Great Expectations – A Tale of Two Prospects
Ninety minutes into Manchester City’s game against Crystal Palace on Saturday, Phil Foden came onto the pitch for just his second Premier League appearance this season. Although Guardiola has enthused that he is the “most talented player” he has ever seen, there remain concerns over Foden’s lack of game time and the impact on his development. However, a look at comparable players through recent history shows that – for a player of his profile – Foden is still on course for success.
Of players who started the season aged nineteen or younger, just over 80 have at least 90 career minutes in one of the Big Five European leagues. Of these, Foden ranks 37th with 381 league minutes to date. Top of the list? Jadon Sancho with 3,687 minutes.
So Foden clearly has a way to go to catch up to his fellow Englishman. But how does he compare to historical benchmarks for players in his position?
Looking at the top central and attacking midfielders in the world, Foden actually appears to have been fairly typical in his career progression to date. Foden had played 371 minutes in the Premier League at the end of the season in which he turned 19 (2018/19), a greater number of Big 5 league minutes than his colleagues Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva had at this stage. He has played fewer minutes in total compared to benchmark players, but game time at a lower league level is perhaps counterbalanced by training regularly with top quality teammates at Manchester City; as measured by our player model, Foden faces the stiffest competition for a starting spot of all current nineteen-year-olds who have had some Big 5 game time to date.
But why the contrast btween Foden and Sancho’s current situations?
If we look at the world’s best wingers, their development paths look slightly different. By the end of the season in which they turned 19, Sterling, Mbappé, Bale and co had accumulated 1,350 more Big 5 league minutes than their midfield counterparts on average. The average age of the midfield playmakers at the start of their breakthrough season was 19.4. For wingers, the breakthrough came over a year earlier at 18.2. Pace, energy and a willingness to take risks are traits that are both beneficial to wide players and in ready supply among young, talented players. The attributes that make a successful playmaker may take slightly longer to mature.
Getting the timing right on a move for a young player is increasingly important in the current market: clubs in the top European leagues spent €1.35bn on players aged 21 and under in the last transfer window. And this spending was not just confined to the highest tiers of football: Championship clubs invested just over 20% of their total transfer spend on players in this age group in the most recent summer window.
Knowing which players are likely to peak first and who, like Foden, might need further time to develop could be the crucial difference between overpaying and identifying our team’s next star.