Joao Cancelo’s Quiet, But Steady SeasonBy Dan Larsen | 21 July 2020
Who has been Manchester City’s best defensive player this season? In past seasons, the answer may have been debated, but that was due to there being several good options to choose from. This season, it could be argued that none of City’s defensive players have stood out in a positive way. With defensive miscues aplenty across the entire backline that have cost the team countless games, especially big games like this past weekend’s FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, it can be difficult to find a silver lining in these positions given how the season has played out.
A deeper dive into the numbers, however, reveals that one City defender has stood out above the rest: Joao Cancelo. Though he has played second fiddle to Kyle Walker for most of the season, Cancelo has quietly been great when he’s been given the chance. This has come in spite of the fact that manager Pep Guardiola has often miscast him when playing him, asking him to work almost exclusively as an inverted full-back rather than as a high-and-wide wing-back where his elite crossing skills would help stretch opposing defences.
Out of City’s defensive players, Cancelo has posted the highest form rating in the Premier League at a 7.05. The only other defensive player in the ballpark of his form rating in the league this season is Aymeric Laporte at a 6.93. In the UEFA Champions League, he’s also tied for the best form rating among those defenders who’ve appeared in multiple games for the club (6.91, tied with Fernandino).
Though Cancelo has featured in just 15 games in the EPL, 11 coming as a starter, he’s made the most of those appearances. He’s averaged 2.4 tackles and 1.3 interceptions per game. The former leads the team, and the latter is tied for second best with Eric Garcia (Laporte leads the team average with 1.5 interceptions per game). He ranks second out of the defenders in the side tackles per game (two), and has a solid 1.3 interception average in his six UCL appearances as well, four of which came as a starter.
His success rate at tackling has been stellar for a full-back. He’s converted on 68.5% of his attempted tackles in the league this season (2.4 tackles over 3.6 attempts per game). That success rate puts him in the same ballpark as the Premier League’s highest rate defensive player this season, Ricardo Pereira (4.3 tackles on 6.1 attempts per game for a 70.4% success rate). Cancelo has often been the one tracking back and breaking up dangerous opposing counter attacks, saving the team from an even worse defensive record. In this respect, he has stood well above Kyle Walker, the man who’s been previously relied upon to do just that. Walker has had a comparatively poor season relative to his previous two seasons. He has averaged just one tackle per game this season in the league on 1.6 attempts (62.5% success rate), a significant drop-off from his 75% success rate in the league last season (1.2 on 1.6 attempts) and his 78.9% success rate in the league season before that (1.5 tackles on 1.9 attempts per game).
On the attacking side, Cancelo hasn’t been given as many chances to provide width as would have been expected after his signing for the team in the summer. Cancelo was regarded as an excellent crosser and chance creator before arriving. He averaged 1.4 key passes per game in 25 league games for Juventus last season, and averaged 1.3 key passes per game in the league the season before while playing for Inter. This season, his key passes per game in the league sits at a disappointing 0.9. He’s attempted about one dribble attempt less per game this season in the league (1.5) as he did the season before for Juventus (2.4). Most importantly, his crossing attempts per game have plummeted. He averaged one crossing attempt per game last season, and 1.5 the season before. This season, he’s attempted just 0.4 crosses per game in the league, and 0.5 in the UCL.
The discrepancies in his attacking numbers can be largely explained by the way that Guardiola has utilised him this season. As mentioned earlier, Guardiola has preferred to have him play as an inverted full-back rather than as the width provider. Perhaps because he often shares a side of the pitch with Riyad Mahrez, who can be inconsistent at tracking back, Guardiola has seen it necessary to have someone with his pace and defensive skills working as cover on that side. Cancelo has handled this responsibility well, even if it detracts from the best offensive skills that he can provide. It’s also worth noting he has been efficient with his short passing, posting a career best 89.6% completion percentage on 56.5 attempts per game.
As City look ahead to the UCL in two weeks, serious consideration should be given to playing Cancelo over Walker at right-back. Even though he’s appeared less often than many would have anticipated after his expensive summer move, Cancelo has proven to be the most competent of City’s defensive options when called upon. His defensive stats and form rating clearly demonstrate this.
Guardiola should also consider utilising his attacking skills in these games to provide additional width, especially when City need it. Without Leroy Sane’s pace, the club have lacked that consistent option to run in behind well-positioned defences, especially against teams that play with a back five. Cancelo can help remedy this, if asked to do so, given the pace and dribbling ability that he possesses. As we saw on Saturday, City really missed having that extra width down the right side, something Kyle Walker is unable to remedy due to his poor crossing ability.
City have a potential world-class right-back on their hands with Cancelo. It’s time for them to recognise this and pick their teams accordingly. Their success in the UEFA Champions League may literally depend on it.