There was a moment during the second half of Manchester City‘s victory against Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday when Phil Foden took control of the ball, touched it past an opponent and used a turn of speed to take it away from two others.
On TV, comparisons were made with the great Lionel Messi but a more appropriate comparison may have been to England’s Paul Gascoigne.
That is what Gazza used to do in his prime. Elbows carried high like car bumpers, Gascoigne was always just quick enough and strong enough to pull clear into space. From there, he always looked as though he could do exactly as he wanted.
Mason Mount (left) and Phil Foden (right) lead a true golden generation for the England side
At City, this has been the final piece in the Foden jigsaw. While people wondered for 12 to 18 months why coach Pep Guardiola was not using Foden more often, this was the reason.
Guardiola — not to mention the youth coaches who had first spotted and nurtured the young player — was waiting for Foden’s physical development to bring him that final and important extra half-yard of speed. Watching him now, it is easy to be excited for City and indeed for England.
At Chelsea, a similar sense of optimism and anticipation surrounds Mason Mount. At 22, he is almost 18 months older than Foden. His skill set is different, too. But both are products of an English academy system that continues to provide players who are advanced both in terms of technical ability and attitude.
England had what was described as a ‘golden generation’ in 2004 under Sven Goran Eriksson. But speak to those players now — people like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard — and they will tell you that the technical standard of young players coming through the grades now is substantially higher than it was back then.
‘Even the goalkeepers can pass it properly these days,’ as one former England player said recently. Foden and Mount are evidence of this. Drop in at an academy session these days, for example, and you won’t see an awful lot of heading. That is not only for reasons of safety. It’s also because the ball spends most of its time on the floor.
Nevertheless, in an interview with Sportsmail last season, Mount acknowledged that many talented players never make it beyond age-group football.
Skill levels may be higher than ever but tariffs also remain demanding when it comes to physical and mental toughness. The Chelsea player was hardened up during loans at Vitesse Arnhem and Derby County. Foden, on the other hand, has never been asked to stray far from the gaze of Guardiola.
Manchester City midfielder Foden (left) starred in his team’s European semi-final win vs PSG
This campaign has been the 20-year-old’s breakthrough season for Pep Guardiola’s City side
Both will now play in a Champions League final, in Istanbul at the end of the month. It is also increasingly clear that they will play prominent parts for England at this summer’s European Championship.
It seems strange that as recently as last autumn England manager Gareth Southgate was being accused of favouritism towards Mount as the clamour around the credentials of Jack Grealish grew. Grealish, of Aston Villa, will be in Southgate’s squad but Mount will be in his team for sure, such has been his progress this season.
Some players take time to adjust to the incremental challenges that come their way in football but Mount is not one of them. As for Foden, the case for England inclusion ahead of club-mate Raheem Sterling grows stronger as each week passes.
And to think Foden used to be rather shy. He has admitted himself that his early days as part of Guardiola’s squad were spent in awe of players such as Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne.
Similarly, Chelsea midfielder Mount (centre), 22, has been superb throughout this season
It is clear both will play a prominent role for England under Gareth Southgate at the Euros
‘I used to wonder if I should be asking for their autographs,’ he has said.
Now, only a couple of years on, he is the crucial cog in Guardiola’s machine. Challenges lie ahead for both players. They are young and comparisons with previous generations must be made carefully. Gascoigne played for England for a decade, for example.
But it is right that we are excited and it may be that Istanbul and this summer’s international tournament will one day be viewed as staging posts on a much longer journey.
Players such as Foden and Mount are shaping the way English football is seen and viewed around the world.
Both players have already been touted in the Spanish media as future LaLiga stars but there is no reason for either to see that as career advancement anymore.
They joined their respective English clubs at the age of six. Mount has three years left on a contract signed two summers ago. Foden is thought to be on the verge of signing a new one to take him into the six-figures-a-week bracket.
Their match-up in Turkey in the Champions League final will be absorbing and we may well see a dress rehearsal in the Premier League fixture tomorrow.
But their influence on the English and European game looks like lasting a lot longer than what lies immediately in front of them today.