Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Why did Phil Foden play at right-wing?

Grealish, De Bruyne, and Bernardo Silva come into the Manchester City side. That’s three changes. To maintain rhythm, Bernardo Silva played on the left to fill in for Gvardiol, taking up similar positions. That is why Phil Foden played at right-wing.

Figure 1.1 - Bernardo Silva holding width on the left as Jérémy Doku inverts infield.
Figure 2.1 - Bernardo Silva quarterbacking the play in a similar position to Josko Gvardiol.
Figure 2.2 - Passing options open to Josko Gvardiol versus Brentford on February 4th.

Josko Gvardiol has been both a player that allows the left-winger to invert and a quarterback when the opposition defense is pinned back. But he was not available due to injury.

The key to consistency when rotating a lineup is to maintain a similar rhythm by making the least amount of changes per game. As Pep Guardiola outlined, two to three changes maximum work best.

Bernardo Silva holds width when Jack Grealish or Jérémy Doku inverts and plays as the quarterback when the opponent is pinned. That allows the rest of the players to act as they have been in previous matches. There’s no adapting to a new dynamic; he slots right in.

You could argue that Phil Foden can do everything Bernardo Silva is doing. Holding width on the left, creating from behind the first line, playing between the lines, dropping to help in their own half.

If Foden plays in that left center-midfield position, Bernardo Silva would play at right-wing.

For now, Pep Guardiola disagrees with you and me. Here he explains when Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden can play together in the midfield:

The teams that play five-at-the-back we could do it; the teams that have a lot of quality, and you have to drop a little bit or defend a little deeper – normally, we play with two holding midfielders – with them, we cannot do that. We have to be with three in the middle, or five. There’s some adjustments maybe we should do. But, of course, they can play together because if they are able to, they can… None of them can play like a holding midfielder proper like Mateo, Matheus, or Gundo in the past with Rodri. So, we have to adjust something.

Figure 3.1 - Bernardo Silva dropping to help as Manchester City get pressed high in their own end.

When FC København press high, Pep Guardiola wants to overload the middle of the pitch with holding midfielders. Bernardo Silva is a trusted magician who knows how to perfectly position himself to both cover for the defenders behind, turn out of danger, and find the correct pass forward. He is a low-risk proven option. Pep doesn’t trust Foden yet to fill that role.

For that reason, Foden is on the right-wing, interchanging with Kevin De Bruyne. If FC København sit back, Kyle Walker will come forward from right-back to right-wing, and Foden inverts into the midfield with Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.

Figure 4.1 - Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden Touchmaps. Credit to 4lex_mcfc, data from WhoScored

When the team are sustaining pressure, Foden tends to stay wide, but as the game settles, they were switching positions with De Bruyne moving wide and Foden moving infield.

Figure 5.1 - Phil Foden cutting infield as Kevin De Bruyne underlaps towards the byline.
Figure 5.2 - Phil Foden continues his run and Kevin De Bruyne cuts back the ball to the top of the six-yard box.
Figure 5.3 - Phil Foden scores.

Foden said after the match, “me and Kevin have made that connection. It’s about building connections. It’s natural.” That’s another positive. Foden on the right is the chemistry between him and De Bruyne. All three of Manchester City’s goals originated from De Bruyne and Foden on that right-wing.

Combine the chemistry of Foden and De Bruyne on the right, the threat of Foden inverting into midfield if FC København sit back, the stability that Bernardo Silva brings to the left side. The decisions that were made made complete sense, but I’d still prefer Phil Foden in the midfield.

Pep Guardiola in October on Phil Foden playing in the midfield:

What I would like at the end is that he plays as a holding midfielder, the two holding midfielders that play there too. For that, he needs to understand the game as a global, in everything, not just ‘me’.

Manchester City is so much more clinical, so much more lively, so much more cutting when Foden is between the lines. The sooner he adapts to playing as a holding midfielder, the better, so they can get him off the wing.

Match: FC København 1-3 Manchester City, 13 February 2024

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