Monday marks the anniversary. It will be a year to the day since Manchester City last won a trophy. If the crowd who witnessed their 2-1 victory over Aston Villa at Wembley – 82,145 – transports us back to an earlier age, there was another notable difference. Pep Guardiola named an 18 for a cup final without Joao Cancelo. He was not injured, just omitted. A £60 million signing – albeit in a part-exchange for Danilo – looked a misfit, a mistake.
Fast forward 12 months and there is a case for crowning Cancelo the most influential footballer in England. He has been the catalyst for the tactical coup that has propelled City to 19 consecutive wins, the hybrid of full-back and midfielder who defends in a quartet but then moves infield and upfield to act as a playmaker, in turn permitting Ilkay Gundogan to roam further forward and facilitating his transformation into a goalscorer. A converted winger is defender, passer and crosser. One goal against Borussia Monchengladbach stemmed directly from Cancelo’s supply line, the other indirectly.
If it renders him the spiritual successor to Philipp Lahm, another full-back with the technical skills and positional discipline to double up as a midfielder in what is becoming a trademark Guardiola ploy, Cancelo feels the Premier League’s accidental revolutionary.
If City recognised his quality and felt he was an upgrade on Danilo when they signed him, the deal was nevertheless in part a product of their ability to send the Brazilian to Juventus in return. A year ago, Guardiola was ambivalent about Cancelo. The implication was that, should a suitable offer arrive, he could go. “It depends on him, you can suggest but the players have to decide the rest,” he said in a non-committal comment about the Portuguese. Suffice to say his early plans for 2020/21 did not revolve around one of his biggest buys.
And then COVID-19 happened. There were fewer transfers last summer, fewer takers for a £60 million full-back. Even as some Premier League clubs continued to spend, their continental cousins embraced austerity. The market for Cancelo may have disappeared.
He and City were stuck with each other. They have both made the most of it. An unhappy alliance has turned into a profitable partnership. A season that began inauspiciously – Cancelo missed the start with a foot injury – has developed in unexpected ways. He became City’s first-choice left-back, then their preferred right-back. Aymeric Laporte was once their premier centre-back; now it seems he owes his place when he does appear to Cancelo, starting only when the Portuguese is the left-back.
If his unique, fusion role is a testament to his footballing intelligence, following Guardiola’s instructions is no simple task. “He was confused in the beginning because he expected something that we could not offer him,” the manager said last month. “Last season he struggled a little bit with a new club and new ideas.”
If it is a tribute to Cancelo’s versatility that he has responded to unorthodox ideas, it also illustrates Guardiola’s adaptability. He is often called a perfectionist but what might be statistically his best defence is not the result of perfect planning. He has created something special from who was available, not who he might ideally have wanted.
His first-choice back four contains three who could have left, in Cancelo, John Stones and Oleksandr Zinchenko, and one who perhaps was not City’s preferred target: had Sevilla’s price for Jules Kounde been lower, maybe he would have been recruited instead of Ruben Dias. The quartet who have become a byword for clean sheets could have been the unlamented and the unsigned.
So this is a very 2021 situation. If, as expected, City do become champions, it will be in part because they have a £60 million full-back whose potential lay untapped in the past. But it is also because, in an environment when more players will be trapped at clubs by their cost and their contracts and when the transfer market collapses, it is incumbent on everyone involved to make it work. It is what Guardiola and Cancelo have done. Instead of being rejected, he has been reinvented. Instead of being confused, Cancelo is confusing opponents. If it depended on him, now City depend on their radical original.
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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.
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