Phil Foden and the Talent Factory: Exclusive extract from Pep’s City

This is a chapter from Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam, by Pol Ballus and Lu Martin. The two Catalan journalists had unparalleled access to Pep Guardiola’s inner sanctum for the book. 

Saturday, November 11, 2016. Wolverhampton’s under-18s have been thrashed 6-1 by Manchester City. It’s all everyone can talk about at the academy. Could this be the greatest generation of young players the club has ever seen? A few of today’s performances suggest this might well be the case. Phil Foden, for example, one of the goalscorers: already an accomplished player at this level, a starter at the age of 16. Jadon Sancho, newly arrived from Watford, starts on the bench but comes on for the last 20 minutes and scores the sixth. Striker Joe Hardy scores a hat-trick. Midfielder Will Patching, an 18-year-old England international at under-16, -17 and -18 level, who is recovering from injury and therefore only plays a few minutes of the game, also makes his mark, producing a screamer from outside the box.

Within months of this game Hardy had left City to play for Brentford B. By 2019, Patching was relegated from the Football League with Notts County, having been cut by City the previous summer, as two of his former City teammates emerged as the stars of a new generation of English talent. Football can be brutal and for the elite, competition is fierce.

Brahim Díaz, a year older than Foden, was another of City’s rising stars when Pep Guardiola arrived in Manchester. It was clear to the Catalan that the club’s work to develop academy players, a priority since 2012, was beginning to bear fruit. There was an exciting future ahead for City and back in 2016, three names stood out for the new coach: Foden, Sancho and Díaz.

Pep Guardiola: “I saw this generation for the first time when they were just 16. Txiki had told me that we had talented kids coming up and wanted me to watch them in action. That same year we got them training with the first-team during the preseason. Phil, Sancho, Brahim – that was when their talent really showed.”

After the first integrated session, Pep came off the field with a singular focus. He could see the potential in Brahim and Sancho, but he had fallen for Foden. “Did you see that kid in the centre of the field?” he asked his staff.

And yet, these days, of the three bright young stars who so impressed Pep that first summer, only Foden remains at City. In part, this is a consequence of a change in the recruitment strategy of elite clubs, who are now prepared to spend eight-figure sums to acquire teenage players who are yet to make a first-team appearance. The players are presented with an opportunity to sign a first-team-level contract and are frequently advised to do so. In other cases, a young player can see a clearer pathway to the first-team at another club, instead of facing down established internationals for a start at home.

In the summer of 2017, Sancho and Manchester City were deep in negotiations for his contract renewal. Pep and Txiki Begiristain were keen to hold on to the talented winger and made an offer of £30,000 per week, a club record for an academy player but reflective of the fact that he had been training with the first-team for a year. The player and his representatives seemed happy with the deal and the two parties shook hands. Sancho was staying and would be part of City’s preseason tour of the US.

A few days later, everything had changed. Sancho was out of the US tour and refusing to train with City. The goalposts had moved. Sancho’s representative had asked City to guarantee first-team football. With Sergio Agüero, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sané, Bernardo Silva and Gabriel Jesus pushing for the same spots in Pep’s team, that was an impossibility. Begiristain scolded the player: “We had a deal!” City left for the States without Sancho. The player refused to attend training sessions. It was the end of the line.

Borussia Dortmund signed Sancho for £7m and he has since thrived in Germany. Sancho is now considered one of the best young players in the world. In 43 games with Dortmund until the end of season 2018-19, he scored 13 goals and provided 19 assists. At just 19, he is an established England international. Should Sancho leave Germany, City have a contractual right to outbid any offer from a Premier League club, should they choose to.

Brahim Díaz was the next to go, although in very different circumstances. Aged 17, he joined the first-team for City’s 2017-18 campaign but struggled to get playing time: 10 games, including five Premier League appearances (and so a league winner’s medal), and a total of 190 minutes.

For Pep and his staff, that was an appropriate foundation and they had seen enough in the player’s development to initiate contract renewal discussions 12 months ahead of schedule. However, Díaz, already frustrated at the lack of game time during the past season, saw the recruitment of Riyad Mahrez as a further blockade to the first-team. The club suggested a loan to Girona. It worked for both clubs, but not the player. Díaz insisted on staying in Manchester to fight for his place.

However, after 15 minutes in the Community Shield plus three Carabao Cup appearances, Díaz clocked just 214 minutes in the first half of the season. Within that sample, the City fans saw a stunning performance against Fulham in the fourth round of the Carabao Cup, in which he scored two goals and received an ovation from the Etihad. As he left the pitch, he already knew that his days in Manchester were numbered. The winter transfer market was about to open and offers were rolling in. Real Madrid were the front-runner, with a £15m bid and an astronomical contract. “We don’t want him to go,” Pep told the press. “But it’s not our decision.”

City could, of course, have insisted that Díaz stick to the terms of his contract, thus blocking his departure. But they understood his motivation to leave. Soriano met with Pere Guardiola (Pep’s brother), who has represented the player since his early days at Malaga and agreed to change the terms of his contract so he could go. Brahim signed for Madrid, making 11 appearances before the end of the season and scoring one league goal.

Foden was born and raised in Stockport in a family of die-hard City fans. He joined City’s academy aged seven and understands as much as any of his teammates the supporters who roar them on at the Etihad. He is one of them. He is a PR dream, but only because that backstory is in tandem with a phenomenal talent – one tailor-made for Pep’s game.

Pep Guardiola: “One thing is very clear to us: Foden has a place in Manchester City’s first-team because of who the club has put in charge. I’d be interested to see if a different kind of manager would have done the same, given him this chance to develop, or if they’d have loaned him out. Phil is a very special player.” On the preseason tour before the start of season 2019-20, Guardiola went further still. “He is the most talented I have seen as a player or manager.”

Foden made his Premier League debut on December 16, 2017, 27 years to the day after Guardiola played his first game as a pro, for Barcelona. Foden ended that season with 10 appearances and a league winner’s medal. The following year, he played 26 times, scoring seven goals. To begin with, his impact came in the cup competitions, but his moment arrived during the Premier League run-in.

Days after defeat by Spurs in the Champions League, the two teams were due to face off again in the league. Guardiola’s stars had been floored by the events of the second leg – the hangover was palpable at the CFA. Then Pep noticed Foden lighting up the darkness that engulfed the first-team squad at training. In that moment, Pep made the decision to start the teenager against Spurs. Foden dominated the midfield, and scored the only goal of the match, a header after five minutes.

Post-match Bernardo Silva, who had been awarded man of the match, turned to Foden and, in front of the cameras, handed him the trophy. “Phil was the best. We won thanks to him.”

Guardiola has attracted some criticism for failing to use Foden often enough. His absence from the team sheet for the away game of the League Cup semi-final against Burton Albion was met with incredulity in the press room of the Etihad.

Pep Guardiola: “I know how keen everyone is for Foden to play. I feel the same way. I understand why people keep asking, ‘Why isn’t he playing more?’ But he’s actually playing a lot and he’s only 19. In England people sometimes expect too much of their young players. You see kids come up really fast and they end up paying for it. It’s better to take things slowly. I don’t like leaving him out of certain games, but I have to think of the whole squad. There has to be a balance. Phil understands that, although I know he’ll demand more as time goes on. That’s totally normal.

“He’s competing with David Silva and Gündoğan. Silva is a club legend, perhaps the most important City player ever. And we wouldn’t have won the league in 2019 without Gündo. He’s been spectacular in midfield and is as good defensively as he is in attack. He passes brilliantly, supports our defence – he’s superb. Phil also has to compete with Kevin, Bernardo, Fernandinho – at this level you’re always going to be up against elite players and he’s only 19. He has to wait his turn.”

And his turn will come. When news broke that David Silva will leave England at the end of season 2019-20, there were reports that City were interested in bringing in Isco as a replacement. Such a move was never considered.

Pep Guardiola: “We won’t be signing anyone else for that position. When David Silva leaves, we know exactly who our new magician will be. He’s here already, he’s grown up with us, he’s one of us. And he’s going to be brilliant. One of the best players in the Premier League.” Foden is the poster boy for City’s youth system, living proof that it can produce world-class players not just from the academy, but from the city itself.

Guardiola continued to include youth players in first-team training and the leading academy graduate to emerge during 2018- 19 was Eric García. The Catalan defender was recruited from Barcelona in 2017 and made his senior debut the following season, during the pre-season tour. He played in three Carabao Cup games and big things are expected of him by the City staff.

Another Catalan, Adrián Bernabé, joined in 2018 and debuted with the first-team against Oxford in the Carabao Cup, aged just 18. Frenchman Claudio Gomes transferred from PSG the same year and played in the Community Shield and, briefly, in a cup game against Fulham. After Brahim’s departure, talented attacking midfielder Ian Carlo Poveda got his chance to play in the Carabao Cup semi-final against Burton Albion. On the same day, midfielder Felix Nmecha made his debut.

However, if one name stands out amongst them all, it’s Tommy Doyle. His grandfathers are Glyn Pardoe and Mike Doyle, two of City’s all-time legends who between them played nearly 800 games.

When he comes to work at the CFA, Tommy walks down Doyle Lane, the street named after his grandfather. The junior model is an ambidextrous midfielder who can play as a pivote or attacking midfielder with a fierce shot and great passing ability. He’s also a leader – the captain of the England under-18 team. “We have high hopes for him. We’ll bring him in to train with us [in season 2019- 20] and start the process of developing him,” explained Pep, who was an academy graduate at an elite club himself. As such he knows that it takes time and patience to develop players in an environment when the pressure on the first-team to win is immense.

Doyle is one of 12 academy graduates who participated in City’s Asia tour in the summer of 2018 (Foden joined them in the second half of the tour in Hong Kong after competing in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship). The club invest around £30m per year in the system that produced Foden, who has renewed through season 2023-24.

“We didn’t give Phil Foden a new contract by accident,” said Pep. “And I’ll tell you this: he is the only player that cannot be sold, under any circumstances. The only one. Not for €500m. Phil’s going nowhere. Phil is City.”