In a match which saw few players occupy their expected position, João Cancelo’s role of hybrid wingback-cum-midfielder in Manchester City’s 1-0 home victory over Arsenal on Saturday was among the more eye-catching tactical tweaks.
Although, not as surprising as the uncharacteristically resolute defensive display the Portugal international turned out.
While Bernardo Silva charged from one penalty area to the other, Raheem Sterling hovered in space as a number ten and Kyle Walker kept a close eye on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from centre-back, Pep Guardiola somehow found a new role for the versatile Cancelo.
Since moving to Manchester City in the summer of 2019, as well as being deployed on either flank, as both full-back and wing-back, Cancelo has even been used as one of a back three against Manchester United in last season’s Carabao Cup semi-final.
On Saturday, Cancelo nominally started as the right-sided wing-back but spent plenty of time drifting in field, and with much of his afternoon focused on the defensive aspects of the game.
Throughout a career spent bouncing between Europe’s elite clubs, Cancelo has fostered a reputation synonymous with the typical modern full-back; a threat going forward, but desperately lacking at the other end of the pitch. During his one season on loan at Inter in 2017/18, the Nerazzurri club legend Giuseppe Bergomi – a particularly no-nonsense right-back in his day – cited Cancelo’s ‘sloppy’ defending as a reason against agreeing a permanent transfer.
Yet, against Arsenal, Cancelo tackled more players and made more interceptions than anyone else on the pitch. The jet-heeled Portuguese was also one of City’s keenest pressers, ensuring the Sky Blues won back possession six times after he applied pressure to an opponent – a tally no one else on the field could better.
After Inter followed the advice of their former player, Juventus stole in to snap up Cancelo in the summer of 2018. However, following an electric first half of the campaign – where Cristiano Ronaldo was a regular beneficiary of Cancelo’s devilish deliveries from out wide – Juve’s then manager Massimiliano Allegri reportedly fell out with the 26-year-old because of his ‘relaxed conduct’ in training as much as his defensive shortcomings.
Before Cancelo’s arrival his attitude had been raised as a red flag. During that Inter loan spell, the Nerazzurri’s coach Luciano Spalletti is thought to have taken a rather dim view of Cancelo’s actions when he questioned the decision to shunt him over to the left-back slot.
However, post-lockdown Guardiola quashed any such reservations which may have been bubbling after an indifferent first half of the season from Cancelo last term.
Following a particularly impressive display from Cancelo – incidentally as a left-back – against Norwich City in July, Guardiola marvelled: ”The most incredible thing from João is now he is a completely different individual from when he arrived.
“We needed time to understand each other, him to me and the team and me to him too. What I want is his behaviour that he is doing after the restart. When we came back he was the best player in the training session. He understands us better than the beginning and we understand him better. Sometimes you need time and now he is happy.”
A niggling foot injury disrupted Cancelo’s preseason and sidelined him for City’s first five matches of the season. Two full 90 minutes for Portugal during October’s international break gave the full-back his first taste of football in 2020/21 before making his first appearance of the season for City on Saturday.
Yet, it would be inaccurate to depict Cancelo’s display at the Etihad as purely defensive.
As Guardiola’s side saw out the contest in uncharacteristically serene fashion, City’s number 27 found himself in more familiar territory, high on the right in Arsenal’s half. Cancelo’s feet were a blur of chops and jinks as he wriggled past a trio of dark blue shirts before fizzing a testing cross into the area, which David Luiz almost turned into his own net.
While it was far from a faultless performance, Cancelo showed a different side of his game against the Gunners in an unfamiliar position.
How often Guardiola will return to a particularly niche formation with Cancelo in this role remains to be seen, but that’s not to say that the fleet-footed Portuguese can’t replicate this defensive solidity from his natural full-back slot.