Manchester City take a 2-0 lead into their Champions League last-16 second leg against Borussia Monchengladbach next month after a solid performance in Budapest.
Bernardo Silva and Gabriel Jesus scored the goals to put Man City in control and hand them their 19th consecutive victory across all competitions, but the win was all about Joao Cancelo.
The Portuguese defender joined Man City in the summer of 2019 but had an underwhelming first campaign in England, as Pep Guardiola was trying to work out how best to fit him into the team. Was he a replacement for Kyle Walker on the right? Benjamin Mendy on the left? A sub-in centre-back? The uncertainty hurt Cancelo but he’s finally found his role and it’s been game-changing for Man City.
On paper, against Monchengladbach, Cancelo lined up as a left-back, joining Kyle Walker, Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte in the back four but he was rarely seen in his actual position. Because, for those who haven’t been watching Man City in recent weeks, Cancelo has a unique role: The False-Back, as we’ll call him.
When Man City are in possession of the ball, which is pretty darn often, Cancelo moves into a midfield position where he can best influence the game. Just look at Man City’s average positions from the match against Monchengladbach below. Cancelo is overlapping with Ilkay Gundogan and thankfully he can be seen on the image, because there was a point in the game where he was virtually covered.
Although a good defender, Cancelo’s best attributes are arguably his vision and passing, making him one of the more dangerous players in Guardiola’s team. It’s allowed Guardiola to accommodate for the absence of Kevin De Bruyne this season as the Belgian has been struggling with injuries, and Cancelo has drawn comparisons with the Spaniard’s use of Philipp Lahm at Bayern Munich.
“He did it with Philipp Lahm as well at Bayern Munich but I think it depends on the player,” former Bayern Munich and England midfielder Owen Hargreaves said on BT Sport before the game.
“If he’s got a player, technically that good, he’ll give them responsibility to create overloads in midfield and that’s amazing to see.”
In Lahm, primarily a right-back, Guardiola had a player that was able to help Bayern keep control of the ball, dominating games even more than they had and truly kick-starting their dominance of the Bundesliga (though they had already started their streak). But there are a few minor differences between Lahm and Cancelo.
The first is that Lahm was officially placed in the midfield, moving into the number 6 role, with another player filling in at right-back, whereas Cancelo’s movement sees Man City essentially switch to a back-three when on the ball. Then, Cancelo has had a more telling creative impact on this Man City side, contributing more than just keeping hold of the ball (though we don’t want to play down the excellence of Lahm’s repositioning to midfield at Bayern).
Against Monchengladbach Cancelo played a part in both of Man City’s goals, being directly involved in the first and crucial to the build-up for the second, in similar fashions too. With Man City unable to break through Monchengladbach’s defence despite dominating possession in the opening 25 minutes, Cancelo received the ball in the middle of the opposition half. While a normal full-back might look to go down the wing and cross, Cancelo pulled up about 30 yards from goal and sent a lovely in-swinging cross to the far post where Silva was there to head in. It was weighted perfectly to drop just beyond the Monchengladbach defenders and land on Silva’s head, making the most of poor defending.
Joao Cancelo with the perfect assist ?
On a plate for Bernardo Silva who heads it home at the far post! ?
Man City open the scoring! pic.twitter.com/klBEZSOkx1
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) February 24, 2021
It was a practically identical move for the second goal too. This time in the second half, Cancelo cut onto his right from roughly 10 yards outside the Monchengladbach area and sent an in-swinging cross to the far post where Silva was there to head. Only this time, the Portuguese midfielder sent the ball back cross goal for Jesus to tap in. Deliveries like those are the reason pre-assists should become more of a thing in football, giving players like Cancelo the credit that may have otherwise been lost to the stats.
But there was more to Cancelo’s game than just his part in the two goals. The Portuguese “False-Back”, completed 93% of his passes, including 100% of his long balls, had 118 touches (bettered only by Ruben Dias for either side), completed four take-ons and still had time to chip in defensively. Again, it’s testament to Cancelo’s quality that he has been trusted with this role.
“Cancelo offers so much for the team. He’s very pacy and he makes the right decisions defensively, and offensively his quality shines through,” former Man City defender Joleon Lescott said.
“He could play further up the field and he wouldn’t look out of place.”
Lescott went on to call Cancelo the best full-back in England, adding: “Yeah [he replied when asked the question by Rio Ferdinand]. I don’t there’s many full-backs that can play that role that he does.”
Guardiola should be given some credit for Cancelo’s performances, having spotted the talent to move him into midfield. Unlike with Lahm (who wanted to play as a number 6) there wasn’t an obvious desire from the player to move into midfield, and Cancelo still performs his defensive duties. According to Hargreaves, Guardiola is a genius.
João Cancelo’s game by numbers vs. Gladbach:
100% long ball accuracy
93% pass accuracy
8 penalty area entries
7 duels won
1 big chance created
1 clean sheet
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 24, 2021
“They have great players but I think they’re really well coached,” he said of Man City.
“Whoever plays, they all know their role incredibly well. I think he [Guardiola] is the ultimate innovator, I think he’s always looked to find a way, even the injuries that they’ve had with Aguero and De Bruyne have only strengthened his positions.
“‘Let’s play another midfield player, let’s dominate the ball more, play it at our speed’ rather than like they did against Liverpool with high transitions, when they got knocked out of the Champions League. This has only strengthened his positions and, to be fair, the results are undeniable.
“The best defence anywhere, with that group of players, with that attack, to dominate the ball, it’s hard to beat.”
But is there a downside to Cancelo playing more centrally? The Portuguese did have a shaky moment in the second half when he came together with Jonas Hofmann inside his own area, causing a penalty check on VAR (though it wasn’t given). And Hargreaves believes Cancelo may not always be able to slot into his midfield role.
He added: “There will be in the Champions League (teams that work out how to expose Cancelo’s movement) probably, when you play a team like Bayern Munich when you’ve got Gnabry, Sane and Coman. If they stay up the pitch, is Cancelo going to go in there? Probably not.”
Until that hypothetical moment comes, however, we can all enjoy Joao Cancelo and the magic he brings to his Man City side.