Two overwhelming emotions bubbled to the surface during England’s 5-0 hammering of Andorra on Saturday night.
1) Good lord, Phil Foden is the undoubted future of this Three Lions side.
And 2) How different may the Euro 2020 final have been had the Manchester City starlet been fit to face Italy at Wembley stadium.
In truth, we can sleep soundly at night safe in the knowledge that Foden probably wouldn’t have started against the Azzurri anyway, and had he made the lineup, he wouldn’t have been tasked with dictating play from the midfield.
But Gareth Southgate handed the 21-year-old the keys to the England midfield on Saturday, and he delivered one of the most sumptuous and encouraging displays that we’ve seen from him when pulling on the white jersey.
Foden started the match alongside Jesse Lingard and James Ward-Prowse in the midfield, and his role was apparent from the off. Lingard was the shuttler, Ward-Prowse the sitter, and Foden the deep-lying playmaker.
It was something we’ve seen little of from the youngster, who tends to play his football out wide, in behind the striker or even acting as a false nine in the absence of a proper centre-forward at Manchester City. So it was exciting to see him collect the ball deeper on the pitch, and be awarded the time and space needed to showcase his stunning array of passes.
He occupied the inside right of the midfield, looking to penetrate a defence that was so stodgy and enjoyed repelling standard crosses from wide, it would need a special type of pass to catch them off guard.
Foden quickly realised that a slightly diagonal, long floated pass over the top of the Andorra defence was their weakness, having picked out Ben Chilwell with a tester early on. The left-back fluffed his lines, but it was a warning shot for the hosts, and a chink in the armour spotted by the visitors.
It’s one thing knowing how to hurt your opponents, but it’s worlds away from actually being able to capitalise on that weakness. Incredibly, Foden did it time and time and time again.
On 18 minutes, his England teammates profited from his majesty. Foden clipped a missile over the Andorra defence which Jadon Sancho read perfectly. The forward controlled the ball, cut it back to Chilwell, and this time, the defender made no mistake.
The hosts continued to afford him the time he needed in the middle of the park, and he never took his foot off the punishment pedal. The Man City star curled another beauty behind the opposition backline and found Bukayo Saka in space, through on goal, and the Arsenal man doubled the lead.
From then on, it was nothing short of an exhibition on moving the ball wide, passing with tempo and controlling a game. Foden ended the match with a 95% pass success rate, including 100% in his nine attempted long balls. Simply sensational.
Of course, these types of performances will come with the caveat: But it was only against Andorra, so let’s not read into it too much.
And that’s not an entirely wrong, if a little boring opinion.
But the exact thing that has been holding England back over the years is their inability to control matches and dominate the midfield battle against the big teams in crucial fixtures – which ultimately proved their downfall in the Euro 2020 final, too.
That doesn’t necessarily stem from a systematic issue, but from a lack of a player capable of standing up to the world’s giants and matching them toe to toe. In Foden, England boast someone who could do just that.
He may not be physically intimidating, but he can control games with the speed at which he plays it both in his mind and with his feet. He can set the tempo for the rest of the England team, and with the likes of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips alongside him, he can not only win games for his country, but dominate them.
Roy Keane compared Foden to American Football quarterback Tom Brady, due to his unerring ability to constantly find his man with a pass, no matter how complicated or clutch the delivery.
And while any cross-sport comparison tends to always be slightly off the mark in some respect, there is one truth behind it: Brady is widely considered to be the best at what he does in his sport, and if he continues to grow in this role, Foden can launch himself into that conversation with England over the coming years.