Man City’s delightful £60m star who could eclipse Philipp Lahm and Dani Alves for Pep Guardiola – Dominic Farrell

Manchester City full-backs tend not to be at the front of the cue when it comes to being the subject of fan songs, unless you’re a cult hero like Pablo Zabaleta or Danny Tiatto.

It’s safe to say Joao Cancelo doesn’t have much in common with Zabaleta or Tiatto. But then he doesn’t really have a great deal of common ground with any wide defenders past or present.

The Portugal international’s pioneering take on full-back duties under Pep Guardiola has cemented his place in the affections of supporters, with the travelling faithful serenading him to the tune of Let It Snow during last weekend win at Newcastle.

It is around a year since Cancelo’s inverted role, which adds both creativity and defensive heft to City in central areas, became a key feature of Guardiola’s latest iteration in Manchester.

He might have lost his place during last season’s run-in but, 12 months on, the 27-year-old is taking his game to new heights.

When the weather outside is frightful, Cancelo really is delightful.

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Last month, Guardiola challenged Cancelo to make further improvements while also placing him in lofty company.

“In that position, with the full-back a little bit inside, not just overlaps, Philipp Lahm is the best player I have ever seen in my life,” he said of his former on-field lieutenant at Bayern Munich.

“Never I saw I full-back going inside, moving into the pockets close to the holding midfielder and attacking from there. I have never seen one player like him. Never ever.

“But Joao, like for example Dani Alves, should play in that position. He can play inside, he has the quality.”

As a Guardiola full-back, Cancelo keeps daunting company in terms of points of comparison but is increasingly matching those who have gone before him.

Joao’s sensational goal at St James’ Park took him to three goals and seven assists in all competitions this term. According to Opta, it is the first time a Guardiola defender has reached double figures for goal involvements in a single season since David Alaba in 2013-14.

Joao Cancelo of Manchester City scores a goal to make it 0-2 during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Manchester City at St. James Park
Joao Cancelo’s brilliant strike at Newcastle was his 10th goal involvement of the season.

The way Guardiola uses his full-backs is his greatest coaching innovation. As much as he will forever be associated with the false nine strategy, there are examples of similarly fruitful gambits with deep-lying centre forwards dotted through football history. The “Revie Plan” that inspired City’s 1956 FA Cup triumph is probably worthy of a dossier in Pep’s tactics cave (we know he has one).

At Barcelona, Dani Alves was often a full-back in name only, frequently acting as an auxiliary winger. But attack-minded wide full-backs are nothing new and it took the move to Bayern Munich for Guardiola to involve his number twos and threes in games of 4D chess.

Lahm and Alaba were among those entrusted with tucking in to bolster central areas. The primary motivation was to guard against the counter-attacking threat that is so prevalent in the Bundesliga, but players of such prowess added another offensive dimension.

The beauty of Cancelo right now is that he feels like an implausible combination of all three greats mentioned. When playing at right-back, he can stretch the pitch and supply the direct attacking threat of a peak Dani Alves.

Joao Cancelo of Manchester City battles for possession with Pablo Fornals of West Ham United
Joao Cancelo’s game this season has combined elements of Guardiola favourites Dani Alves, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba.

If he plays at left-back he is basically an bonus midfielder, able to dictate and provide an option for the extra pass like Lahm, while his technical and physical prowess means he can break lines in the manner of Alaba.

This season he has played more through balls than Lionel Messi and had more shots than Bruno Fernandes, as per Squawka and Opta respectively.

“The players you’ve mentioned there, Cancelo is falling into that rank in terms of consequential full-backs [Guardiola] has coached during his time,” former City defender Nedum Onuoha told City Is Ours this week.

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“From an attacking standpoint, I think he’s better off the left. As soon as he comes inside, anything can happen. You see that ball he put in for Sterling a few weeks ago with the outside of his right boot.

“It’s incredible to watch at the minute. It’s great that he’s getting recognition and it’s just funny… the rise of the full-back: we’re having conversations about full-backs being exciting players.”

It’s a timely point, especially at a time when some are spuriously claiming Guardiola’s Premier League leaders are “boring”.

Simply fix your gaze upon Cancelo during any City game, lap up the magic and feel the warmth of the festive spirit.

How do you think Joao Cancelo compares to Pep Guardiola’s other great full-back innovators? Follow the City Is Ours editor Dom Farrell on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.

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