It’s the most expensive team in sports—but the best player came for free

Phil Foden poses with the Premier League trophy at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester on 19 May. Photo: AFP
Phil Foden poses with the Premier League trophy at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester on 19 May. Photo: AFP

Summary

Phil Foden has been a Manchester City player since the Under-9 team. But even in a squad of expensively acquired international talent, he turned into the club’s player of the season.

The absurd collection of talent that lifted the Premier League trophy on Sunday—a group of dazzling players plucked from nearly a dozen countries—cost Manchester City some $1.4 billion to assemble. For yet another season, it was the most expensive squad in professional sports.

But the club’s player of the year, the one who lit up the team and scored the goals that finally sealed the title, was a guy it picked up for free.

Discovered in the town of Stockport, less than 10 miles from City’s stadium, Phil Foden is the homegrown superstar who cost one of the richest clubs in soccer exactly nothing to sign. He first joined the club with the Under-9s, rose through the youth academy, and made his professional debut at 17.

Six years later, Foden’s silverware collection now includes an Under-17 World Cup with England, six Premier League titles, one Champions League, and two FA Cups—he can add a third when City faces Manchester United in the FA Cup final.

“He is 23 years old and he has won trophies like an animal," says City sporting director Txiki Begiristain, who has overseen Foden’s development since he was a preteen. “His progression has been unbelievable."

City manager Pep Guardiola long ago dubbed Foden his player of the season, weeks before the Premier League officially handed him that distinction this month. A shifty dribbler who can shoot from anywhere, he scored 27 goals in 51 appearances across all competitions, without being a striker. This summer, Foden is set to be an essential piece for the England national team at the European Championship.

“He can do whatever he wants," Guardiola said. “He’s a really top-class player."

How a club with the Gulf-backed wealth of Manchester City wound up with possibly the biggest bargain in world soccer is depressing proof for the rest of the Premier League that City doesn’t just work richer than most clubs. It also works smarter.

That’s because Foden embodies the all-encompassing strategy City’s brain trust has been working on for over a decade, ever since it landed in the Northwest of England. Years before Guardiola moved there in 2016, many of his former FC Barcelona colleagues were already in place. Begiristain joined in 2012 and set about remodeling the youth academy along the lines of Barça’s La Masia, soccer’s answer to a Swiss finishing school.

Man City knew it was going to spend lavishly in the transfer market, but in the long-term Begiristain understood it also needed its own hothouse of talent. Not only did homegrown players save hundreds of millions on transfer fees, they also helped City comply with complex league rules on roster construction.

Plus, they might end up growing a soccer prodigy along the way.

Growing up in the modern City system, shaped by Guardiola and his acolytes, gave Foden access to a world of soccer that generations of English players before him never could have imagined. In effect, this 5-foot-7 kid from Stockport had the closest thing to a Barcelona education without setting foot in Spain.

If Guardiola seems like he has brought Foden along slowly, it’s only because he’s been so deliberate. But Foden’s numbers show just how fast he has risen. This season, he became the youngest Englishman to reach 50 appearances in the Champions League. Before that, he also became the youngest player Guardiola has ever coached to reach 50 career goals—ahead of a former Pep pupil named Lionel Messi.

“You have the sense, when he has the ball and he’s attacking the last line that he’s going to score," Guardiola said. “Now he is scoring goals and winning games. And when you do this, you reach another level as a player."

Foden is so versatile that he occasionally becomes a headache for his coaches. He can comfortably play in at least five different positions. Until this season, Guardiola deployed him mostly on the wing to blow past defenders and swing dangerous balls into the penalty area. England manager Gareth Southgate has generally done the same. But both coaches know that Foden’s preference is to play through the center, pulling the strings of an entire attack. The problem for Foden is that he happens to be on a pair of extremely crowded rosters.

“Because of the players we have," Begiristain said, “he has been sacrificing himself for the team by playing in wide areas."

That is now on the verge of changing for good. The first step in Foden’s recent surge was finessing his running technique during the Covid lockdown. The next one was realizing that in order to play more centrally, he no longer needed to speed up. Foden had to learn how to slam on the brakes.

“Right now, he’s best suited on the wings," Guardiola said in 2022. Through the middle of the field, “there has to be the pausa."

Guardiola was referring to the special feel that playmakers have for changing the pace and flow of a passing move. It’s a central tenet of Barcelona’s style—the split-second pause to freeze a defense—and Foden needed to show he could master it.

“Being an attacking player at City, you want that responsibility to try and score goals and assist my teammates," Foden said. “I put that pressure on myself and I like that pressure."

His chance arrived early this season, when playmaker Kevin De Bruyne was sidelined for four months with a hamstring injury. Ahead of schedule, Foden suddenly got his wish to play through the middle.

“One of the secrets at the high level is adapting to the chaos," Guardiola said.

Foden didn’t disappoint. On top of 19 league goals, he delivered eight assists, and was a no-brainer for award voters, becoming the fifth consecutive City player to win the league’s Player of the Season prize.

The difference is that the others had cost Man City an average of $75 million apiece. Foden is the player of the year that the club grew for free.

Write to Joshua Robinson at Joshua.Robinson@wsj.com

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