Saturday, July 20, 2024

Phil Foden’s hat trick encapsulates why a healthy Manchester City are still a force to be reckoned with

LONDON — Could Thomas Frank have done any more? His Brentford side had a game plan that got them chances, executed it as well as anyone could reasonably expect and were still swept aside by a Phil Foden-inspired Manchester City, who have that ominous air of invincibility that tends to herald the coming of spring.

For half a half, Brentford looked like they might make it three wins from three against the English, European and world champions as Neal Maupay executed a route one goal of devastating simplicity and elegance. Once more, Erling Haaland was unable to get the better of Brentford. Even Kevin De Bruyne and Julian Alvarez couldn’t find the net. City, two points from Liverpool at the summit with a game in hand, always have another guy to beat you with, even if labelling Foden that is utterly insufficient for a player of his talents.

What few vulnerabilities there are in the City ranks, Brentford were determined to probe. Whenever possession was regained, at least one of Maupay or Ivan Toney would peel off into the flanks, primed to attack the space vacated by visiting full backs, who are actually playing like full backs this season. If the second ball could be won — Toney generally giving as good as he got against Ruben Dias — then the wing backs would fly forward, aided by at least one of Matthias Jensen and Christian Norgaard.

Frank had plans within plans. It didn’t always have to go down the flanks. A Mark Flekken goal kick had everyone in sky blue dragged into Toney’s orbit. No one noticed that all he was really doing was setting a screen for Maupay to charge in behind unnoticed, rolling the ball past Ederson to send west London, and the red halves of north London and Liverpool into rapture. Had this move only been tried once, there might have been a case for it being a coincidence; Brentford tried it often enough to suggest a triumph of coaching over happenstance.

After all, so much of what Brentford offered Monday night looked like a ringing endorsement of Frank’s managerial qualities. Neal Maupay, a punchline in an Everton shirt, is jabbing at Premier League defenses again. A player who averaged around 0.4 npxG+xA (non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists) over the last two seasons is now at 0.68 on his return to red and white. A matter of weeks into his Brentford career, Sergio Reguilon looked like the left wing back Tottenham spent four years searching for.

Even then, if Brentford were going to have a chance of holding their lead, they would need Mark Flekken — a goalkeeper who has had a pretty hellacious season by most analytical measures — to play out of his skin. He did. Evidently, City had concluded he was vulnerable from range, but whipped sighters from De Bruyne and Julian Alvarez were manfully blocked. When a misplaced back pass slipped Haaland through, Flekken stayed big and denied him.

Brentford were hardly faultless but for 45 minutes and change. This was as near to faultless as could be expected, even from a team who beat the champions home and away last season. Then Ethan Pinnock‘s clearing header went up rather than away and Foden pounced.

It is not so long ago that Foden seemed a little too near the fringes of the City squad. Undoubtedly, he was a valuable cog in last season’s all-conquering side but a spot in the starting XI was far from guaranteed. Now, he seems all the more valuable, with nearly as more Premier League minutes under his belt in February than in all of 2022-23.

Even with Pep Guardiola’s squad nearing its full compliment, it is hard to see how he is not the man to supplement Haaland and De Bruyne. On this night, he even managed to eclipse them, quite something when the latter delivered a customarily devastating cross to find Foden unmarked in the 53rd minute.

Brentford’s rally felt admirable, but futile even as Christian Norgaard was drawing blocks from Ruben Dias. The mood had taken City and their hat-trick hero, who dummied for Haaland to claim a Rodri pass before running on to slot home. Monday was Foden’s hat trick. Saturday might well be Haaland’s, Alvarez’s or De Bruyne’s. Take your pick. And best of luck to those trying to stem the City plan.

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