Man City fans' transfer demand has been proved wrong - Stuart Brennan
Manchester|December 03, 2021
The Portugal star has been Pep Guardiola s go-to man this season, starting every game apart from the two Carabao Cup ties, slotting in at left back or right back, as needed, and turning out top-class performances just about every time.
But in the midweek win at Aston Villa, when he was switched to the right to cover for the injured Kyle Walker, we saw exactly why he was not an automatic choice last season.
Nothing to do with Cancelo himself, who put in some fine displays as the Blues streaked away with the Premier League title, and reached their first Champions League final.
It was everything to do with the way Aleks Zinchenko played at Villa Park, in his first league appearance of the season.
The Ukraine star gave everyone - not least Guardiola - a reminder of the control, discipline and technical ability he brings to the team.
And he was also defensively sound, an area of his game he has worked on, and which has improved dramatically, since it became clear that being a left back, rather than the attacking midfield role he plays for his country, was his passport to a place in the team.
Zinchenko is not as eye-catching as Cancelo in the role - there are no outrageous outside-of-the-boot passes to create big chances, and he does not possess the former Juventus mans athleticism.
But he is exceptional in the build-up, a player built for Guardiolas City.
Observers at the Blues training reckon Zinchenko is one of the masters of the rondo, the piggy-in-the-middle passing drill so loved by Guardiola as a means of sharpening touch and weight of pass.
He is the peer of players like Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, players with instant control.
It shows during matches, and he is tactically savvy too. If you look back at Ruben Dias goal at Villa Park, Zinchenko played a significant role, although he got little credit for it.
With the final third tight and congested, Zinchenko roved to the edge of the opposition penalty area, exchanging passes in a tight space with Bernardo, to squeeze the defenders even more tightly together.
Raheem Sterling drifted into the space on the left flank that was created, and Zinchenko released him at just the right moment so he was one on one with his full back, and the cross was thrashed home by Dias.
It was an object lesson in unlocking high-security defences.
Guardiola did not need any reminding about what Zinchenko brings to the team.
Rewind to the Champions League semi-final first leg at Paris Saint-Germain in April, when the Blues were trailing and in search of a precious away goal.
Cancelo had not played badly at left back, but the manager replaced him with Zinchenko and City went on to win the game 2-1.
Cancelo is capable of wonderful, match-winning moments, but he also comes up with dreadful, disastrous ones, as well.
His red card after just ten minutes at Brighton, in a pointless end-of-season game was evidence of that. It was a ridiculous dismissal, arguably not even a foul on Danny Welbeck, but the defensive error that led to it will have caught Guardiolas critical eye.
That red meant he was suspended for the final league game of the season, against Everton, and possibly influenced the managers decision when he preferred Zinchenko for the final in Porto.
The problem has raised its head again this season. When City dominate, Cancelo has been brilliant, and he is also extremely good in an attacking capacity in more evenly-matched games.
Manchester City have started their campaign strongly, riding high in the Premier League and already qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League.
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But his propensity for naive defending sometimes lets him down - never more so than in the 2-2 draw at Anfield this season.
His half-hearted challenge on Mo Salah in the lead-up to the first goal, and the way Salah suckered him for the second, highlighted the defensive frailties that still affect him from time to time.
Zinchenko offers greater security, and in a horses-for-courses approach, Guardiola would not hesitate to play Zinchenko ahead of Cancelo, if he thought the defensive solidity was more important than spontaneous attacking creativity.
In the summer, some City fans were desperate for a new left back, with Ben Mendy having proved a flop, even before his arrest and subsequent suspension by the club.
Cancelo and Zinchenko have proved that a new left back is the least of Guardiolas needs.