Every now and then a player will come to symbolise a new innovation or creative variation on a role championed by an inventive coach.
We’ve had sweeper keepers and water carriers. The raumdeuter (think Thomas Muller, the ‘space interpreter’) and the schaduwspits (the so-called ‘shadow striker’ that the Dutch branded Dennis Bergkamp).
Or how about ‘free 8s’ and ‘false nines’? Pep Guardiola could not lay claim to have discovered the latter position – false nines were being deployed even before his playing days – but it was through Lionel Messi’s interpretation of the role under the Catalan at Barcelona that the term became such a readily accepted part of the football lexicon.
In more recent years, one of Guardiola’s pet projects has been the evolution of the full-back. He was creative with his use of Dani Alves at the Nou Camp but things moved on a notch with Philipp Lahm at Bayern Munich, who became what is probably best described as a ‘half-back’ – half right-back, half central midfielder – during Guardiola’s time in Germany.
Four-and-a-half years on, Guardiola is again challenging our concepts of what is possible from a full-back and, if his latest exciting experiment – Joao Cancelo – keeps up this form for Manchester City, a special term might soon need to be coined for the multi-hybrid role the Portuguese is starting to perfect. The ‘false, free full-back’ perhaps? Or the ‘phantom full-back’ maybe?
Guardiola replicated the role Lahm played at Bayern with the likes of Fabian Delph and, still to this day, Oleksandr Zinchenko at City.
Rather than ask them to play as traditional wide full-backs, they were moved into the middle of the pitch to help strengthen the defensive midfield position, offering added security against the threat of the counter-attack at the same time as allowing the team to keep more men committed further forward.
It felt revolutionary but Cancelo’s role is a dramatic extension of that with bells and whistles on top – full-back, midfield pivot, winger and playmaker all rolled into one, a responsibility that demands great intelligence and an extraordinary engine.
In the Champions League on Wednesday night, Borussia Monchengladbach became the latest side to be confounded by the challenges that presents as City emerged comfortable 2-0 winners thanks in large part to two delicious crosses from Cancelo from advanced, inside positions that fashioned the goals.
After City’s 2-0 win at Turf Moor a few weeks ago, Sean Dyche, the Burnley manager, described Guardiola’s side as playing with “three-and-a-half at the back”, that half being Cancelo.
But against Monchengladbach, it was not even 3½ – more 3⅛ – with centre-half Aymeric Laporte spending the majority of his time in a left-back position as Cancelo continually drove forward – with and without the ball – from a central midfield position.
It should leave City exposed more often but the team is working in such unison, keeping possession and closing down space so quickly and in such numbers, on the rare occasions they do lose the ball, that no one has yet found a way to adequately exploit that space vacated by Cancelo.
Wednesday night was a showcase for Cancelo’s skill-set – the dribbling ability, close control, clever movement, hunger, intensity and, of course, a range of passing more commonly associated with a No 10.
He can play through balls and arcing passes from central positions and deliver crosses of pinpoint accuracy – the first a whipped, looping ball for his former Benfica team-mate, Bernardo Silva, to head home, the second a deeper cross to the far post that Bernardo headed back across for Gabriel Jesus to prod in.
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