SIDELINES TO HEADLINES: WHY JOAO CANCELO IS EUROPE'S BEST FULL-BACK
Versatile. Defined as ‘the ability to adapt or be adapted to many different functions or activities’, it’s one of the most commonly used words in football. Players such as James Milner will no doubt pop straight into your head when you hear it, and the Liverpool man has displayed his adaptability ever since his debut for Leeds in 2002. With Milner now well into his 30s, someone has to claim the crown of Mr Versatile from the English veteran. Step forward Joao Cancelo.
The Portugusese international joined Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City for £58.5m from Juventus in the summer of 2019, and after an initially slow start in which he failed to usurp Kyle Walker at right-back, he’s come into his own over the past six months.
Canclo alternates between which full-back role he plays, with Guardiola using him at right-back 10 times and left-back on eight occasions this season.
However, to suggest he plays as an auxiliary full-back would be factually incorrect; he finds himself playing central midfield more often than full-back, despite starting out wide.
Transitioning from a back four in defence, to a back three in attack, with Cancelo moving into central midfield, is no mean feat, but Guardiola prides himself on being able to instill a flexibility of thinking into his players, and nobody has taken it on board more so at the Etihad than Cancelo, who has excelled in an entirely new role.
Sometimes alongside Rodri at No.6, and sometimes further forward at No.8, Cancelo provides attacking impotence and guile, all whilst ensuring defensive stability is maintained.
Ruben Dias and John Stones have been heavily praised recently, and for good reason, but Cancelo’s positional awareness of when to move infield from his natural berth on the right or left, and when to stay out wide, is second to none.
Changing positions mid-game, between different phases of play, is arguably the hardest task a player can be handed, but the Portguese full-back’s athleticism and intelligence ensures he makes it look like a stroll in the park, unfazed by the fact he’s facing elite attackers week-in, week-out; he’s become a pillar of consistency in England’s best defensive unit.
Still only 26-years old, Cancelo has already played for: Benfica, Valencia, Juventus and now Manchester City in his illustrious career, and has played right-wing, right-back, left-back and central midfield to the highest possible level.
Although he didn’t quite settle into the Premier League as quickly as he would’ve liked, Cancelo has a serious claim for being the league’s best defender this term, he’s been that good.
He’s yet to score in the Premier League this term, and has only grabbed one assist, far inferior to Ben Chilwell’s six goal contributions, but Cancelo’s xG + xA per 90 tally of 0.29 exceeds the Englishman’s 0.17, and is only slightly less than James Maddison’s 0.30; he’s an attacking force to be reckoned with.
His 1.1 shots per 90 in the league betters Kai Havertz’s 0.9 per 90, his 2.0 key passes per 90 is the same number as both Phil Foden and Sadio Mane, and he completes more dribbles (1.7 per 90) than Mateo Kovacic (1.6 per 90).
Cancelo’s role in Guardiola’s fluid attack is invaluable, but his defensive contribution shouldn’t be overlooked.
Making 4.1 tackles and interceptions per 90, far better than Kyle Walker’s 2.2, the ex-Juventus man is a powerhouse when it comes to protecting his own goal, and has truly usurped his English teammate as City’s best full-back.
With 1189 Premier League minutes under his belt this season, he’s only 17 minutes away from matching his 2019/20 tally; he’s become a regular this year, and it’s wholeheartedly justified.
With Joshua Kimmich now fully transitioned into a central midfielder, and Trent Alexander-Arnold suffering a drop off in form from last season, Cancelo has been the best right-back in world football this season, and arguably the best left-back as well.