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“They’re just phenomenal to watch. People try to make comparisons of who’s better, etcetera. Just enjoy ‘em, man.”

Rio Ferdinand’s 2018 comments about Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have long been classic internet meme fodder, usually for people being far less sincere than the former Manchester United and England defender was.

However, when discussing the sublime talents of Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka earlier this year, Ferdinand might have done well to heed his own advice.

“You’ve got to look at Foden like he is world-class,” he said when discussing the Manchester City star on TNT Sport’s UEFA Champions League coverage. “I don’t think [Saka is world-class] because he hasn’t done it at the top level, winning trophies in a team like this.”

In our often interminable age of “GOATs” and “frauds”, Foden vs. Saka has become the latest battleground for fans of City, Arsenal and English football in general. On Sunday, it will play out at close quarters in a mouthwatering clash at the Etihad Stadium that could have a huge say in deciding the destination of the Premier League title.

MORE: Is Phil Foden the best player in the Premier League? Pep Guardiola’s star compared to Mohamed Salah, Bukayo Saka

The debate owes much to their standing in the England national team. Evidently two of their country’s standout attacking players alongside Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham, Foden and Saka have sometimes felt like they are in direct competition, given Gareth Southgate’s desire to play a more defensively-minded midfielder alongside Declan Rice. That effectively leaves three spots up for grabs behind Kane and Bellingham’s Real Madrid exploits mean he’s locked in.

Foden started Euro 2020 in the England XI, while Saka finished it in the starting lineup. He remained there for the 2022 World Cup, when Foden had to battle his way into the team before they flanked Kane in tandem for the knockout games against Senegal and France.

That situation feels likely to repeat itself at Euro 2024, although it was not hard to find Arsenal fans online gleefully taking in Foden’s underwhelming showings against Brazil and Belgium as Saka sat out the recent friendlies to recuperate from injury.

In the 2023/24 season as a whole, Foden has been anything but underwhelming, having taken his game to new heights. Pep Guardiola dubbed him the best attacking player in the Premier League this season after his two-goal bravura display to down Manchester United earlier this month. Of course, Saka isn’t exactly having a bad season himself and also has a claim to the label Guardiola bestowed.

Foden vs Saka 2023/24 stats

  FODEN SAKA
Games played 40 37
Games started 35 36
Minutes played 3,180 3,007
Goals 17 16
Assists 11 13
Non-penalty goals 17 12
Goals per 90 0.48 0.48
Assists per 90 0.31 0.39
xG 11.1 13.1
xA 8.2 9.9
Progressive carries 99 155
Progressive passes 185 119

As the numbers covering all competitions above show (via FBRef), there is very little to choose between two mainstays this season, who have each clocked over 3,000 club minutes. Southgate will have everything crossed that both Foden and Saka arrive at Euro 2024 in prime shape.

Foden has shown slightly more efficiency in front of goal and has a five-goal advantage in terms of non-penalty goals. However, Saka’s numbers being enhanced by being a dead-eyed taker from 12 yards should hardly be seen as a negative. It’s a stunning triumph of technique and mental strength following his Euro 2020 shoot-out heartache.

The fact both players average exactly the same when it comes to goals per 90 minutes speaks volumes. There is so little between them when it comes to raw numbers.

Saka outperforms his compatriot in terms of assists and expected assists (xA). You could argue that the creative burden is shared around to a greater extent at City, although Kevin De Bruyne spending five months on the sidelines saw Foden thrive when taking on additional responsibility.

The 23-year-old’s progressive passing numbers are through the roof, although it should be noted he finds himself in central and deeper areas far more often than Saka on account of not having a settled position. This has been both a blessing and a curse when deciding the City player’s overall standing.

Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard

Foden vs Saka career stats

  FODEN SAKA
Games played 290 248
Games started 190 212
Minutes played 17,740 18,618
Goals 81 65
Assists 61 53
Non-penalty goals 81 57
Goals per 90 0.41 0.31
Assists per 90 0.31 0.26

While both are now indisputably two of the best players in two of the best teams in Europe, Foden and Saka’s routes to this point have differed significantly.

Foden came into a City side boasting the creative midfield talents of De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, David Silva and Bernardo Silva, while Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane were excelling as wide attackers. He has had to battle to carve out a space in that environment ever since.

Recent matches against United and Liverpool saw De Bruyne have his position shifted and was eventually substituted to allow Foden to get into an advanced attacking midfield position at the business end of big matches, which felt like a hard-earned watershed.

By contrast, Saka made his Arsenal debut during Unai Emery’s tenure and blossomed as Mikel Arteta began the hard task of building them back into a title-contending force. As such, Ferdinand mentioning trophies won feels moot. Considering the two teams they broke into, Foden’s medal haul was always likely to be vastly more impressive at this point.

The benefit for Saka has been the relative ease with which he could establish himself as a non-negotiable selection. Arteta has built a team around his sublime talents as Arsenal’s difference-making right winger.

Foden has played on the right and the left and as a false nine, all the while slowly earning Guardiola’s trust to play in the central role he craves. As recently as last season he fell out of his manager’s preferred starting XI. A fine showing in the Champions League final came as a substitute for the injured De Bruyne.

Their contrasting paths to very similar standings at the top of the English game is part of what makes this Foden and Saka debate so intriguing and a reason why it will run and run. Just enjoy ’em, man.

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