It’s fair to say Manchester City haven’t exactly enjoyed the best of starts to the 2020/21 season. Their inability to pick up all three points against West Ham in their last Premier League game means they have only won two of their opening five league matches, and currently sit 13th in the table.
But while the draw with the Hammers will be viewed as ‘two points dropped’ by most, they were actually very impressive in the second period. Pep Guardiola had seen enough at half time and immediately turned to his bench as he looked to change things up, and it was Phil Foden who would come on and do just that.
Immediately, the intensity increased, while the passing was more incisive and they were able to break the lines more effectively. It took the Englishman just six minutes to grab his side an equaliser, showing the intelligence to hold his run inside the box before receiving the pass and finishing the move off expertly.
It was his energy, movement and tireless work rate which helped City take control of the second period.
Considering his efforts against West Ham, it wasn’t really that much of a surprise to see Foden come back into the starting lineup on the left wing for City’s Champions League tussle with Marseille. One of the main question marks coming into the game, however, was who would be starting up front in the ‘false nine’ role as Guardiola’s two recognised strikers continue to struggle with injuries.
Perhaps it would be Raheem Sterling? He’s more than capable of filling in up front and has done so numerous times before. Or perhaps Guardiola would go with Bernardo Silva? The Portuguese also has the intelligence and experience to play in such a role. Or maybe even Kevin De Bruyne?
But it was none of these players, instead it was Ferran Torres.
It was a big decision by Guardiola to start the summer recruit in this position in what was expected to be a tough away game (which…it really wasn’t). But the Spaniard shone in the role, playing with real confidence and a sense of purpose, grabbing himself a goal in the process as well.
Sure, his movement and understanding of the game was very impressive – especially for a player still so young – but what will have excited City fans most is the connection he is beginning to develop with Foden.
The pair set the tone for the display, not only constantly thinking positively and driving forward when in possession, but also acting as the first line of the press when off the ball. It was this youthful exuberance and fearlessness which caused Marseille problems all evening.
The pair gave the Sky Blues the added energy and intensity – which Foden brought in abundance during the draw with West Ham as well – they have often been missing in the early parts of the season. Their understanding of each other’s game allowed them to continue to pick up pockets of space and drag the Marseille defenders out of position, allowing the City midfielders to play more progressively.
Yes, they put in energetic displays, but the pair also played with real maturity and indeed quality. For Torres, he is most effective when driving with the ball at his feet and being direct. But the former Valencia man showed an awareness throughout the game to know when to come short and allow Foden the chance to make a darting run in behind down the left, as well as when to make the move himself.
Let’s not be mistaken, both Sterling and De Bruyne were typically outstanding against Marseille as well. But it was the way in which Foden and Torres complimented each other’s game throughout the contest which will have been most pleasing for City fans.
Foden, of course, has the ability to play in a more central midfield role, but he once again thrived in the left wing position. As well as being able to stay wide and provide the width for his side, he also benefited from the fact he was able to drift in field and create space for Oleksandr Zinchenko to get forward. But notably, against Marseille, his understanding with Torres allowed him to make subtle changes to impact the game in an even more effective way.
The Sky Blues’ second goal on the evening saw 20-year-old Foden stand the ball up from the left for Sterling, who nodded the ball down for Ilkay Gundogan to tap home. But while Foden ended up in a wide position, he initially started the move more centrally, with Torres shifting over as well, before then making the move into the channel.
Foden and Torres together brought a dimension to this City team which they have been missing at points so far this campaign. And Guardiola must now look to build on their connection by giving them the minutes they showed they deserve against Marseille.
With them in the team, the Sky Blues look far more like their usual menacing self both with and without the ball, and Guardiola must build upon this.
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