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Every now and then a player will come to symbolise a new innovation or creative variation on a role championed by an inventive coach.
We’ve had sweeper keepers and water carriers. The raumdeuter (think Thomas Muller, the ‘space interpreter’) and the schaduwspits (the so-called ‘shadow striker’ that the Dutch branded Dennis Bergkamp).
Or how about ‘free 8s’ and ‘false nines’? Pep Guardiola could not lay claim to have discovered the latter position - false nines were being deployed even before his playing days - but it was through Lionel Messi’s interpretation of the role under the Catalan at Barcelona that the term became such a readily accepted part of the football lexicon.
In more recent years, one of Guardiola’s pet projects has been the evolution of the full-back. He was creative with his use of Dani Alves at the Nou Camp but things moved on a notch with Philipp Lahm at Bayern Munich, who became what is probably best described as a ‘half-back’ - half right back, half central midfielder - during Guardiola’s time in Germany.
Four and a half years on, Guardiola is again challenging our concepts of what is possible from a full-back and, if his latest exciting experiment - Joao Cancelo - keeps up this form for Manchester City, a special term might soon need to be coined for the multi-hybrid role the Portuguese is starting to perfect. The ‘false, free full-back’ perhaps? Or the ‘phantom full-back’ maybe?
Guardiola replicated the role Lahm played at Bayern with the likes of Fabian Delph and, still to this day, Oleksandr Zinchenko at City. Rather than ask them to play as traditional wide full-backs, they were moved into the middle of the pitch to help strengthen the defensive midfield position, offering added security against the threat of the counter-attack at the same time as allowing the team to keep more men committed further forward.
It felt revolutionary but Cancelo’s role is a dramatic extension of that with bells and whistles on top - full-back, midfield pivot, winger and playmaker all rolled into one, a responsibility that demands great intelligence and an extraordinary engine.
“It’s a fantastic new way of seeing a full-back play,” Rio Ferdinand, the former Manchester United and England defender, said on BT Sport. “Cancelo’s position, once City get good possession, is inside the pitch, almost as a pivot. When they have the ball it’s three at the back and he’s one of the two boys in front of them but from there you see him drifting into the No. 10 position and he almost becomes a playmaker. It’s crazy to see. This is all obviously Pep and the way he sees the game.”
In the Champions League on Wednesday night, Borussia Monchengladbach became the latest side to be confounded by the challenges that presents as City emerged comfortable 2-0 winners thanks in large part to two delicious crosses from Cancelo from advanced, inside positions that fashioned the goals.
After City’s 2-0 win at Turf Moor a few weeks ago, Sean Dyche, the Burnley manager, described Guardiola’s side as playing with “three and a half at the back”, that half being Cancelo. But against Monchengladbach, it was not even 3½ - more 3⅛ - with centre-half Aymeric Laporte spending the majority of his time in a left-back position as Cancelo continually drove forward - with and without the ball - from a central midfield position.
It should leave City exposed more often but the team is working in such unison, keeping possession and closing down space so quickly and in such numbers, on the rare occasions they do lose the ball, that no one has yet found a way to adequately exploit that space vacated by Cancelo.
Monchengladbach managed to get in behind City’s left channel once in the entire game but, after a good run from deep to race on to Christoph Kramer’s pass, Stefan Lainer’s cross for Alassane Plea had too much weight on it and the chance went begging. And, on the one other occasion Monchengladbach glimpsed an opening down that side in the 55th minute, Cancelo was back in time to intercept Lars Stindl’s attempted through-ball - a reminder of his supreme fitness levels as much as his reading of the game.
“His physicality is overwhelming. If he had to play another game tomorrow, he’d be ready to play,” Guardiola said after the match. “He’s playing really well. Sometimes in that position, you have to control the risk when you lose the ball because it’s different to playing wide but he’s a player with huge quality when he plays there, especially when he overcomes the half line and can drive at the central defenders with the ball.”
This was a showcase for Cancelo’s skill set - the dribbling ability, close control, clever movement, hunger, intensity and, of course, a range of passing more commonly associated with a No. 10. He can play through balls and arcing passes from central positions and deliver crosses of pinpoint accuracy - the first a whipped, looping ball for his former Benfica team-mate, Bernardo Silva, to head home, the second a deeper cross to the far post that Bernardo headed back across for Gabriel Jesus to prod in.
“I played with him for seven years when I was at Benfica - I know him very well so the connection is good,” Bernardo said. “He knows my timing, I know how good he is on these kinds of balls.”
Joleon Lescott, the former City defender, believes Guardiola deserves great credit for having the vision to come up with something so original - and Cancelo for having the qualities to execute the manager’s blueprint.
“Pep recognises what the strengths are of each individual,” Lescott said. “He doesn’t do that with every full back in his team. I don’t think there are many full-backs who could play that role Cancelo does. He’s probably the best full-back in England at the moment.”
And certainly the most unique.