Juan Foyth’s rise from punchline to international has been a collective triumph. - (2021)
On the last Saturday before the international break, Juan Foyth’s social media channels would have buzzed with positivity. He scored Tottenham’s winning goal at Selhurst Park and produced a performance to banish the memory of his Premier League debut. Foyth hadn’t been poor at Molineux, his display the week before actually contained many of the same admirable traits, but this time his composure and willingness to use the ball came without those penalty asterisks.
Those final twenty minutes in the Midlands were difficult to watch. After Raul Jimenez had scored the second of Wolves’ penalties, Foyth’s self-belief started to dissipate more with every bobbled touch he took. Molineux is a high-banked stadium, so the crowd there must feel a lot more personal; sensing a vulnerable player, the natives weren’t exactly understanding.
There was a further ignominy for him. Late on, Mauricio Pochettino sent Davinson Sanchez on to provide emergency defensive relief. When he took the field, the Colombian waved Foyth out of the centre of defence, pushing him into midfield. It was the right thing to do and neither Pochettino nor Sanchez meant anything by it, but the urgency of the situation created an uncomfortable visual: Foyth was being put out of harm’s way and he must have known it. In the minutes after, he was lost – positionally and psychologically. He looks younger than his 20 years anyway, but in those moments he was a child who had been seperated from his mother.
Tottenham won that game, of course, but that must have been a long coach journey back to London. The Premier League is a bottom line business and its charity is notoriously scarce; Foyth must have thought that his window of opportunity had opened and closed on the same evening and that, unwittingly, he had just branded himself a liability.
Credit to Pochettino, then, for ensuring that wasn’t the case. Starting Foyth at Selhurst Park didn’t require a great leap of faith, the player had shown enough to suggest that he was worth persevering with, but Eric Dier was available on Saturday night and, now an experienced international and a competent centre-half, he would have been the easier selection. It’s a moot point now, but had Foyth suffered similar misfortune this weekend, the damage done to him could have been permanent. And had that happened, had he been exposed by Palace’s physical threat, Pochettino’s judgement would surely have been questioned.
In the end, it proved successful. Foyth scored the game’s only goal, helped his side to a clean sheet and was bold enough on the ball to keep the Tottenham midfield well-stocked with possession. An excellent night’s work for Tottenham, who finished an arduous stretch of games with a victory, and for Foyth personally, who had his salvation.
In that kind of situation, the temptation is always to credit the player for his resolve. It’s not wrong, because it would have taken a lot to play without inhibition given that recent experience, but it likely overlooks the role of everybody else at the club. Pochettino, of course, whose experience of the highs and lows of centre-half life would have been invaluable this week, but also the other members of the technical staff and first-team squad.
Anybody who has played football at any level will understand this scenario. When a player lets down his teammates, it creates a mutual awkwardness which rarely manifests in anything good. The culpable player feels guilty, those around him over-compensate. The result, particularly for the former, is a sense of isolation and, if that dynamic is allowed to fester, the growing belief that he doesn’t really belong or that he’s a hindrance to what the team might otherwise achieve. It would be nice to think of professionals being immune to something so amateur, but that likely isn’t true. Especially not when, as in Foyth’s case, the player in question doesn’t have a rich bank of highlights with which to off-set the damage to his reputation.
It’s the “what do they really think of me” situation and it’s potentially toxic. Particularly with defensive players, who need full performances to correct negative perceptions and not just a quick goal or two. In all likelihood, that’s probably why dips in defensive form – suffered by centre-backs and goalkeepers – are so protracted. Sometimes, they’re even terminal. A forward’s ego can always be re-inflated by a lucky deflection or a penalty, whereas a defensive player seems to require a sustained (elusive) period of perfection.
So it’s right to feel good for Juan Foyth. Two weeks on from being the butt of jokes and days after making a successful international debut, his career has never looked more healthy. But this was a group success in which everyone would have had a role. Foyth had the fortitude to step back onto the pitch and give an excellent performance, but those around him – including his family and friends – will have created the conditions under which that was possible.
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