Joao Cancelo’s new role and it’s part in a resurgent, revamped Manchester City

Fresh from Manchester City’s 5-0 thrashing of West Brom last week, we took a look at the Pep Guardiola system that is getting the very best out of Joao Cancelo, helping players like Ilkay Gundogan to thrive, and making the team so good to watch.
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Fresh from Manchester City’s 5-0 thrashing of West Brom last week, we took a look at the Pep Guardiola system that is getting the very best out of Joao Cancelo, helping players like Ilkay Gundogan to thrive, and making the team so good to watch.

Just wow. Scintillating City have been back for some games now, and they made a real point of solidifying that at the Hawthorns as they breezed past the Baggies, bar an early scare.

One of the key talking points, apart from an Ilkay Gundogan masterclass – more on that later – was the role of Joao Cancelo once again, which has transfixed some of the more analytical Blues, and understandably confused others.

Simply put, a lot of Manchester City fans will have noticed the sluggish start to the season. Results were mixed and the football as a whole was nowhere near as entertaining as it is currently or has been in recent years.

Pep Guardiola was using a rather common 4-2-3-1 formation with a double pivot pairing using two of Rodrigo, Fernandinho or Ilkay Gundogan with a lot of reliance on Kevin de Bruyne at number 10. In my opinion, at that time, Guardiola was trying new combinations of back-fours with two new centre-back’s in Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake, until one clicked - and when there was so much movement in the back four, they needed suitable cover, hence the use of two holding midfielders to provide that.

In turn, with an extra player aiding the defensive unit, this hampered the consistency of the attacking prowess, averaging 1.38 goals per game in the League compared to the 2.5 goals per game in the new system. Most notably, the attractiveness of the football that Manchester City fans have been accustomed to under the Catalan from a subjective view was far off the standards of previous years.

Short-term pain [if you can call it that], resulted in long-term gain, as once the new Barnsley Beckenbauer-turned-Baresi and Ruben ‘Maldini’ Dias [who helped determine results even in the old system] were tried and tested together, it has been as close to a match made in heaven as you can get, as of yet.

10 out of the last 11 games they have played together in the League have resulted in clean sheets, so after the first five consecutive games together in all competitions, all resulting in clean sheets, Guardiola felt confident in altering the formation. That has hugely assisted the attractiveness of playstyle and completely changed Cancelo’s game, for the good of him and City.

The new system and what it has meant for Cancelo

It was Boxing Day where that switch took place. A Christmas gift if you will. To Blues, Love Pep.

Eagle-eyed fans watching the comfortable 2-0 victory over Newcastle United may have noticed something different to the normal system.

Out of possession when Newcastle had the ball, which only proved to be for a mere 24% of the game, City defended and pressed in a 4-2-4 shape, with Rodri and Gundogan steadying the ship in midfield. Yet when the turnover occurred in City’s favour, a 3-1-3-3 system took hold. Nathan Ake, Ruben Dias and John Stones were at the back, with Ake and Stones moving into wide centre-half roles / a defensive full-back role for Ake [whatever floats your boat]. Rodri sat at the tip of a defensive diamond, with Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling hugging the touchline. Gundogan and Kevin de Bruyne operated ahead of Rodri, with Ferran Torres as a false nine.

But where was Cancelo [27]? The Portuguese international would come inside as a right-central midfielder, given the licence to overlap, underlap and link-up on the right-hand-side, allowing De Bruyne to cause havoc alternating with Torres in the false nine and getting in behind Newcastle’s midfield line to pull the strings. Additionally, Cancelo coming in midfield gave more forward passing options, as there was not much pressure on the ball in Newcastle’s 5-4-1 formation, so that when City used the time to find the right pass into midfield, they could move the ball quickly and assertively, certainly more so than in previous weeks at times.

Also, the use of wingers on the side matched to their strong foot, like how Phil Foden has been used recently, allowed whoever was operating the false nine to drop deep and look for the wingers runs in behind the full-backs and centre-backs [prime example being De Bruyne against Chelsea] – further mayhem for the opposition. City have proved they can be just as efficient with wingers playing on their weaker footed side too in the same system, often used later in games, or as seen against Burnley.

Cancelo spent a lot of that first game in the 3-1-3-3 doubling on the left-wing back Matt Ritchie to create an overload with Sterling as well as frequently interchanging with him, in order to get in behind the five-strong Newcastle backline. Using the opening goal as an example, Cancelo peeled off the backline, he is pressed creating space in behind the backline, played through Sterling who squared it to Gundogan. Goal.

Ever since then, he has only got more accustomed to the role. He has been used in different ways such as again doubling up with Sterling on Luke Shaw at Old Trafford, or as more of a creator against West Brom, dictating a lot of the play.

To elucidate his change in role, take the final league game where City played 4-2-3-1 with Cancelo at left-back against Southampton, he made 49 passes and had 77 touches, making one key pass. Compare that to his creative role against West Brom, he had 145 touches, made 119 passes with three being key passes, all of which were the most of any City player that night. Obviously, he has not played that incredibly creative role every week, with it often being tailored to the opposition, yet it still reflects just how effective he can be there too, notching up a goal and an assist.

With the graphic above in mind, his touch map is outrageous. The role game-by-game is obviously dependant on the instructions Guardiola provides him, as well as his sense of spatial awareness and where to be, in relation to his teammates, but if you want a workhorse on and off the ball, Cancelo is your man.

Without putting too much hype on him, he is rather complete in this role. Tactically superb, technically smart with a wicked cross, a clever pass and an eye for goal. He was just playing in a position previously, whereas now, Guardiola has masterminded his own role where he is flourishing.

Guardiola said of Cancelo about when he first joined: "He was confused in the beginning - he expected something that we could not offer him but he's a nice guy with a great heart. Compare that to now, talk about change, eh? "

On his current development, Guardiola said after the West Brom game: “Now he is playing in one position he is comfortable. He has incredible quality with the ball, physicality and commitment defensively. He has settled really well in our club.”

How Cancelo’s role gets the best out of others

Cancelo’s right-sided, yet central midfield role plays into this false nine system really well. It was quite telling that Guardiola left out Gabriel Jesus of the starting 11 against West Brom [albeit he has started the last two], favouring this false nine. It is normally manned by one player from the start, De Bruyne has donned the role previously, with Mahrez taking the reins at the Hawthorns.

Why is it so effective, though? Despite a player ‘starting’ there, any of the central midfielders can occupy the false nine which makes the runners so hard to track, leaving opposing defenders unsure of who to mark and whether to step out of their defensive line to do so, it is often a lose-lose situation. As long as their role is covered by another City player, the position is free to take up, creating a ‘free false nine’.

Using the West Brom win as an example, Cancelo operating as an extra man in midfield when City were in possession, enabled Ilkay Gundogan to push on from the left-central midfield role, using his calmness in the opposing box, which Guardiola hailed [and funnily enough suggested he could do that role previously], to finish smoothly, not once but twice. When he did, he knew that one of Mahrez, Bernardo or Cancelo can cover his position, and vice versa when another attacks. Organised chaos for the opposition to deal with – and positions we had not seen Gundogan pick up in the 4-2-3-1, where he was sat a lot deeper for extra control in the side. Now, he has seven league goals in his last eight games. Bagsman.

The extra midfield body also aids Rodri, as he has another quick passing option, to speed up the movement of play, in addition to having another teammate nearby, who is much quicker than he is in defending a counter-attack if a possession turnover occurred.

What it means for the defence

You might be thinking, well if Cancelo vacates the right-back role, then surely City can just be easily countered exploiting that space. Well, with the wide centre-backs-come-full-backs, in Stones and Oleksandr Zinchenko largely [who has adapted to that role really adeptly], if they do attack down City’s right, Stones will gallop and cover that side, with Cancelo darting back to cover the right-centre-back position. This is a solution that is yet to be faulted, yet it has been tested as shown below – by an account that is great with the finer tactical details. Big risk, big reward.

We have seen Cancelo used on the left-hand-side coming into the midfield from there, which was his role against Aston Villa initially before Kyle Walker’s injury, and that was not as effective. Partly due to the right-footed-left-centre-back in Ruben Dias, which then plays into a whole different issue of receiving and passing it on his right foot, when on the left side.

With Cancelo best suited to the role from the right, allowing a left-footed-left-centre-back in Zinchenko to pass comfortably on that side into midfield, it means Walker will have his work cut out to get back into the side, though as we saw against Birmingham City in the FA Cup, he can do a similar role from the right if required.

Given the football was not as smooth on the eye when Cancelo was on the left, the options are then limited if Guardiola wants to use him and Walker. If Guardiola were to opt for Zinchenko or Laporte on the left with Walker on the right, one of Stones or Dias miss out which breaks up the solid partnership. 

Alternatively, Walker misses out, Stones and Dias stay, then Laporte could continue integrated into this defensive left-back-come-centre-back role. He played that position after coming off the bench against West Brom and from the start against Burnley to lend a hand in the aerial duels, maximise his long passing to get in behind and allowing the three best defenders to play together - in-turn, getting the best out of Cancelo.

As previously mentioned before about Guardiola tailoring Cancelo's role to the opposition, it looked like Guardiola encouraged a slightly deeper role, which Zinchenko took on in place of him, just from the left. Cancelo was more steady at Turf Moor - even despite impressing, he is allowed a game like that after flying for so long.

That tactical switch was probably to try and stretch Burnley's low block or deep shape. With quick passes, if City can pull a Burnley midfielder out of position to mark a free man deeper, or if Stones and Cancelo's link-up can encourage a player out of that shape, it creates another opening elsewhere to exploit, or space for that free man. City made use of that extra midfielder in the build up to play through the Clarets and create some lovely openings, that just lacked a finishing touch. Rather unrelated, but can we have the Gundogan chest pass on City Xtra on repeat, please?

With Liverpool on the horizon, Burnley was probably a test run for defence ahead of the trip to Anfield. The Blues passed with merit for their sixth consecutive clean sheet in the League. If Guardiola is picking on form, it will be hard to find a reason to keep Zinchenko out of the side for long, whose role in this system is underrated. Do not believe me? Read the thread below for further guidance. However, Laporte may be deemed a safer bet against Mohamed Salah.

City are now blessed with a number of options thanks to the defensive recruitment last summer and with so many in form, who would of thought this time last year that City would have such an abundance of good options suited to the current system.

Coming back to Cancelo though, to think that he was getting criticised last season and looking how far he has come is telling of the adaptation time it takes in a Guardiola system. The word ‘unlocked’ regarding Cancelo has been thrown around and it is spot on. It just takes a jewellery expert to be aware of a diamond’s true value. Well, who knew Guardiola was a jewellery expert anyway?

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You can follow Jack on Twitter here: @Jack_Heale

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