Pre-season in 2017 is a different beast compared to what it was 10, seven or even five years ago. Once a quiet period in which managers could tweak their squads and tactics in relative peace, contemporary summers attract an intense media glare that micro-analyses and judges every decision, every move.
It's rarely anything but an unhappy place. With fans able to watch every step of their favourite sides' preparations for the upcoming league season, they fret on social media over all manner of details: star players leaving, why so few new recruits have been secured, what formations are on display and who's picking up injuries. Any little thing that goes wrong is pounced on in the most hyperbolic of fashions.
It's full of cliches and long mileage; most sides now traipse across the globe to fulfil marketing commitments, and we're told repeatedly that the results accrued during this period are meaningless and the games are solely important for fitness and sharpness.
So why do we tune in so avidly?
There's one positive of pre-season that cuts through the dimness and provides a fresh outlook on the sport. Squads are often packed with the best youngsters clubs house, and it's a rare chance for them to perform alongside the seniors. The terrace love for an academy boy who impresses matches the excitement felt in seeing a big-money acquisition take to the pitch for the first time.
The Premier League's top teams have all offered us a glimpse into their futures this summer, rolling out a slew of talented teens in a variety of positions and roles. But while Liverpool's Dominic Solanke has impressed and Arsenal's Reiss Nelson has wowed, no youngster has dropped jaws like Manchester City's Phil Foden.
Back in May, City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak announced that Foden—along with Jadon Sancho and Brahim Diaz—would join the first-team squad for the 2017-18 season, per Jamie Jackson of the Guardian. All three are ferociously talented players and, in theory, would suit Pep Guardiola's playing style well.
But few would have expected one of them to impress in the manner he has with such swiftness. City locked horns with rivals Manchester United during their U.S. tour, and Foden stole the show, jinking past world-class players with ease, playing an integral role in a quick-passing game and creating chances.
"I don't have words—I would like to have the right words to describe what I saw," Guardiola said after the game, per Paul Handler of City's official site. "It's a long time since I saw something like this. His performance was another level. He's special."
It's important to note Guardiola can get carried away in his effusive praise of players. For example, when in charge of Bayern Munich, he told reporters that he would "love to have 1,000 Dantes in his team." A month later, he sold the Brazilian centre-back to VfL Wolfsburg.
But it's easy to see why Guardiola is raving about Foden. Despite only turning 17 in May, he featured prominently in Manchester City's run to the FA Youth Cup final at under-18 level, netting against Stoke City in the semi-final and against winners Chelsea in the final. He's also been tremendous for England's under-17 setup over the past 12 months, helping them to the final of the European Championship in July.
Foden is one of a few English teenagers helping to redefine what kind of playmaker the country produces. He, like Mason Mount of Chelsea (18), is not only technically brilliant but also understands how to use space, play on the half-turn, spark up-tempo passages of play and find room on the blindside of markers.
For City's youth sides last season, he largely featured as a central midfielder, pushing forward positively into space with the ball, or as a No. 10, dropping into pockets of space, linking play and shooting. For England, he's mostly featured wide right, but he naturally cuts inside and—thanks to a near-telepathic connection with team-mate Sancho—is able to create several clear-cut chances per game with sweeping passes in behind.
So at ease on the ball, Foden is difficult to dispossess. He plays one-touch passes as often as possible, making himself tough to close down, keeping the opponent on the back foot. He'll let the ball run across him to leave a marker in his dust, then surge into space and deliver a killer ball into a runner's path. Foden is a slippery customer.
His ability to wriggle away from challenges in a David Silva-esque fashion gives him the confidence to take players on and beat them across the middle. He produces little touches here and there to manipulate the ball in such a way that he is difficult to dispossess—also like Silva. Perhaps it's unsurprising he boasts similarities to the Spaniard; he labelled him his idol in July, per Handler.
Against Manchester United, it was Foden's combination of a constant hunger for the ball, exquisite touches, ability to play on the half-turn and intelligent pressing that sent Guardiola into seventh heaven. It earned him further chances to impress against Real Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United. It has been a transformative summer for the teenager.
Foden is a potent mix of highlight-reel moments and sensible thinking. He gets you up off your seat with slinky moves and devastatingly accurate passes but also shows a control in tight areas rarely mastered. There is more than a hint of Silva in him; is he the Spaniard's heir apparent?