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João Cancelo

Manchester City 2019–

If a right-back perhaps should not have been a priority when Manchester City recruited João Cancelo from Juventus during the summer – Kyle Walker has long been consistent for them and Danilo was a reasonable deputy – his arrival regardless demonstrated the extent to which he is admired by one of the world’s finest managers. A further summer signing in Rodri suggested Pep Guardiola is preparing for the future and rebuilding his Premier League-winning team, but whereas Rodri will be the long-term successor to the veteran Fernandinho, Walker is widely considered to remain at his peak.

Portugal’s Cancelo represents a different option to Walker and, if the decorated individuals he often favoured at full-back during his time managing Barcelona and Bayern Munich – Dani Alves and Philipp Lahm are perhaps the very best – provide a reliable insight, he is far closer than Walker to being the style of full-back Guardiola prefers. It is City’s lack of central defensive options that is so far undermining their defence of the title. It might even transpire that Cancelo can prove the short-term solution, by freeing up Walker to play in central defence.

Tactical analysis
Cancelo was most regularly used as a right-back at Juventus, but his versatility unquestionably contributes to his appeal. He is as capable of playing anywhere along the right channel as he is at left-back, and is consistently expressive in possession, which means he contributes effectively in the final third.

His forward runs from right-back are particularly well-timed, when his speed and directness in possession means that those runs often continue deep into the attacking half, where he advances beyond defensive units to provide accurate crosses and cut-backs into goalscoring positions. He is similarly capable of cutting inside from the right, driving inside the defending left-back (below), and then combining with teammates or delivering crosses or balls from different angles.

That he is such a confident dribbler means that when he is confronted with an aggressively pressing attack he will attempt to dribble away from that pressure. If that risks losing possession in a dangerous area, the lateness of his moves and changes of direction often draw opponents and commits them to pursuing an outcome they will rarely achieve.

It is the timing of his release that regardless needs to improve. He can miscalculate when to play passes, particularly after dribbling past an opponent. Though he can drive forward against heavy pressure, and beat pressing opponents, he can also make mistakes in possession within the defensive third, where his ability to defend needs to improve, and to become more consistent.

Cancelo impresses when recovering back (above), particularly against counter-attacks in wide areas – a trait so attacking a full-back will always need given opponents will regularly target the spaces created by their forward runs. Yet if a direct opponent moves inside with possession, usually after the relevant recovery, he struggles to shift his weight towards his left, which can be exposed by an attacker moving inside on his right foot.

Opponents of that description are a particular threat if they are ambitious, accurate ball-players or strong finishers with their right foot. The relationships he develops with right-sided central defenders therefore needs to become a strength.

Role at Manchester City
Cancelo has already been used by Guardiola at both right-back and left-back, and sometimes within the same match. When he is used on the left he has shown the ability to cross with both feet (above), which is something few other full-backs can do.

His deliveries from the left are often similar to those of Riyad Mahrez who, as a left-footed right winger, plays in-swinging crosses from the right. Such an angle is particularly effective at finding a late-running number eight – a crucial position within City’s structure – attacking behind their lone striker. Until Cancelo’s arrival Mahrez was largely alone in playing those so the effectiveness of forward runs from their number eights was largely limited to the left, inside channel. When Cancelo features they can pose a similar threat towards the right.

When he has been selected on the right and has needed to defend the Portuguese has regained possession (above) or forced opponents towards or along the touchline but, against wingers cutting inside on to their stronger foot, and amid spaces within the inside right channel, he has been vulnerable. When he is at left-back attackers are also encouraged to advance outside of him, because of his relative inaccuracy when attempting to lead with his left foot; tackles and interceptions with his left are less effective, and also undermine his ability to turn and compete against a quick opponent in the same way that he can from the right.

There is an unpredictability to his attacking play that is so far proving a strength. His ability to dribble either inside or outside an opponent, or to cut possession back against the direction of the pass, makes him difficult for defenders to read. His speed and drive are further positives, particularly when spaces are created via City’s switches of play. The desire of Guardiola’s team to occupy wide areas and therefore to play with significant width also contributes to spaces in inside channels, inviting him to combine out wide, or to cross from a more central position.

From the right, which is likely to be his long-term position, Cancelo’s desire to advance can be expected to be a particular positive for Kevin De Bruyne, who regularly excels when crossing from towards the right. Cancelo driving into the penalty area and drawing opponents creates spaces for the Belgian to target.

Whether he can improve in the defensive third will ultimately be what determines whether or not he truly succeeds at City. Even given his ability to recover after losses of possession, when Walker is absent, City lack the raw pace and defensive nous required to negate the counter-attacks that opponents are increasingly targeting them with.

João Cancelo

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