There was a chilling efficiency to the way that Phil Foden took Brentford apart. Instead of a repertoire of flicks and tricks, all the Manchester City attacker needed to do was think quicker than his opponents, elude his markers with the brilliance of his movement off the ball and display zero uncertainty every time he was in front of goal.
The little surges were too much for Brentford to handle. Whereas some forwards stand still and make life easy for defenders, Foden never stops. He does not admire his passes and he does not do anything for show. Nothing is wasted and nothing is frivolous. Other young forwards should take note. Foden is always moving, always hunting for space, and Brentford did not know how to pin him down.
On another night Ethan Pinnock’s errant attempt to clear Kevin De Bruyne’s cross on the stroke of half-time would have not been met with such a devastating punishment. Foden, though, was alert. Was it luck that he was in the right place when Pinnock’s header fell from the sky? Probably not. More likely it was a sign of his intelligence. Foden was ready. Nobody was near him when he fired City level at the end of a half notable for an opportunistic route-one opener from Neal Maupay and some heroic saves from Brentford’s goalkeeper, Mark Flekken.
It was not an easy 45 minutes for the champions. At times they had been in danger of sinking into the Maupayverse, a strange, disorienting world where one very annoying striker argues with everyone and spends an inordinate amount of time obsessing over the correct placing of opposition free kicks.
For a while nothing went right. Julian Álvarez, Erling Haaland, Josko Gvardiol and De Bruyne all failed to beat Flekken and City were behind when Brentford’s goalkeeper pumped a goal kick forward, at which point Ivan Toney claimed something of a ghost assist, his mere presence enough to hold off Nathan Aké and make room for Maupay to run through and slip a low shot past Ederson.
City could have crumbled at that stage. They lost twice to Brentford last season and were almost 2-0 down when Sergio Reguilón delivered a cross to the far post. Ederson reacted well to stop the ball from creeping in. It was a pivotal moment.
Foden soon had his say. There is a growing maturity to his game: more edge, more decisiveness, more of a determination to take games by the scruff of the neck. He already has 15 goals for club and country this season. He got 16 last year.
The challenge is to keep pushing the boundaries. Foden has hardly been a bit-part player for City. He has contributed vital goals and played in plenty of big games. Yet when City were motoring towards last season’s treble, Foden was not a regular starter. He was on the bench when City faced Manchester United in the FA Cup final and Internazionale in the Champions League final, although he came on in the latter and had a positive influence after replacing the injured De Bruyne during the first half.
Foden will hope there has been a shift. He was nominally stationed on the left against Brentford, although in reality he had freedom to roam. There was no fixed point. City’s traditional wide players, Jack Grealish, Oscar Bobb and Jérémy Doku, were on the bench. Guardiola opted for interchangeable creators instead, De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Álvarez and Foden jinking behind Haaland and taking it in turns to move wide.
It became overwhelming. Pinnock paid for his loss of focus and City did not take long to score again after half-time. De Bruyne caused the damage again, crossing from the left, and nobody spotted Foden’s run. All alone in the area, his run untracked, he was free to place a skidding header beyond Flekken.
There was no way back for Brentford, even though they fought hard and had a couple of chances to equalise. City were always capable of lifting their level. The killer goal was a case in point. Brentford must have thought they were safe. Their shape was good. They had players back. They were defending with discipline.
But Foden would produce a masterclass in how to pierce a low block. He dummied a pass from Rodri and immediately set off, darting forward, the damage done even though the ball was elsewhere. This was how to make goalscoring look easy. Brentford could see what was happening but it was too late. Haaland played the pass, a lovely weighted one, and Foden had all the time in the world to take it in his stride, set himself and slip a shot past Flekken.
It was an unstoppable goal from a terrifying team. For Arsenal and Liverpool, the scary thing is that City are not reliant on Foden. If it was not him it would have been De Bruyne, Álvarez or Haaland. They have so many weapons, so many ways of winning, and knowing that he is not under pressure to solve every problem on his own appears to have done wonders for Foden’s development.