Manchester City’s 2020-21 Premier League title bid has been one of unlikely storylines and standout players.
Whether it’s the resurgence of John Stones, helming the most miserly defence in England’s top flight alongside record signing Ruben Dias and leaving the highly touted Aymeric Laporte out in the cold as a result, or a rotating cast of attackers impressing as emergency centre forwards in the absence of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, it pays to expect the unexpected from Pep Guardiola’s squad.
Perhaps the most surprising development has been Joao Cancelo’s transformation from expensive and unreliable back-up to a key man pushing City’s game and maybe even Guardiola’s vaunted idea of football to new heights.
“He arrived last season, he was confused in the beginning. He expected something we could not offer him,” the City boss said of the Portugal full-back on the eve of Wednesday’s Premier League match against Brighton and Hove Albion, where victory would move his side to within a point of champions Liverpool with a game in hand.
Cancelo arrived from Juventus with a £60million price tag – a sizeable chunk of which was remunerated as Danilo moved in the opposite direction – and proceeded to start fewer than half of City’s 58 games across all competitions after his move.
What’s more, he seemed ill at ease with the tactical demands placed upon him by Guardiola, such as switching and interchanging positions frequently during matches. The battle to be first choice at right-back seemed unfairly skewed in favour of Kyle Walker, one of the most consistent performers of the Catalan’s tenure at the Etihad Stadium.
“Last season he struggled a bit with a new club, new ideas, the way we wanted to play,” Guardiola confirmed
Alongside Rodri, who arrived from Atletico Madrid for a similar outlay, Cancelo became a poster boy of a failed campaign for many City fans, where a third straight EFL Cup success could not make up for Liverpool romping clear to the Premier League title.
Despite being an ever present in the Premier League this time around, Rodri still seemingly has more to do to convince the masses. However, first when filling in at left-back and more recently at right-back as Walker convalesced following a COVID-19 positive, Cancelo has consistently caught the eye.
“Now he has had more time and helps us to do something we need,” Guardiola said. “He was outstanding all the season, playing at a high, high level.”
Carrying City forward and backing up De Bruyne
From Dani Alves rampaging down the Barcelona right to Phillip Lahm becoming an auxiliary midfielder late in his career, Guardiola’s best teams have usually featured a full-back doing something a little bit special.
During this month’s 3-1 and 2-0 wins at Chelsea and Manchester United in the Premier League and EFL Cup respectively – arguably City’s best two performances of 2020-21 – Cancelo excelled, roving forward and often in-field from a nominal right-back position, his combination of technical skills and physicality to the fore.
While at Bayern and blessed with the services of Lahm and David Alaba, Guardiola pioneered a gambit whereby his full-backs could tuck inside to bolster the defensive midfield position.
He still uses this tactic at City, but Cancelo has generally caused damage from more advanced starting points in the midfield.
“Oleks [Zinchenko] can play there too,” Guardiola said when discussing Cancelo’s role. “Benjamin [Mendy] and Kyle Walker can play in different positions but it depends on the opponent – which opponent we can use [the full-back] inside, outside.”
The 26-year-old’s ability to drive forward with possession has been to the fore. According to Opta, he has created eight chances from carries, including an assist, while having two shots himself.
This is a string Mendy and Walker do not appear to have to their bows, as they have one shot-creating carry each this season.
Cancelo’s frequent presence in opposition territory has contributed to him being ranked second in the City squad in terms of chances created (24), passes ending in the final third (272) and passes played in the box (63) in the Premier League this season, with top spot in all categories belonging to Kevin De Bruyne.
Only De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling have completed more dribbles than Cancelo (16), a player who seems to have given a new dimension to a City team that had come to look stale during the early weeks of the season in the aftermath of David Silva and Leroy Sane’s departures.
“It’s especially about their quality,” Guardiola added. “It’s not about ‘okay, I want to play this player in this position’, I have to know if he can do it for his qualities. That’s all.
“[Cancelo] can do it, but he can do it from outside as well. This alternative that he can give us as a team is so important. Honestly, it’s so important.”