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Joao Cancelo’s emergence as one of the world’s best full-backs

Joao Cancelo's emergence

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Possession-based soccer remains the preferred style of play for many teams in Europe.

Clubs look to play through the middle of the pitch to dominate the game. Therefore, the flanks emerged as a critical area for teams to exploit in order to create more chances. Nowadays, play-making ability is essential for full-backs.

Manchester City’s Joao Cancelo understands the evolution of the sport. Also, he is perhaps the most in-form full-back this season in European soccer.

Joao Cancelo’s emergence on to the scene

Cancelo joined the blue side of Manchester in 2019 during a swap deal for Danilo, which also included $31.4 million going to Juventus. Like the Brazilian international, the Benfica product is adept at playing on both sides of the flanks in the backline. The right side is his preference, but versatility proves pivotal in Pep Guardiola’s system.

Last season, Guardiola decided on employing Cancelo mostly at left-back opposite of Kyle Walker. He was sensational.

The former Valencia player was a key figure in the Citizens winning their fifth Premier League title. He was even voted to the PFA Premier League Team of the Year. With Manchester United’s Luke Shaw occupying the left-back position in the Team of the Year, Cancelo took the right slot. Regardless, the honor is impressive. Additionally, Cancelo earned nominations to the league team of the year in three different countries: England, Italy, and Portugal.

Currently, the 27-year-old is having the best season in his career. His versatility allows him to play on the left or the right depending on Guardiola’s other options. With Oleksandr Zinchenko on the team sheet, Cancelo moves to the right. If Kyle Walker is fit, Cancelo shifts to the left.

Do not be fooled by the fact that he is a defender. Joao Cancelo’s emergence is perhaps more apparent on the offensive end. At least, that was the case on November 3. That day, the Portuguese international had three assists in a 4-1 victory over Club Brugge in the Champions League. He became the first defender to accomplish this feat since Borussia Dortmund’s Achraf Hakimi did it against Atlético Madrid in October, 2018. Cancelo also scores some sensational goals, like his strike outside the 18-yard box against Newcastle.

“He’s been outstanding. He’s assisting and scoring goals himself and for me he’s the best full-back, in terms of creating stuff, and how important he is to the team,” said former City forward Paul Dickov on the Manchester City’s program Matchday Live.

Cancelo’s diverse positioning

Pep Guardiola popularized the ‘inverted full-back’ role during his four-year tenure at Bayern Munich. The three-time Premier League Manager of the Season realized that playing with a high line exposed his team to gegenpressing and counterattacks. His resolution was to make his full-backs play centrally as midfielders. Ergo, the opposition slows down with more defensive-minded players cluttering the field.

Since then, the tactic is a staple in Guardiola’s philosophy. Joao Cancelo’s emergence through his touch, passing ability and positional awareness thrives in that role for Guardiola. In fact, his manager compared Cancelo to two all-time greats that he coached in his illustrious career.

“Philipp Lahm is the best player I’ve ever seen in my entire life at being a full-back moving inside. But Joao, like Dani Alves has the quality,” said Guardiola following the club’s 3-0 victory over Everton last month.

Cancelo embodies the ‘total football’ tactical system. He can play as a left-back, right-back, central midfielder and potentially in the final third. The 2018-19 UEFA Nations League winner is willing to do whatever it takes to help his team win.

“I was brought up and developed as a right-back. However, I like to be versatile, because during the year, there are lots of injuries, so I want to help the team, and I can adapt to any position the manager (Guardiola) needs me,” said Cancelo to Manchester City’s website.

His versatility, technique and awareness makes him one of the most unique players in the beautiful game. Joao Cancelo’s emergence will be something to follow as Manchester City looks for more Premier League trophies, and that Champions League crown that avoids the club from the Etihad.

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