João Cancelo is an attacking force. He was a vitally important cog in the attacking system that Max Allegri employed at Juventus. He’d be an absolutely perfect addition for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side should a rumored transfer go through.
In some ways Cancelo profiles exactly like you might expect a young, aggressive, attacking fullback to. He gets forward down the wing and crosses the ball a lot. Of Juventus players who logged at least 900 league minutes, only Juan Cuadrado completed more crosses than Cancelo’s 1.89 per 90 minutes.
In fact, Cancelo’s service was integral to the Juventus attack. Only the attackers Fernando Bernadeschi and Cristiano Ronaldo assisted more expected goals from open play than Cancelo’s 0.12 per 90 minutes.
Where Cancelo separates himself from other fullbacks is that in addition to providing attacking width in the final third, he was a huge asset when it came to bringing the ball up the field. Only Miralem Pjanić, the team’s midfield hub, had more deep progressions of the ball per 90 minutes than Cancelo’s 7.47.
When teams looked to shutdown Pjanić’s passing, it was Cancelo who would step into the gap and transition Juventus into the attacking third of the field. Of course, some of this ability is system driven. On the opposite flank, Alex Sandro was third in deep progressions, and Cuadrado (who despite nominally being a winger largely played the same role as Cancelo), was fourth.
But, at the same time, systems are often driven by talent. Juventus couldn’t have succeeded while playing a style that demanded their fullbacks bring the ball up the field if the fullbacks were not, themselves, special talents who were up to the task. So, it seems notable that backup fullback Matteo De Sciglio was not able to replicate those numbers in his minutes, and had a full two fewer deep progressions per 90 when he was on the field. The system empowered the fullbacks but Cancelo (and Sandro) had the ability to take advantage of it.
The knock on Cancelo, from Juventus’s perspective was his defending. Over the course of the season he was often overlooked in big matches. This is probably a fair concern, especially for a team that was happy to play extremely defensively in big matches, especially with a one goal lead. And, not only to play defensively, but to defend without the ball. When they were dominating teams they were happy for midfielders to step up and win the ball, as their Serie A defensive heatmap shows.
But, the difference becomes clear when looking at the Champions League, where the side’s defensive pressure is non-existent.
Within that framework, Cancelo is expected to be a perfect positional defender. He needs to move in concert with his teammates, covering runners, maintaining a defensive line, closing off passing lanes, and never make a mistake. In the same way that Allegri’s attacking approach empowered Cancelo, the manager’s defensive choices made his life difficult. Sometimes the defensive needs of the team ended up outweighing his attacking contribution and he found himself riding the pine. There’s a reason he barely topped 2000 league minutes last season.
At Manchester City it’s easy to see how Cancelo’s attacking talents might be used. As Kyle Walker has aged he’s gracefully transformed from the speedster controlling the entire flank he once was into a more positionally oriented fullback, often supporting the midfield in attack and playing as almost a third central defender (the role he actually occupied for England at last summer’s men’s World Cup). Having the option to play Cancelo there would give Guardiola the option of playing a fullback who provided more traditional final third contributions (much like Benjamin Mendy does when healthy on the left side). Crucially though, Cancelo brings that ability while also bringing the passing ability in the middle of the field that Guardiola craves from his fullbacks. He’d most likely spend more time in the final third than Walker, while also moving the ball up the field just as much.
The interactions between City’s fullbacks and wingers are a key to their success. Guardiola uses different combinations of personnel to accomplish different tactical aims. Sometimes wingers are asked to cut inside and attack the penalty area while fullbacks provide width, sometimes the wingers stay wide and the fullback is held in reserve, while the midfielder attacks the holes that spacing creates. And sometimes the fullback is the one who gets to attack the box aided by wingers positioned wide to stretch the defense. Cancelo can, in theory, fill all of those roles should he be called upon to do so (he can also, its worth noting, fill in on the left if necessary).
The major question then is whether Cancelo can pull his weight defensively, an area that Walker has excelled in. The answer is, we have absolutely no idea. He’s never been asked to play in a system like Guardiola’s. At Juventus his problem wasn’t that he got caught up field, it was that while he was defending behind the ball, his awareness wasn’t sharp enough, at least for the exacting standards of Juventus. But, he won’t be asked to defend that way for Manchester City.
While it’s unclear exactly how he will be deployed, one thing is certain, City don’t ever want to defend without the ball. Sometimes the fullback is asked to engage high up the field, as part of a traditional counter-press. Other times they might be held in reserve, forming a makeshift back three with the center backs, behind the frontline press of the midfielders and forwards. These were situations he just never has to deal with when manning the right side for Juventus. Maybe he’ll be spectacular, maybe he’ll have a hard time adjusting, there’s not a lot either way to hang a prediction on.
But that question, whether Cancelo is good enough defensively for what may very well be the best team in the world, is one that simply differentiates whether Cancelo will be a useful piece, or is the heir apparent to Walker as an every week starter. Cancelo’s attacking numbers are so strong, and so well rounded that there’s no doubt he’ll be an extremely useful contributor for City. But, if he adds to that, and he develops into a solid defensive option in a pressing system, then he has the potential to become truly great. He’d become just another superstar player bought at superstar prices to fill a supporting role for the two time defending Premier League champions.