Erling Haaland and Phil Foden exhibit opposite evolutions at Man City

Erling Haaland and Phil Foden both scored hat-tricks for Manchester City against United (AFP via Getty Images)
Erling Haaland and Phil Foden both scored hat-tricks for Manchester City against United (AFP via Getty Images)

It was in that brief period before Phil Foden became the first player to complete a hat-trick in a Manchester derby for nine minutes when the majority at the Etihad Stadium started to do the Poznan. Joining in was a blond-haired man in his late forties. The bouncing Alf-Inge Haaland had already seen his son bring up his own treble by that point. Indeed, it was the third time already that Erling Haaland had scored as many goals for Manchester City in one game as his father did in his career.

City might not have required further evidence that Haaland is a phenomenon; the younger generation, that is, because the elder Haaland was a wholehearted but largely unexceptional midfield workhorse. They got it, anyway. Perhaps his two assists were more revelatory than his three goals. A perfectly curled cross for Foden’s second goal was Kevin De Bruyne-esque; the through ball for his third was the pass of a playmaker, not a target man. Now only three players have more assists than Haaland in the Premier League this season and two of them – De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva – are his teammates. It is part of the Guardiolaisation of a finisher.

“What I like is he is more involved,” said Pep Guardiola. “He said: ‘I prefer to touch the ball five times and score five goals.’ I don’t like that; I want him to touch the ball more and more.” But if Haaland is evolving one way, Foden is moving in the opposite direction. The scorer is becoming more of a creator, the creator more of a scorer.

Erling Haaland scored three goals and assisted two in Man City’s thrashing of United (Getty Images)
Erling Haaland scored three goals and assisted two in Man City’s thrashing of United (Getty Images)

Albeit in an extraordinary way, there was something routine about Haaland’s maiden Manchester derby. After all, he scores hat-tricks against anyone and everyone. Foden does not; his first in City colours was a landmark that took him to a milestone as he brought up a half century of goals for them. The technician has proved more prolific than many expected. The Stockport Iniesta has scored more than twice as many goals for Guardiola as the actual Iniesta did. Contrary to predictions, he is yet to prove the new David Silva, the passer in chief, the midfield metronome. Instead, he had only two more touches than Haaland. Like his sidekick, he had three crucial ones.

“Last season he played many games as a striker. At the end he will be able to play as an attacking midfielder,” said Guardiola. But not just yet, perhaps, due in part to Foden’s predatory sense. “Close to the box he has incredible sense,” his manager said. Rather than being Silva’s long-term replacement, Foden is compensating for Raheem Sterling’s departure.

His first goal was the classic City winger’s strike, arriving in the six-yard box to meet the low cross from the opposite flank. His second was a far-post finish, the kind City scored when they had a false nine, with two wider attackers combining, but the difference was that Haaland had drifted to the left to cross. His third demonstrated an ability to wander in behind defences.

Rewind a few weeks and Haaland looked frustrated when Foden did not pass to him. There has been such a role reversal that the player of the match award, supposedly shared, was gifted by the Norwegian to the Mancunian. Perhaps he was seeking to make amends. In a way, Haaland has displaced him: Along with Bernardo Silva, Foden was arguably City’s best false nine in the last two seasons, before Haaland’s arrival rendered the position obsolete. Instead, he has ousted last season’s top scorer Riyad Mahrez from the side to take up a roving role off the right. If Haaland could get 50 goals this season, Foden could get 20.

Like Haaland, Foden netted three times for City against United (Getty Images)
Like Haaland, Foden netted three times for City against United (Getty Images)

“What a talent, what a reality,” said Guardiola. “He is a good lad; he lives for football. Hopefully, he can stay many, many years for us and his private life can be settled perfectly and he can just focus on what he loves, to play football."

All of which felt uncontroversial. But if City could savour the sight of two of their boyhood fans scoring hat-tricks in a derby thrashing, they have had different paths. One is a product of their youth system, the other recruited with the pulling power of a combination of millions, trophies and a galactico of a manager.

In the days when Alf-Inge Haaland was in the midfield, rather than the stands, City signed a former Ballon d’Or winner in the ageing George Weah, but lacked the funds to buy potential future winners, as his son is now. Had Foden been scoring derby hat-tricks for City in 2000, instead of being born then, he would have been a target for the superpowers. If City’s money has changed the landscape of English football, it means they need never cash in on Foden. And the former ballboy who got the match ball, the first Manchester-born player to get a hat-trick in this fixture in the Premier League, put the local into the local derby.