Pep Guardiola’s decision to bring Joao Cancelo on as a substitute against Cheltenham Town on Saturday evening was a sign of the Portugal international’s newfound importance at Manchester City.
With City staring down the barrel of a shock fourth round exit from the FA Cup, the general spectator may have been left bemused when Guardiola sent Cancelo, a full-back by trade, into the fray.
Just 13 minutes remained when he replaced Benjamin Mendy and City were 1-0 down following Alfie May’s instinctive opener.
For much of the game, City had been devoid of spark and lacking their typical intensity as a much-changed starting XI struggled for rhythm.
A true David vs Goliath upset seemed firmly on the cards, but Guardiola’s substitution proved to be the turning point.
Phil Foden stole the headlines for a majestic individual display which included the crucial equalising goal in the 81st minute, and rightly so.
But it was Cancelo’s vision and immaculate execution of a floated through ball into Foden that made City’s first goal of the night.
Guardiola’s decision was almost immediately vindicated, with Cancelo showcasing his first-class creative quality from an inverted full-back position that he’s stepped into and made his own.
It took Cancelo a period of time to settle in following his move from Juventus, but he’s now proving to be one of City’s most influential attacking players.
Only Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez have managed more key passes per Premier League game than Cancelo (1.9) this season, per Whoscored, which puts him ahead of more conventional playmakers in Foden and Ilkay Gundogan.
He’s also averaging more dribbles per game (1.6) than the majority of his teammates, with Raheem Sterling and De Bruyne narrowly ahead of him in that metric.
Whether he is jinking into the area with the purpose and close control of a natural winger or threading balls akin to that which he played into Foden last night, the Portugal international is proving to be a major weapon for City following a testing period of adjustment to life in English football.
Guardiola himself has admitted previously that Cancelo didn’t adapt as seamlessly as the club expected, per ManCity.com.
“Last season he struggled with a new club and new ideas. He was confused in the beginning.
“He expected something we could not offer him.”
Now that period of struggle is behind him, though, he is rapidly establishing himself as one of Guardiola’s most dangerous attacking players.