Joao Cancelo must repeat last season’s comeback to displace Man City’s latest world-class player
Few players at Manchester City have had as many ups and downs as Joao Cancelo.
The Portuguese defender struggled at the start of his City career, with just 13 Premier League starts in his first season. He took time to adapt to Pep Guardiola’s tactical demands, and switched between covering right-back and left-back.
It even got to the stage where Cancelo was being mentioned as a potential player to depart in January 2020, just half a season into his time in Manchester. He was then left out of the matchday squad all together when City faced Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup final a few weeks later.
However, he knuckled down, with ten of his 33 appearances in that first season coming after the season restarted in June. When the 2020/21 season kicked off, he was a key player to cover both full-back positions during a non-stop schedule, and by Christmas he was being mentioned as a potential Player of the Year contender.
His ‘inverted full-back’ role was central to City’s winning run between December and March, and was visible proof of Cancelo’s progression in tactical awareness under Guardiola. The Portuguese’s performance at West Brom was up there with one of the best individual performances of the season.
However, after displacing Kyle Walker at right-back, it wasn’t long before Walker hit back.
City’s reliable no.2 responded to Cancelo’s form with some hard work and grit of his own, winning back his place and finishing the season as first choice again. Walker started the Champions League final, and Cancelo had to watch on from the bench as Aleks Zinchenko was the form player on the left.
Cancelo’s red card at Brighton wouldn’t have helped, but the truth is that Walker and Zinchenko would likely have started the final anyway. He had the chance to regain some confidence at Euro 2020, but was unfortunate to contract Covid-19 just before the tournament and had to withdraw.
Now, Cancelo has had a full summer to relax and recover from a difficult 18-months. He will be one of the first back at pre-season as a result of his Euro disappointment, giving him a chance to steal an early march on Walker for that right-back spot.
Walker earned a spot in the Euro 2020 Team of the Tournament, reaching a second major final this season with some brilliant defensive performances. He’s been top class for a while now, but undermined by a handful of his own sloppy mistakes.
Those now seem to have been eradicated, and Walker is genuinely one of the world’s best right-backs – arguably the number one on form. He will return to City as first-choice, and rightly so.
Cancelo has to make another comeback to overtake his defensive rival, and give Guardiola the impossible decision of picking between not just one, but two world-class right-backs.