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No One Can Do It Like João Cancelo

Joao Cancelo of Manchester City crosses the ball whilst under pressure from Aaron Wan-Bissaka of Manchester United during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on November 06, 2021 in Manchester, England.
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

João Cancelo may not be the best full back in the world—though, if there was a debate over the distinction, the only valid participants would be Cancelo, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Carlo Ancelotti, who'd have to decide whether or not David Alaba counts. But a title Cancelo can claim for himself without much argument is that he's the most complete full back currently doing it, and his last two performances show why.

Just about every Manchester City player had a great game in Sunday's 2–0 beatdown of Manchester United, but Cancelo's still managed to stand out. In a match defined by the away team's steely control of proceedings, Cancelo was the one with the tightest grip.

The Portuguese was City's key man in all phases of the game. He created both goals, the first by playing a left-footed cross that Eric Bailly deflected into his own net, the second by sending a deep cross with the opposite foot that lulled everyone in the stadium to sleep except for Bernardo Silva, who snuck onto the ball and then snuck the ball just inside David de Gea's goalpost. Outside of the final third, Cancelo was the primary orchestrator of City's possessions. His 122 touches were the most in the match, and his full breadth of talents—he has a midfielder's passing range, a winger's speed and trickiness, and a No. 10's vision and creativity—kept United off balance no matter where Cancelo was. Even in defense, Cancelo's contributions were crucial. He was one of City's most effective pressers, and his seven combined tackles and interceptions were the most of any Citizen. (All stats from Football Reference.) Man City had a solution for everything United tried throw at them, and so often it was Cancelo who provided the answers.

The story of City's prior game, Wednesday's 4–1 victory over Club Brugge in the Champions League, was similar. Once again Cancelo got on the ball more than anyone else (135 times, to be exact), and put those touches to deadly effect, assisting three of City's four goals.

That match was probably an even better example of Cancelo's unreal versatility. In the individual highlights above, you can see him at times sprinting in behind and hitting crosses from the touchline like a typical full back (he spent time on both flanks during the match), sitting deep and centrally and spraying long passes like a deep-lying playmaker, and even charging through the middle of Brugge's back line like a center forward.

Manager Pep Guardiola's system asks a lot of Cancelo. Between matches and sometimes even within them, you might find Cancelo playing like a center back in a back three, like an auxiliary holding midfielder squiring around with Rodri, or getting chalk on his toes as a wing back on either the left or the right side of the pitch. Playing primarily on the left side as a right-footer helps him flow into interior areas from exterior ones, and makes it harder for pressing defenders to predict and constrict his movements. City's style of play makes the team look a little like an accordion, constantly expanding here and contracting there but always maintaining the same fundamental shape. Cancelo is one of the pieces that moves the most, which gives him a huge influence on the music.

Other full backs may have superior individual traits to Cancelo's, but not by much. Alexander-Arnold is probably the better passer (and probably also the slightly better player); Alphonso Davies is quicker and even more incisive in the final third; Ferland Mendy is a better defender; Alaba might be even more versatile, which is why he hardly ever even plays full back anymore. But nobody else at the position combines all those skills at such high levels as Cancelo does. He is a unique player who has carved himself a unique role, and it's one he alone has the range to master.

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