. But, despite his presence in and around the team for the past seven years, it is only now that Foden is beginning to look and feel like one of Guardiola's main men.

Foden announced himself to the world by winning the Golden Ball for player of the tournament during England's Under-17 World Cup triumph in India in 2017. At the outset of his career at City, he was regarded as the jewel in the club's youth academy and the player who would become the face of the setup, just as Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta were at Barcelona following their progression from La Masia.

But despite racking up plenty of substitute appearances during the early years of Guardiola's reign, the numbers were deceptive. Foden's total time on the pitch in Premier League matches (43 minutes in 2017-18, 327 in 2018-19, 892 in 2019-20) told the true story of Guardiola using him sparingly. With David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gündogan, Bernardo Silva, Jack Grealish, Riyad Mahrez and Sergio Agüero all, at some point, blocking Foden's route into the team, he dipped in and out of the side. He won plenty of medals, but rarely looking like a regular starter.

Guardiola resisted the idea of sending Foden out on loan, with the club believing that he would benefit more from training and playing alongside his illustrious teammates than spending a season at another club. Better to have his talents polished in the ultimate football finishing school of City's stellar first-team squad rather than maybe learning bad habits elsewhere.

The careful nurturing of their special talent has led to Foden establishing himself as one of the team's most important players and his time on the pitch this season in the Premier League tell that story. He has already racked up 2,456 minutes and is on course to break the 3,000 barrier. His previous best was 2,134 minutes in 2021-22, so those numbers say everything about his new status in Guardiola's team.

Only Erling Haaland has scored more goals than Foden for City this season, and his hat trick against Villa was last week was his second this year, having also scored three in the 3-1 win at Brentford in February. He also has seven assists in the Premier League, more than 25% of his career total of 25 in the competition.

Heading into Euro 2024, the big question facing England manager Gareth Southgate is whether he will find a place for Foden in the starting XI. It shouldn't even be a debate, but maybe his versatility is counting against him with the national team as, perhaps, it has done with City over the years because he has yet to prove himself a specialist in one role. Foden can, and has, played in every position in the front three and also in midfield for City. This season, Guardiola has largely started him on the right wing this season, but he has also deployed him in the No. 10 role, as a left winger, on the right of midfield and even once as a centre-forward.

With De Bruyne approaching his 33rd birthday in June and Gundogan having left for Barcelona last summer, it seems inevitable that Foden will sooner or later gravitate toward a more central midfield role and become the heartbeat of Guardiola's side. City's failure to beat Madrid to the signing of Jude Bellingham last summer has also, inadvertently, worked in Foden's favour due to the absence of yet another world-class midfielder at the club.

But Foden is now showing that he is no one's understudy -- not De Bruyne's, nor Bellingham's -- and he might just rival his England teammate for the Ballon d'Or this year if he can help inspire City to another Treble.

He played his part in last season's historic success, but Foden is at the heart of everything this year for City and has few rivals for the Footballer of the Year awards. And he has now has two months, and three competitions, to show just how important he has become for Guardiola and City.