Joao Cancelo must avoid repeating history amid Man City defensive crisis – Alex Brotherton

Manchester City put in an excellent attacking display in a 5-1 win against Watford on Saturday, but Pep Guardiola wasn’t best pleased with his side’s performance at the other end of the pitch.

“We didn’t defend well, we weren’t aggressive enough,” Guardiola said after his side had opened up a four-point lead at the top of the Premier League table. “The back four was not good enough.”

Indeed, City were not their usual composed selves in defence, as evidenced by the way Hassane Kamara ghosted into the penalty area to pull a goal back for the Hornets midway through the first half.

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Ultimately it mattered little, but what may be of some concern to Guardiola and City fans was the performance of Joao Cancelo. The Portugal international has been a revelation at left-back this season, but playing on the right on Saturday he showed signs that history may be repeating itself.

Cancelo endured a frustrating first half, characterized by poor decision-making and sloppy execution. After just 12 minutes he gifted Watford a chance to equalize, after running into a cul-de-sac in midfield instead of offloading the ball.

Only a superb recovery run from Oleksandr Zinchenko stopped Emmanuel Dennis from scoring, although it’s debatable how much of the ball the Ukrainian actually got. Just before half-time Cancelo’s discipline deserted him, when a needlessly late challenge on Tom Cleverley earned him a yellow card. The exasperated gesticulations of Guardiola on the touchline told the story.

Cancelo regained his composure in the second half, although he was honest in his assessment of his performance. Gabriel Jesus captioned a celebratory Instagram post with “great performance from everyone” — to which Cancelo replied “everyone except me.”

Pep Guardiola speaks to Joao Cancelo

A slump in form around this time of the season is nothing new for the Portuguese full-back, although this season it could not have come at a worse time. In April last year, Cancelo’s form dipped alarmingly — so much so that he was pulled after an hour of City’s Champions League semi-final first leg victory at Paris Saint-Germain, and didn’t feature in the second leg or the final.

That was followed a few weeks later by a foolish last-man challenge at Brighton for which Cancelo saw red. City had already sealed the title by that point, but with 10-men they surrendered a two-goal lead to lose 3-2. That kind of poor decision-making cost him his place in Guardiola’s preferred XI.

I cancel cannot afford to have a similar slump this time around. City are currently experiencing something of an injury crisis, with the defense particularly hard-hit.

Both Kyle Walker and John Stones sat out Saturday’s win with ankle and muscular issues respectively. Asked about the chances of either being fit to face Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final on Tuesday, Guardiola was not exactly up-beat. “I don’t know if Kyle will arrive, and John will be difficult too.”

Cancelo is suspended for the visit of the Spanish giants, leaving Guardiola with a huge selection headache. If Walker is unavailable for the trip to Leeds the following weekend then Cancelo will be in line to return, making his performance against Watford all the more concerning for Guardiola.

With only 14 or 15 fit first team players available at the moment, Guardiola needs everyone to be at the top of their game. Cancelo is more than capable of putting this mini-blip behind him and returning to form, but if he doesn’t, then Guardiola’s right-back dilemma may stretch beyond the midweek visit of Madrid.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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