How Phil Foden is more Sané than Silva for Manchester City

When Phil Foden was on the cusp of coming through at Manchester City, the buzz around him was of a David Silva successor. 

The 20-year-old referenced this in a recent interview with the BBC too. “I was learning a lot in every training session from David [Silva] because I was playing in his role,” Foden said, “so he would help me and say ‘play one touch’ or ‘turn there’. He helped me and I’m very grateful for that.”

Having now entered the first-team for good, Foden is certainly playing like a former City player this season. However, for all of those comparisons and the ‘Stockport Iniesta’ moniker, it’s not Silva. It’s actually Leroy Sané.

With City going back to using their wide forwards for width high up the field, like in 2018/19, the youngster is taking up the role on the left that the German winger excelled in two years ago. The comparisons don’t end there though, as the production stats of these two seasons are remarkably similar. There’s barely a piece of kinesiology tape between their rates of passes received, touches inside the opposition box, and expected goals contribution, to name only a few metrics.

A statistical comparison between Leroy Sané and Phil Foden.

Given the similarity between these stats — particularly the attacking ones like touches inside the box (6.26 per 90 for 2018/19 Sané, 5.9 per 90 for 2020/21 Foden) and shots attempted (2.54 and 2.27) —  it’s also not surprising that their advanced passes share a similar pattern.

Manchester City are one of few teams whose players regularly attempt — not merely receive — passes from inside the area. Foden’s passes starting in the box, like Sané’s before him, either go backwards into the halfspace or they go square along the six-yard line.

A pass map comparison between Leroy Sané and Phil Foden.
Coral arrows are completed passes, white arrows with round ends are shot assists, blue arrows with star ends are goal assists — incomplete passes showed the same pattern but have been filtered out for clarity

One interpretation of this is that Foden’s playing in something of a cookie-cutter role in one of Guardiola’s systems. Whether this is an accurate interpretation or not shouldn’t take anything away from the youngster, as the stats he’s putting up within this role are genuinely impressive. 

His average of touches inside the box per 90 minutes is third-highest of Premier League forwards and wingers who’ve played more than 1,000 minutes this season. Like the adage that if a player’s good enough, they’re old enough, a player who’s getting the ball in the penalty area that often from talented teammates clearly has something about him.

Phil Foden's stats in the Twenty3 Football Lab.

The rate of expected goals contribution (0.5 per 90) may only be 21st in that group, but it puts him ahead of a host of quality players, including Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Timo Werner, and teammate Riyad Mahrez.

Foden also starts to look a little more like his own player when we move a bit further away from goal. Unlike Sané who stuck close to the touchline through the length of the pitch, Foden’s passes from the middle third are less concentrated (though helped in part by some time on the right flank).

A passing comparison between Leroy Sané and Phil Foden.

This might be some of the ‘Stockport Iniesta’ coming into play, in that Foden is probably more comfortable playing in central areas than Sané was. 

We should probably give Pep Guardiola and the City coaching staff some credit here though. While we can’t be sure why Foden’s role looks so similar to Sané’s from 2018/19, giving a young player a template to follow must surely help them to adapt to playing regular, high-pressure first-team football. The coaches who worked with Sané will be on-hand to work with Foden, along with all of the match and training footage from two years ago that they’ll be able to show the Englishman.

Still, slotting into a ready-made role still requires you to be able to fill it. City fans don’t need to be told to be excited about Foden, but there’s no harm in reiterating it. His performances are very good. He’s now been compared to Silva, one of the best midfielders the club’s ever had, and deployed like Sané, who left for another of the best clubs in the world in Bayern Munich. But Foden’s only 20.

Stockport Iniesta? Maybe in a couple of decades’ time, people will be dubbing Spanish youngsters the ‘Fuentealbilla Foden’.

All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Toolbox.

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