A very normal thing happened on Sunday night. Phil Foden was sensational. I do not want to oversell this. There is no deep or meaningful theme here.
There are no hidden layers or wider significances, no political or cultural context. It rests almost entirely on a single argument, and the argument is that Foden is sensational. If you are not on board with this idea, the next 840 words may not be for you.
Foden was sensational but he was sensational in a very normal way. He set up two goals, for Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka, and was instrumental in the other. The rest of the time he simply did lots of Foden things: sacrificial runs up the left wing, neat link play, tidy defensive covering.
None of this was new to anyone who has seen him playing for Manchester City every week. You do not need me to tell you that Foden is sensational.
And yet by the same token it feels worth dwelling on just how sensational Foden was here. Because in England’s era of extreme competence there is a danger that nights like these, games like these, performances like these, somehow become normalised. There has been no outburst of national hysteria: no Gazza explosion, no Owen moment, no Rooney-mania. Foden’s image does not hang from one of Doha’s many skyscrapers.
Even in the aftermath of this 3-0 win against Senegal it was Jude Bellingham who seemed to attract the bulk of the tributes, Kane who claimed the player-of-the-match award (although when asked who really deserved it, Foden was the first name Kane mentioned). Here, as for much of his career to date, Foden’s gift was assimilated, priced in, accepted as established fact.
Perhaps, in the long run, this is for the best: a long-overdue recession in the hype economy of English football. In a sense Foden’s curse has been to spend his entire career surrounded by very good footballers in a successful team. There is no real sense of trajectory, no demons to slay, no haters to conquer. Foden was born sensational and everyone knew it. At no point has he really had the capacity to surprise us.
And yet something here was new. For the first time in a tournament game, Foden started on the left wing, after a successful audition in the second half against Wales. This is the position he has most often played at club level, and even if Pep Guardiola has shifted him around this season it currently remains his best role for two reasons.
First, he remains primarily a creator rather than a killer. By contrast Raheem Sterling, England’s first-choice left-winger for some years, increasingly sees himself as a goalscorer these days. He tries to take up central positions, instinctively makes diagonal runs into the space Harry Kane leaves behind. And of course he does it very well, but it has its implications. Foden, by contrast, is less concerned about getting himself into scoring positions. This largely explains his England scoring record of three goals in 21 games.
Second, Foden is a left-footer, one of just four in a squad of 26 players. This sounds a little antediluvian, a little “swing it in for the big man, Jason Wilcox”. But for a player as gifted as Foden, it gives him options. His default run is around the outside of the right‑back, rather than in between the full-back and the centre-half. Not only does this stretch defences and allow him to cross on his stronger foot, but it creates the sort of gaps that players such as Bellingham eat for brunch.
Consider England’s first goal, a move finished by Jordan Henderson and set up by Bellingham but started with a deft back‑heeled flick from Foden by the left touchline. In fact, Foden is just inside the England half when he receives the ball and his momentum takes him off the pitch.
If you are a forward with your eyes fixed on goal, you could scarcely find yourself in a worse position. But crucially Foden has taken the right-back Youssouf Sabaly with him. And Sabaly is done. He is out of the game. Senegal are now trying to defend an attack on their right flank without their right-back. Chaos ensues.
And this is what gets missed in the focus on Foden’s indifferent goal record. He makes room for others to play. He greases the wheels. He has an otherworldly first touch and an ability to keep the ball under extreme pressure. He can lay the ball off first-time for Kane to score England’s second and he can set up the third with a cross through the legs of Kalidou Koulibaly, because he’s Foden and that’s just what he does.
On Saturday England were playing a small-sided training exercise with mini-goals, designed to encourage quick feet and precise finishing. At one point Foden simply beat two opponents, dribbled past the goal and then back-heeled it past a stunned Saka. Nobody went crazy. Foden’s teammates did not clasp their faces and mob him in glee, as often happens. He’s Foden. That’s just what he does.
England have strolled into the quarter-finals with barely a headache. This equalled their highest win in a World Cup knockout match. They have scored 12 goals in four games without a single penalty. And they have done it with some of the most gifted and likeable footballers ever to leave these shores. It may feel normal. But it really isn’t.