A full-back in a Pep Guardiola team is rarely just a full-back. As Barcelona boss, he deployed Dani Alves as a one-man right wing, depending on the Brazilian to provide the Catalans with width and drive. At Bayern Munich, Philipp Lahm was so influential that Guardiola moved him into central midfield.
The role of the full-back has never been more important than it is today and Guardiola has played a significant part in this. But even by the measure of the legendary full-backs to have thrived under the Catalan’s stewardship, Joao Cancelo is currently setting a new precedent at Manchester City.
Bought from Juventus as a right-back, Cancelo has been developed into so much more by Guardiola. The 26-year-old has been used on both the left and right side by City this season, but his contributions through the centre of the pitch mark him out from other elite level full-backs.
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Were it not for Ilkay Gundogan, Cancelo would be City’s Player of the Season so far. But it’s because of Cancelo that Gundogan has been able to add so many goals to his game, with the Portuguese full-back pushing into central midfield to form a partnership with Rodri that gives the German the freedom to attack.
Cancelo’s mobility to get up into midfield means Guardiola can bet on Manchester City being able to keep the ball high up the pitch, essentially giving them a free attacker (Gundogan) to overload opposition defences. There is an element of risk to the ploy, but the gamble is paying off for City who have now won 19 games in a row in all competitions.
Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach in the Champions League round of 16 first leg illustrated all that Cancelo offers City, with the 26-year-old contributing an assist for the first and carving open the opportunity that led to the second. The Portuguese was the best player on the pitch.
Comparisons can indeed be made with the aforementioned Lahm. Much like the German legend, Cancelo does most damage through the middle and is capable of picking a pass from deep when City are finding it tough to break through a low defensive block - see his two balls for the two goals against Gladbach.
Cancelo, just like Lahm, is central to the structure and approach of his team as a whole. Guardiola built his Bayern Munich side around the diminutive deep-lying pace-setter and while Cancelo might not be Manchester City’s structural bedrock in quite the same way, their system wouldn’t work without him.
But while Lahm needed the security of another player filling in for him at right-back, Cancelo can play two roles at once. He is a full-back and a central midfielder rolled into one. In this sense, the better comparison might be with Alves who changed what was expected of full-backs by operating as both a defender and an attacker. At times, he was Barcelona’s furthest forward player in a team that included Lionel Messi, Pedro and David Villa.
At least Alves’ duties as a Barca player were somewhat linked, though. Against Borussia Monchengladbach, Cancelo essentially moonlighted as Kevin De Bruyne’s deputy in midfield, picking open the Bundesliga opposition from his hybrid position 25 to 30 yards out from goal.
Guardiola always looks for players who can do more than just one thing. He wants goalkeepers who can play as sweepers, wingers who drive inside to become forwards and forwards who drop deep to act as midfielders. In Cancelo, he has a full-back who is also a liberator.
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