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Talking Tactics

Why Guardiola is reshaping his defence without Cancelo

Adrian Clarke 3 Feb 2023
Talking Tactics Nathan Ake Rico Lewis

Adrian Clarke looks at how Man City are evolving with Nathan Ake and Rico Lewis

Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points and players who can be decisive in Matchweek 22.

Nathan Ake & Rico Lewis (MCI)

Time never stands still in football and Pep Guardiola's surprise decision to offload Joao Cancelo to Bayern Munich on loan shows he will not allow Manchester City's starting XI to become stagnant.

"After the World Cup, we made a pre-season and started to play in a different way in some patterns," Guardiola told City's website when asked about why he let Cancelo leave. "I liked what I watched and I decided to give more time to players who I saw on the pitch who liked it."

So what changed?

Cancelo had featured in 17 out of 20 Premier League matches this term, starting 16 of those but a downturn in form coupled with the rise of Nathan Ake and Rico Lewis has prompted a sudden shake-up.

From hero to zero matches

Cancelo was named in the PFA Team of the Year in both 2020/21 and 2021/22, impressing with his outstanding distribution, creativity and adventure.

See: Guardiola's rotation could be decisive in duel with Arteta

His marauding style was a perfect match for Guardiola's fluid formation. He regularly popped up in central areas, often inside the final third.

Last season he provided seven assists and, remarkably, he ended the campaign having attempted more shots than any other City player.

This season the 28-year-old has been playing with less confidence and has been far more subdued in an attacking sense.

Decline in Cancelo's shooting stats
Season Shots MCI rank
2021/22 81 1st
2022/23 17 8th

With 17 shots prior to his departure, he ranks eighth at City this term, and he has claimed only a single assist.

The champions have adjusted their approach to suit Erling Haaland this season and there has been less emphasis on full-backs flying forward.

As a full-back who was perhaps utilised more for his attacking enterprise than his defensive skills, Cancelo's dip in productivity may have influenced Guardiola's outlook on the player.

Out of possession, he has also had some indifferent performances, including the moment he allowed Mohamed Salah to beat him for the decisive goal in Liverpool's 1-0 win at Anfield.

Opponents have dribbled past Cancelo nine times this season, more than any other Man City defender.

Most dribbled-past City defenders
Defender Dribbles Mins played
Cancelo 9 1,278
Walker 5 705
Akanji 4 1,197
Ake 3 1,066
Stones 1 1,181
Lewis 1 363
Gomez 1 106
Dias 0 873
Laporte 0 375

Ake has become City's most consistent defender.

Impressive at both centre-back and left-back, his emergence as one of Guardiola's most trusted players has prompted the manager to alter the make-up of his rearguard.

City build from the back in a 3-2-5 framework, so Guardiola likes one of his full-backs to be comfortable sliding across to act as a third central defender.

Last season Kyle Walker performed that role from right-back, freeing up left-back Cancelo to take up central midfield positions.

Netherlands international Ake has been preferred for that hybrid role this term. He adds useful balance with his left foot, especially with Aymeric Laporte making just four Premier League starts. 

Ake is not only defensively sound, he is also a terrific progressive passer, making more forward passes into midfield than any other City defender.

This has carried favour with Guardiola.

Most forward passes for City defenders
Defender Forward passes Defender Forward passes/90
Ake 438 Ake 37.0
Rodri 345 Dias 34.5
Dias 335 Akanji 23.3
Akanji 310 Cancelo 21.3
Cancelo 303 Rodri 18.8

Guardiola recently described 18-year-old Lewis as his "little Philipp Lahm", the Bayern Munich full-back he coached into becoming a central midfielder. This was high praise indeed.

Lewis caught Guardiola’s eye among a group of academy players invited to join City’s summer tour of the US.

“The good players you realise in two minutes,” Guardiola said. “We saw it from day one in the USA, in the training sessions where [I thought], ‘Oh, this guy has something special.’”

Lewis is tactically bright, naturally sliding infield from his right-back berth to take up positions in central midfield. 

He is also technically outstanding, boasting a 93.4 per cent pass accuracy. He is always willing to receive passes in tight areas and is superb at moving it on quickly to team-mates.

In another significant shift from Guardiola, Lewis has been preferred to Walker in recent weeks.

Using Walker and Ake at full-back in the same XI provides a slight imbalance, so from a tactical perspective Lewis's inclusion makes sense.

Changing times

It has been a strange season for City's defence, with Guardiola trialling several different units and configurations.

An injury to John Stones should mean that Ruben Dias and Laporte get more game time, but very few players will feel they are certain of a starting berth.

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At face value, Cancelo's unexpected departure weakens City but Guardiola's faith in Ake and Lewis has clearly convinced him it is time for a defensive reshuffle.

The pair will be eager to continue repaying that trust when they face Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.

Also in this series

Part 1: How Ouattara can add creative flair to Cherries
Part 3: How Fernandez will unlock Chelsea's attacking potential
Part 4: How Dyche's direct approach can guide Everton to safety
Part 5: McKennie can form a perfect pairing with Adams

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