Unconventional – Understanding the new role of Joao Cancelo at Manchester City

Joao Cancelo was signed by Pep Guardiola for Manchester City in the summer of 2019. At that time, it looked like he was a simple solution for the club at right-back, given that was his natural position until then. He had a pretty average first season, making just 13 league starts, but his versatility was clear.

Guardiola started using Cancelo in a variety of positions. He was played at right-back, left-back, right-midfield (just once) and as a centre-back (just once) that campaign. But this season, he has been seen in a role that is more advanced, and less conventional. (h/t Transfermarkt)

Cancelo’s push to midfield this season

The 26-year-old is being deployed as a midfielder. And sometimes, that role is covert because he very rarely starts in midfield. Cancelo majorly starts as a full-back on paper but during the course of the games, the story has been pretty different. Let us take three games to briefly analyse this new role.

Joao Cancelo in the 2020/21 Premier League so far. (WhoScored)

If you need an idea of just what we are talking about, just look at his heatmap for this Premier League season so far (the image above). It is clear that he spends more time in midfield.

The first one is from the Premier League this season when City played Arsenal in October 2020. In this instance, Cancelo started as a midfielder on paper, for the first time in his career. Manchester City fielded a 3-1-4-2 with Cancelo playing as a right central-midfielder.

Joao Cancelo passes made against Arsenal in 2020/21 PL. (WhoScored)

In the image above, you can see the passes made by Cancelo. He stuck to his role in midfield, and often fell back to support the right side of his defence. This is displayed in the image below by the number of touches taken by him on the right-hand side of his own half.

Touches taken by Cancelo vs Arsenal in PL 2020/21 encounter in October 2020. (WhoScored)

Arsenal won that game 1-0. However, it looks like the role played by Cancelo impressed Guardiola, as he started the Portuguese as a central midfielder again, this time against Manchester United in a very important EFL Cup tie.

WhoScored and Transfermarkt both vary with their verdict on where Cancelo started. The former says he was a right-back on paper, while the latter mentions that he started as a central midfielder in a 3-5-2. That is perhaps a great representation of how his new role has even left the experts perplexed.

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Nevertheless, a map of his passes in the derby (in the image below) perfectly represents his advanced role. He even got a couple of shots away playing so high up the pitch. But it was his most recent performance against Borussia Monchengladbach which deserves more attention. Cancelo started as a left-back on paper.

Passes made by Cancelo in the EFL Cup match vs Manchester United. (WhoScored)

However, his heat map (in the image below) clearly shows he played as a midfielder. Cancelo was also heavily involved in both City goals vs the German side while playing that role.

Cancelo’s heat map this season. (Image Credits: Squawka Boost via Paddy Power)

The numbers above are incredible, to say the very least. He was arguably the best player on the pitch and that helped City to break through the German side’s defence with ease. After all, it was his sumptuous and adventurous ball from midfield that opened the scoring.

His new role is perhaps best summed up in the words of pundit Rio Ferdinand, who made these comments on BT Sport (h/t Daily Mail) after the UEFA Champions League first-leg clash ended.

“He’s playing as a full-back but it’s not the conventional full-back. He ends up coming into the centre of the pitch. His position once they get good possession is inside the pitch, almost as a pivot. When they have the ball it’s three at the back with two boys in front of them and he’s one of the boys. He’s even into the No 10 position at times and he becomes like a playmaker – it’s crazy to see. And this is all obviously Pep [Guardiola] and him seeing the game a different way.”


Undoubtedly, Guardiola deserves a lot of credit for this. He is the man, after all, to play the former SL Benfica defender in the middle of the pitch. It is even akin to the role Phillip Lahm played in Bayern Munich.

The Spaniard famously deployed the German full-back in a No.6 role at Bayern (h/t The Guardian). Could this be the start of him trying to do the very same at Manchester City with Cancelo?

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It remains to be seen how Cancelo fares in this new role when City play teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona or Juventus. But for now, the most we can do is analyse and enjoy this new role brought about by one of the finest managers in the game.

Aniket Rai

An ordinary football fan, doing what he loves.

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Aniket Rai