The Portuguese No 7 made a dramatic mid-season exit from a Manchester club where he’d been a transformative figure. Sound familiar?
Joao Cancelo is not Cristiano Ronaldo. For starters, Bayern Munich were interested in him. He found a suitor in the European elite, not the Saudi super-rich. The conversations that led to his departure took place with Pep Guardiola, not Piers Morgan. There was no explosive interview. As Cancelo was unveiled at Bayern, he denied it was because his relationship with the City manager “was not the best”. Yet the clues were that it had deteriorated rapidly.
And, compared to his compatriot, Cancelo’s move represents the real shock. Ronaldo did not rank in Erik ten Hag’s strongest team. Cancelo helped define Guardiola’s side in the previous two seasons. He had seemed at the peak of his powers. And, while there’s a clause in his loan that means Bayern have the option to buy him for £61.5m (€69.3) in the summer, the reality is City have let a superb footballer go for now without replacing him when they had not replaced Oleksandr Zinchenko either.
All of which does not simply happen when a player wants more minutes. “My decision had to do with the playing time that had been little in recent weeks,” Cancelo said. He had started just three of 10 games since the World Cup; in one of those, he was replaced at half-time after playing on the right wing. He did not feature in their last three matches.
Meanwhile, Guardiola, in one of his stranger rants, had taken aim at the “happy flowers” in his squad, the players he seemed to deem guilty of complacency. Phil Foden, another languishing on the fringes since Qatar, looked the most prominent among them; it now seems Cancelo was the first flower for the chop.
Especially as the two Guardiola has praised most in recent weeks are Rico Lewis and Nathan Ake; it would have felt improbable a few months ago that they would have displaced Cancelo from the full-back roles but Guardiola is savouring his underdog tale, of the converted centre-back and the teenage rookie.
Lewis is shaping up as the boy who has made Cancelo surplus to requirements. The 18-year-old is a different type of distributor, safer with less sense of adventure. Cancelo is always likely to attempt the ambitious pass. He has been the playmaker full-back, the man who got a hat-trick of assists in a Champions League game.
He was also the revolutionary, the symbol of Pepball. Guardiola is famously fond of midfielders and Cancelo, a former winger, brought a midfielder’s skill-set into the back four. But his positional innovations have arguably been the false nine and the full-back ‘regista’.
When City won back-to-back Premier Leagues, they had both. Everyone scored and everyone created. Cancelo finished behind only Kevin de Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus for assists for City last season.
And if the dynamic is different with Erling Haaland, with no false nine, with Cancelo recording a solitary league assist, the tactical element only feels part of the equation.
Cancelo culture at City has taken on a different meaning. It’s about his exit, not the classy way a one-off showed his passing range.