In a transfer window where the British transfer record was broken, Manchester United actually did their business quickly and effectively and Tottenham Hotspur signed a player; Manchester City arguably provided the biggest surprise. Joao Cancelo’s loan move to Bayern Munich is the signing no one saw coming. But the more one considers Pep Guardiola’s reasoning behind letting the player leave, the more the move makes sense.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Cancelo represented everything Guardiola stands for. The former Barcelona manager signed the defender in 2019, but he initially struggled to fit in. This is often the case for new signings under Guardiola. There is a period of adjustment as players become used to his very particular way of working.
Cancelo is perhaps the best example of a player who emerged from this bedding-in period utterly transformed. The Portugal international went from Kyle Walker’s understudy to a different beast entirely. Evolving into one of Guardiola’s signature hybrid players, Cancelo became a full back-cum-midfielder who occupied different positions entirely depending on the game state. It was a role in which he excelled, lifting two Premier League titles as one of Pep’s most trusted lieutenants.
But all good things must come to an end and no player is the apple of his manager’s eye forever. Since the World Cup, Cancelo’s playing time has dwindled. He is no longer the vital cog in a trophy-hoovering machine. Both the player and the club have regressed since those days. The fact the Cityzens are five points behind league leaders Arsenal at the time of writing necessitated Guardiola looking at alternative approaches.
Jokes have been made that any defender with enough self confidence to wear the number seven would likely present an ego problem at some point. But to be fair to Cancelo, he is far from the first player who has bristled over being left out of a team. It must be galling to go from an indispensable piece of the puzzle to a spare part in such a short space of time.
Guardiola’s ruthlessness has been a characteristic that has carried him to success in multiple countries. When the considerable talents of Zlatan Ibrahimovic were afforded to him at Camp Nou, he didn’t hesitate to sell the Barcelona striker when he felt the Swede might impede Lionel Messi’s progress. Guardiola has allowed Yaya Toure to leave at two separate clubs when he found the Ivory Coast midfielder did not fit into his plans. Striker Mario Mandzukic scored 48 goals in just 88 games for Bayern Munich, but when his style didn’t fit with that of his manager he was sold to Atletico Madrid.
That strength of character to put no man above the collective is a hallmark of success in football. It is the last bastion of the old ways in the era of player power. Sir Alex Ferguson bombed the likes of Roy Keane and Jaap Stam out of Manchester United for not toeing the party line. Jose Mourinho, Brian Clough and Jurgen Klopp have thrived using a similar team-first ethic.
There is always a risk of a short-term boon for the departing player that undermines the manager. But even if Cancelo dominates the Bundesliga for the remainder of the season, it doesn’t make Pep wrong. Cancelo is an excellent player, he just isn’t right for the current environment at the Etihad Stadium. If he thrives in Munich, it doesn’t make his loan a bad decision. The fact a player is talented does not always make their excesses worth indulging.
The true worth of this transfer may be measured in what Rico Lewis achieves. The young full back is the primary reason Cancelo’s services have been underutilised. The 18-year-old has impressed after breaking into the first team in recent weeks. Another facet of the Guardiola approach is the idea that if you’re old enough, you’re good enough. If a big star like Cancelo is on the outs, it feels almost appropriate that it is a member of the youth team who has stepped in.
This transfer caught a fair few people off guard, but it shouldn’t have done. Guardiola has always been ruthless, even with his stars. He has always provided avenues for young players like Lewis, too. Cancelo’s departure may be surprising, but it carries all the marks of a Guardiola move.
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