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Guardiola: How Cancelo added new dimension at Man City

Pep Guardiola explained the thinking behind Manchester City’s tactics at Anfield when speaking to Sky Sports afterwards. “We had to play with a slower rhythm, with more passes than usual because they are the best team in the world on transitions.”

It worked. Aside from the penalty, the statistics showed that Liverpool had not created so little in a home Premier League game either this season or last. The 4-1 defeat all but ends Jurgen Klopp’s hopes of retaining the title. City are already being hailed as champions elect.

graphical user interface: Manchester City's Joao Cancelo has been an important player for Pep Guardiola this seasonManchester City’s Joao Cancelo has been an important player for Pep Guardiola this season

And Joao Cancelo has been a key factor in that success.

Indeed, he has become so fundamental to his coach’s thinking that he was substituted just after the hour mark in the previous game at Burnley having been rested completely for the victory over Sheffield United prior to that. Guardiola needed him fresh for Liverpool.

Ruben Dias is credited with organising the defence, although his error in conceding the penalty showed that even he is fallible. John Stones has improved too. But the biggest reason for City’s improvement is the setup. Cancelo’s deployment has been crucial to that.

His ability to come inside from full-back has helped Guardiola to maintain control of the ball, while ensuring his team is in a more stable defensive shape when possession is lost.

It is not the expansive game with which the coach is sometimes associated but the fact Cancelo has been able to create when moving infield has enabled City to remain potent in possession rather than becoming sterile, even in the absence of Kevin De Bruyne.

As Jamie Carragher pointed out on Monday Night Football, his positioning has helped to unleash Ilkay Gundogan.

Cancelo’s influence was not as obvious at Anfield as it has been in recent weeks. He often stayed deeper to protect City on those transitions. But it was still his penetrative pass to Gundogan through the Liverpool lines that set his side on their way for the opening goal.

That is what he has brought and his manager knows it.

Speaking to Guardiola, his eyes light up at the mere mention of Cancelo’s name. “He is a funny guy,” he tells Sky Sports. “He is loved not just by the players but by all the staff.”

Supporters needed a little longer to convince. Cancelo had arrived in the summer of 2019 as the most expensive right-back in the history of the game in a deal valued at £60m.

He started only four Premier League games prior to the turn of the year in his first season at Manchester City. Speculation about his future followed. A player who had spent the previous three campaigns at Valencia, Inter and Juventus was still searching for a home.

Faced with another decision, he opted to fight for his place.

“He arrived at a moment last season when he decided he wanted to stay here for a long time and play good,” explains Guardiola. “He is convinced that he wants to stay here because he has moved a lot, different countries, different places. He has settled good.”

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But what about that role as Manchester City’s full-back and midfielder? How does a team even scout for such a talent when it is a position few other teams ask their players to fill?

Guardiola admits he had not seen Cancelo play there before.

“No, but you see the training sessions and you see the games,” he says. “How he moves, how he controls it, how he handles the relationship with team-mates inside and outside.

“Other players in the back cannot play in this position, they can play wide, but he has the skills to play there. Danilo could do it. Fabian Delph was exceptional. Alex Zinchenko too.

“There is a need sometimes for these qualities and you believe that they can do it. We talk to them, we try to explain to them. Sometimes we realise it is difficult for them but if you are positive about it and believe that they can do it then they have the quality to do it.”

Cancelo has had a lot of tactical information to take in this season. In the Manchester derby at Old Trafford, he was used as a left-back. At The Hawthorns recently, he found himself camped in the opposition half, often occupying central positions. At Anfield, he was deeper.

City’s passing networks in the recent win at Burnley show how Cancelo has become central to their build-up play, receiving the ball from those behind him, inside him and ahead of him, acting as the conduit for attacks. He had 85 touches in 64 minutes at Turf Moor.

Pressed further, Guardiola acknowledges there is something that differentiates Cancelo from those other full-backs that have moved into midfield. It is his sheer creativity.

That is not the principal reason for the move into the middle – the ability to circulate possession is the key quality. But the fact Cancelo can become another playmaker has added a new dimension to Manchester City’s attacking play that was not there before.

The numbers highlight that.

Cancelo, perhaps surprisingly, has the highest expected assists tally from open play of any Manchester City player this season – ahead of Raheem Sterling and De Bruyne. Only three players – Bruno Fernandes, Jack Grealish and Mohamed Salah – rank above him.

To clarify, that means when quality is factored in, and the advantage of taking the set pieces is removed, Cancelo is creating the greatest volume of chances of any Manchester City player. He is not just keeping the ball, he is breaking the lines with his passing.

“He is a player who has that mentality offensively to see what happens,” says Guardiola.

“He is a big talent.”

Cancelo’s transformation will be cited as further evidence of his coach’s ability to develop players in unexpected ways, bringing out qualities in them that even they may not have known they possessed. But Guardiola is keen to stress the credit must go to Cancelo.

“When a player is on the pitch and has the ball, the decision is for them. We help them a bit in terms of telling them where they will find the spaces, but the rest they have to do.

“Everything started from him. From the desire, from the wish, from the generosity of what you can do for the team.

“When that happens, the quality does the rest.”