Joao Cancelo exclusive interview: Man City role as full-back turned midfielder under Pep Guardiola explained

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Joao Cancelo is preparing to take on Newcastle United again at St James’ Park this weekend, a return to the scene of perhaps his best goal for Manchester City. “I remember that goal well – and we won 4-0,” he tells Sky Sports.

“It was a decision of the moment. When I dribbled past one player, I saw my lines of pass. I saw my team-mates running offside so I decided to shoot. It went well. It was the right decision for the team, that is the most important thing. But it was all in the moment.”

He already had an assist by that point, bringing the ball down to set up Ruben Dias. “It was a good touch but I think the defender doubted. There was a lack of communication between defender and goalkeeper. That was lucky. But Ruben took advantage of it.”

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Joao Cancelo scored a stunning goal in Manchester City’s 4-0 win at Newcastle

Cancelo is in the gym at Manchester City’s training ground, going through some of the best bits of last season, perusing his stats and discussing the journey that he has been on since joining this club in the summer of 2019. Always a talent, now he is a treasure.

Pep Guardiola highlights his special ability to make things happen. Phil Foden says he is arguably the best attacking full-back in the world right now. Everyone else just wonders whether the word full-back really does justice to his role at Manchester City.

If the position changed when the full-back morphed into the winger and shifted again when Guardiola moved Philipp Lahm inside to hold in midfield, Cancelo represents its next evolution. Full-back reimagined as No 10, the team’s new playmaker.

Nothing summed that up better than ‘the assist of the season’ – his outside-of-the-boot pass that landed on the foot of Raheem Sterling for the opening goal against Everton in November. “This was probably the best assist of my career so far,” says Cancelo.

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Joao Cancelo provided one of the assists of last season against Everton

“It was obviously a great finish from Raheem, but the pass was very good because I put him in front of the goal. Even back in Benfica’s academy, I would train a lot with this technique so that I would feel comfortable passing the ball with the outside of the foot.”

That is Cancelo’s zone now. The half space. What Kevin De Bruyne does on the right, he does on the left. Examine the list of players with the most through-balls in the Premier League in recent seasons and there is the name of Cancelo alongside the creators.

“I am a defender but I have an attacking mentality,” he explains.

“I love being involved in the attacking phase. In modern football, you cannot just be a defender. You have to contribute to the attack. I am comfortable bringing the ball to my team-mates in the final third so that they can show their talent and score goals.”

One wonders whether the arrival of Erling Haaland will change his decisions in those positions. Cancelo watches a clip of his assist for Gabriel Jesus against Liverpool in April.

“Gabriel is a great friend of mine and we knew each other so well on the pitch,” he says.

“But I am sure that it is going to be the same with Erling. Gabriel and Erling are completely different players, but Erling is adapting really well to our style of game. We are going to get to know each other’s movements in the future and replicate goals like this.”

Imagination is essential.

As Cancelo moves on to a clip from a 2-0 win over Manchester United just a fortnight prior to that magical pass against Everton, there is another assist from a similar position. This time the technique is different, a whipped cross to Bernardo Silva at the far post.

“You cannot plan it beforehand, you have to react in the moment.

In this instance, Luke Shaw hesitates briefly and Bernardo moves behind his back to score a fantastic goal. “It helps that Bernardo and I have a great connection with each other on the pitch.

“I know that when he is on the opposite side of the pitch, he will always appear. That is what he likes to do. He always does it and we understand each other very well with the national team too.

”We have this connection and we can read other’s movements.”

In that same game, in that same half of football, Cancelo also set up City’s other goal in that 2-0 dismantling of OIe Gunnar Solskjaer’s side at Old Trafford. Here, he went on the outside, his left-footed cross inadvertently diverted past David de Gea by Eric Bailly.

“Left foot,” he says, laughing in English before reverting to Portuguese.

“Again, this goes back to my time at Benfica. I am used to playing on both sides and was able to develop both feet. I can do it. I feel comfortable. In this specific example, there was a bit of luck but the important thing is that it was a goal – and in the Manchester derby.”

Image: Joao Cancelo’s changing game under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City

It is that left side that has become Cancelo’s home. The transition has been gradual. In his first season at City, he was used almost exclusively on the right. In his second, he would switch. Last season and this, he has predominantly played from the left.

Does he have a preference? “In this style of play at Manchester City, I feel very comfortable on the right side and the left side. I could not say I feel better on one side or the other. There is not that much difference. The team just adapts to the style of every player.”

He was not always so relaxed. Speaking to Guardiola about Cancelo last year, the City manager highlighted the turning point. “He arrived at a moment in his first season when he decided he wanted to stay here for a long time.” That changed everything.

“It all comes from that first season,” explains Cancelo.

“I did not have many opportunities to play in that first six months or so. But it was not up to anyone else. I had to change. It was my decision. I spoke to my family and made the change. I started to train better and things got better for me.

“I reached the level that I have reached for the last few years. It was my decision, my professionalism, my dedication, and I managed to do it with the help of my family, my team-mates and my manager. I want to keep working to stay at that level.”

Guardiola continues to challenge him with subtle changes.

“It depends on the game,” Cancelo adds. “Sometimes Kyle Walker plays more as a third centre-back so that gives me more freedom to play in the midfield and help Rodri with building the attack. Other times we will play with both me and Kyle inside.”

”Moving inside feels more natural now. Pep has developed that side of my game. It means taking on a different type of defensive responsibility.

“Stopping the opponent’s counter-attacks is another aspect of the game that is very important when I am playing inside.”

Sunday 21st August 4:00pm Kick off 4:30pm

Is there time for another major evolution in Cancelo’s game at Manchester City? Could we yet see the full-back turn into the centre-forward?

“I don’t think centre-forward but maybe I could become a winger, maybe I could play as a midfielder,” he adds.

“At the end of the day, it will be the manager’s decision where I play. Wherever he puts me on the pitch I will give my best. That is the secret of this team. Manchester City as a group, we always pull together. The result of that can be seen in our success.”

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