Football Features

How Pep Guardiola makes midfielders out of full-backs

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 13:41, 26 February 2021 | Updated: 15:26, 29 March 2021

Joao Cancelo has been one of the best players in the Premier League so far this season. From full-back.

That may seem startling at first, but it’s actually pretty normal for Pep Guardiola’s sides. In fact, what’s really odd is that it’s taken him five years to finally get a world-class full-back at Manchester City. Yes, Kyle Walker was very good, but his skill-set was tremendously orthodox and made him an awkward fit for how Pep Guardiola likes to use full-backs: as midfielders.

Fabian Delph was English football’s first introduction to Pep’s methods, but many viewed him as a stopgap filling in because actual left-back Benjamin Mendy was injured. And sure he literally was that, but in signing Walker and Mendy it was clear Guardiola was, at least initially,  making a play for a more orthodox wing-backs to get up and down the pitch, perhaps to try and deal with the relentless nature of Premier League football.

Mendy’s injuries essentially scrapped those plans, and Guardiola returned to his usual method. Usually teams use full-backs as auxiliary wingers, flying forwards to overlap on the flanks and hurtle crosses into the box (or send them in from deep). Trent Alexander-Arnold is a fantastic example of this as the Englishman is a chance-creation machine for Liverpool.

An overlapping full-back helps to create 2-v-1 overloads on the flank, but Guardiola’s preferred method of getting a man in space out wide is to play someone (a winger, midfielder or yes, even a full-back) into space through positional play; i.e. quick exchanges of passes and sharp off-the-ball movement.

It’s not that Guardiola doesn’t want his full-backs to create chances, it’s that he wants them to first and foremost help him achieve that which he values most: numerical superiority in midfield.

Man City’s average Premier League positions for 2020/21 shows Cancelo tucked into a (lopsided) midfield diamond.

He does that through “underlapping” the full-backs. Instead of sticking them to the touchline, he puts his wingers there and starts the full-backs in the half-space and then has them come centrally to essentially create another midfielder, and this superiority helps his teams to dominate the ball in the key areas.

An underlapped full-back can facilitate a number of different solutions for possession-based positional play, such as allowing you to put an attacking player in central midfield and not have to worry about limiting their forward runs (look at Kevin De Bruyne) or allowing you to switch to a 3-3-1-3 on the fly by bringing one of your full-backs into a midfield diamond.

That latter is what Guardiola has been doing with Joao Cancelo this season. After a campaign of adaptation in 2019/20, the Portuguese has exploded in 2020/21 into this key Guardiola full-back-midfielder role.

Cancelo has an impressive Premier League stat-line where he has made 1,883 touches and completed 1,211 passes (including 382 in the final third). On their own, these are just numbers. Sure, both statistical categories rank Cancelo third in the City squad. His final-third passes total is even the highest at City this season. But roughly speaking the same is also true of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson at Liverpool.

What really sets Cancelo apart is where he is making those touches and playing those passes.

An event zone map (passes attempted and ball touches) comparison between Joao Cancelo and Trent Alexander-Arnold

Now things become clearer as to how Cancelo is being used.

Moreover his 108 passes (or crosses) into the box, 34 chances created, 35 dribbles completed and 42 tackles are all the second-highest totals at Man City for those respective metrics. He’s first in interceptions (with 31), too.

Essentially, Cancelo’s output locations for all of these key metrics show that he is being used “as a midfielder” in the traditional sense. These kind of visualisations don’t look like those of a freight-train or more crossing-oriented full-back, but of a decidedly unorthodox full-back that takes part wholly in the build-up phase of Manchester City’s attacking play.

Cancelo’s passing received network vs. Everton; he was at the heart of the win even at left-back.

Looking back, one can see similar ball-playing output for Philipp Lahm when playing under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich. Lahm was so tactically adept that the German even played defensive midfield for the Germans in Guardiola’s first season (until he could get in a full-time solution in Xabi Alonso).

But Lahm eventually returned to full-back, albeit in an underlapping capacity (along with David Alaba) as Guardiola literally used his full-backs as central midfielders, allowing him to load his side up with as many outrageous attacking talents as possible.

In 2015/16, Pep’s best season at Bayern when they really should have won the treble, Lahm had the fourth-most touches and completed passes, the most passes ending in the final third, and the second-most chances created and interceptions.

These figures are similar to Cancelo’s at City, suggesting a full-back operating in a similar role (although not in the exact same way as Lahm’s dribbling numbers were much lower than that of Cancelo, who has already surpasses Lahm’s 28 completed take-ons with much of the season still to go).

Of course Dani Alves in 2010/11 remains the gold standard for full-backs (both under Guardiola’s management and in general).

With Barcelona forming what many consider to be the best club side ever constructed, and certainly the best midfield ever constructed, Dani Alves somehow managed to go underappreciated, but he was a full participant in the Blaugrana’s dominance and equally as important as Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets (although they all took a back seat to Leo Messi and Xavi).

Alves had the second-most touches in La Liga for Barcelona that season (a staggering 3,514) but due to the supernatural nature of his teammates, he had just the fourth-most passes completed and passes into the final third.

Still, Alves had the second-most chances created and, unlike Cancelo and Lahm, often those became assists; he recorded an impressive 15 that year (playing with Leo Messi probably helped), which is more than everyone bar Xavi. Alves also topped the tackle tables and crucially was second for interceptions, again showing the key defensive role that Pep’s full-backs play in cutting off opponent counter-attacks.

Alves was actually a great dribbler, but given he was in a team with Leo Messi and Andrés Iniesta he only completed the third-most take-ons that season. In any case, his ranking among these key metrics shows how he set the archetype for Guardiola’s underlapping full-back-midfielder. A dynamic athlete capable of playing two roles simultaneously and giving his team an almost unstoppable tactical versatility (especially when combined with Eric Abidal’s ability to play left-back and centre-back).

Pep took that template on to Munich and now, after many years of dawdling, finally looks to have brought it to its full height in Manchester. Obviously Fabian Delph and Kyle Walker have played inferior versions of the same role but neither of them had the incredible quality on the ball to thrive in the dual role the way Cancelo has.

It’s not that Cancelo is better than Alves or Lahm but given that City do not have the staggering star power that Barcelona or Bayern Munich did, Cancelo’s already important role has become even moreso. City just could not be City without Cancelo bolstering their midfield numbers, enabling the forward runs and subsequent goalscoring of Ilkay Gundogan, as well as protecting so adeptly against opposing counter-attacks.

Now, has all this worked out for Pep Guardiola? Well Manchester City have won 19 games in a row across all competitions and are the favourites to win all four pf the competitions they’re in this season. So what do you think?