Men's Team

Joao Cancelo: City's unique 'false full-back'

Just as Pep Guardiola has proved that, with intelligent use of the ‘false nine’ an out-and-out striker is not always needed for a team to score goals, so Joao Cancelo’s influence on City has earned him the unique tag of the ‘false full-back’.

It is testament to Guardiola to have the foresight to employ one of his defenders as a play-maker, but also to the player himself for the way he has taken on his creative duties while being able to perform his ‘day job’ as a defender.

Cancelo is a gifted footballer, but it is with Manchester City that he appears to have found his spiritual home and both the Club and the player are reaping the benefits.

There is a famous quote from the 1989 Manchester derby, just after Andy Hinchcliffe had put City 5-1 up against the Reds at Maine Road, commentator Clive Tyldesley said, “And he’s the left-back, remember!”


The same could be said when waxing lyrical about Cancelo – which pundits and players have been queuing up to do this season.

In fact, there is the caveat that actually, he is by trade a right-back – but could that also be the key to his effectiveness?

His stats this season are impressive to say the least.


In the Premier League, his 862 passes are the most of any player in the division, but it is his attacking input that particularly catches the eye.

City’s Portuguese No.27 has had 26 shots in the Premier League this season – just two fewer than compatriots Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes.

His 10 through balls is one less than Fernandes and no City player has crossed the ball more times than Cancelo with 37 to date and 48 from open play.

An 85.7% passing accuracy is what you’d expect from a player of his calibre.

He has featured in 17 of City’s 18 matches so far this campaign, suggesting he has become indispensable to Guardiola.

That equates to 1473 minutes on the pitch and if there was one game that summed up his all-round contribution to the team, it as surely against Club Brugge when he made 10 chances for his team-mates and claimed a hat-trick of assists.

He also defends well, too!

With 34 successful tackles and 38 interceptions, his slender frame belies a strength and determination that makes him a formidable opponent for any attacker.

His passing range can be, at times, mouth-watering and impossible to defend against – his cross for Bernardo’s goal against United earlier this month is a case in point.

And, of course, he only scores spectacular goals – remember the almost lazy golf-swing of a chip against West Brom last season when he kept playing even though an offside flag had been incorrectly raised?

Fantastic technique that comes so easily to the 27-year-old.

In the big games this season, Cancelo has always turned up, being actively involved in the goals that led to crucial goals against Chelsea, Leicester and Manchester United.

His ability has been labelled “a special talent” by his manager, while his team-mates are only too aware of his contribution and ability.

“He is so good technically," said Jack Grealish recently.

"You know when we're playing one touch, two touch, he's just a joke and then he can shoot right foot, left foot from anywhere.”

Phil Foden agreed. "Joao is one of the best if not the best attacking full backs in world football right now, he is always adding goals and assists,” he said.

"If one of the attackers is having an off day we need someone coming up with the goals and assists and he is always there in the big moments in the big games.

"We know he has got that quality in front of goal and he is sensational."

Pundits, too, are fascinated by his positioning and what appears to sometimes be a free role in attack.

Former United and England skipper Rio Ferdinand is a self-confessed admirer of the City star.

"He's playing as a full-back but it's not the conventional full-back," he said.

"He ends up coming into the centre of the pitch.

"His 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 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 and him seeing the game a different way."

Joao has to overcome personal heart-break to achieve his current status.

In 2013, a tragic car accident that saw Joao and his younger brother Pedro escape unharmed - but claimed the life of his beloved mother Filomena - left the-then 18-year-old considering whether he ever wanted to play football again.

His grieving father convinced Joao that he had to make the most of his life in honour of his mother’s memory and, driven by that ambition, he played on for her and it became his driving force to succeed.

At Valencia, his coach at the time, Marcelino García Toral, said: “His attitude must be praised. He knew he was going to leave, but wanted to play. It demonstrates what this boy is, as a person.

“He hasn’t had an easy life, so far, but has a lot of character and a lot of feeling. I’m delighted to have met him.”

Recently, Joao said on Portuguese TV: “I know that my mother is very proud of my journey. The only thing I lack is her. Today I have everything, I have a beautiful daughter, I also have a beautiful family and she deserved to see my success, more than anybody, but I know that she’s certainly proud of me.”

Former City skipper Richard Dunne eloquently summed up what Cancelo means to the team when he said: “In this style of football he’s perfect. The way he plays is beautiful. He’s like a number 10 playing at full-back. There has to be a little bit of everything to add variety and bring the pressure off the wingers. To me, he is outstanding.”