How Joao Cancelo compares for Pep Guardiola to ‘the best player I have ever seen in my life’ – Dominic Farrell

Pep Guardiola offered Joao Cancelo a gushing eulogy ahead of Manchester City’s Premier League game against Everton – praise that few would dispute is richly deserved for the Portugal international.

Guardiola does not shirk from highlighting the impressive qualities of any player, but there are a chosen few who bring a particular sparkle to his eye.

It seems Cancelo, the versatile, renegade full-back who has given shape and purpose to City’s best performances this season, is now among their number.

“Joao has one big, huge quality. He loves to play football,” Guardiola beamed. “He likes training sessions. He would play football 24 hours a day, every single day.

“When you find a player like this – Riyad [Mahrez] is like this, Phil Foden is like this – wow, you have a diamond in your hands.

“Most of the players love to play football but I remember these three examples. I see them like little boys playing in the street when they were seven, eight, nine, 10 years old. This is great.

“That’s why Joao is consistent in his game.”

It was a lovely observation and one that addressed the contradiction at the heart of Guardiola’s footballing vision.

The Catalan’s meticulously planned positional game is intellectually taxing for those involved and makes very specific demands if players are to thrive.

Manchester City’s manager Pep Guardiola talks to Joao Cancelo

Confusion to comprehension

Indeed, Cancelo himself struggled at times after joining from Juventus in a transfer that saw Danilo move in the opposite direction in 2019.

“He arrived last season, he was confused in the beginning because he expected something that we could not offer him but he’s a nice guy with a great heart,” Guardiola said in January, as the 27-year-old truly began to thrive in sky blue.

Now Cancelo has managed to get his head around the demands of playing as an inverted full-back – last season from his natural side on the right in the middle of the campaign and now, to similarly fine effect, from the left – the childlike joy, from cute touches to cheeky nutmegs, can really come through.

There is a reason Guardiola’s teams have simultaneously delighted neutrals and casual fans, while causing cottage industries of tactical analysts to spring up. Cancelo is a sublime talent to delight both fraternities.

Of course, the City boss will always demand further improvement – so it speaks very well of Cancelo indeed that arguably the finest full-back of the modern era emerged as a point of comparison on Friday.

“Right now he is playing like Philipp Lahm played in Bayern Munich when we were together,” Guardiola said.

BEIJING, CHINA - JULY 17: Philipp Lahm (L) of FC Bayern Munchen talks to the media with Head coach Pep Guardiola during the a press conference at National Stadium in day 1 of the FC Bayern Audi China Summer Pre-Season Tour on July 17, 2015 in Beijing, China.
Pep Guardiola remains a huge admirer of Philipp Lahm

“In that position, with the full-back a little bit inside, not just overlaps, Philipp Lahm is the best player I have ever seen in my life.

“Never I saw I full-back going inside, moving into the pockets close to the holding midfielder and from there attack, I have never seen one player like him. Never ever

“But Joao, like for example Dani Alves, should play in that position. He can play inside, he has the quality.”

An attacking midfielder hiding at full-back

Even though Alves was a player of phenomenal and numerous gifts, Guardiola’s experimentation with full-backs truly began with Bayern and Lahm was his prototype.

The Germany great played the position so effectively that he ended up being selected on occasions as the specialist holding midfielder, with the likes of Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba – both similarly adept in the centre of the field – taking the full-back berths.

Guardiola’s initial motivation was to give himself extra insurance against the counter-attack focused opponents Bayern faced in the Bundesliga, although Lahm’s playmaking capabilities were quickly evident.

Last season, his use of Cancelo seemed to push the envelop further, with the former Benfica youngster filling attacking midfield positions to offer an auxiliary creative outlet, along with bolstering the defensive protection in front of the back four.

As per Opta, Cancelo in 2020-21 was the first Premier League player to average more than two tackles (2.7), 1.5 chances created (1.7) and 50 successful passes (61.5) per 90 minutes since Cesc Fabregas in 2017-18.

He is the only defender among the previous 10 players to hit these combined marks, going back to another attacking midfielder – Aaron Ramsey – in 2013-14. Put simply, normal full-backs simply don’t do all those things.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 06: 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.
Joao Cancelo’s crosses have provided a persistent threat for Man City this season.

There is a reason for Guardiola telling Cancelo that Lahm remains the gold standard, however.

In his final two seasons under Pep, he averaged 2.1 and two chances created per 90, while his passing figure was never lower than 63.6 during Guardiola’s tenure and up at 79.5 in 2013-14.

That season saw Lahm average 1.3 tackles per game, a mark Cancelo is again out-performing this season (2.1).

That could be down to a few factors, including Joao’s impressive physicality that Gary Neville has repeatedly highlighted, along with the utterly dominant nature of Guardiola’s Bayern and Lahm’s almost peerless ability when it came to reading the game.

‘I have the feeling he can do better’

Cancelo’s chance creation being at 0.9 per 90 in the Premier League this season might be a relative concern, had he not just laid on both goals in the Manchester derby on the back of a hat-trick of assists in the Champions League win over Club Brugge.

“Of course he’s playing really well, consistent – his physicality, he can recover well and quickly, can play every three days but I have the feeling he can do better. Hopefully, he can accept that and move forward,” Guardiola said, in what was widely interpreted as a reference to Cancelo’s sometimes suspect defensive efforts.

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But perhaps he is challenging him to keep ramping up that celebrated creative output, to Lahm levels and beyond. It could prove decisive in a title race where the attacking threat of Chelsea and Liverpool’s wide defenders looks likely to have a pivotal say.

Reece James and Ben Chilwell were superb once again as Chelsea produced a statement 3-0 win at Leicester City on Saturday, while Andy Robertson and particularly Trent Alexander-Arnold have been points of difference for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool for some time.

Cancelo offers something just as potent as that quartet thanks to his and Guardiola’s unique take on the full-back position. It is a gambit that him following in the footsteps of one of European football’s elder statesmen, all the while making it look like child’s play.

How impressed have you been with Joao Cancelo this season? Follow our City Is Ours editor Dom Farrell on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.

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