Joao Cancelo returned from the World Cup in a gloomy state of mind, and the result of that is a move to Bayern Munich on loan. Pep insists on a tight ship.
After their 1-0 win against Arsenal in the FA Cup on Friday night, Pep Guardiola was asked about Mikel Arteta’s decision to leave some of his first-team regulars for the game. “Bernardo didn’t play, Kyle Walker didn’t play, Mister Cancelo didn’t play,” he replied. “If we lost, you’d say why didn’t they play?” Was the formalisation of one of these players’ names a huge hint that Joao Cancelo and Manchester City didn’t have much longer left together?
Although the bad blood which built up between Cancelo and the club began to accelerate following his return from a disappointing World Cup, there has always been a possibility that this particular player could combust in this way. Stories relating to his attitude were already in the public domain when he first signed for Manchester City for £24m in August 2019.
During a previous loan spell at Inter, Cancelo argued with coach Luciano Spalletti during the 2017/18 season over which position he should be playing and there were also question marks over his mentality when he signed for Juventus.
The bottom line with Cancelo seems to be that he is unhappy when he’s not in the team and playing in the position in which he feels he should be playing. These are all completely understandable reactions from a professional footballer, but where Cancelo seems to differ from the majority is his inability to hide his annoyance when things aren’t quite going his way.
Dropped to the bench for the group games of the World Cup finals by Portugal, Cancelo was already said to be in a tetchy frame of mind when he returned to England after the tournament, and that will not have been helped by started only three of City’s ten fixtures since returning from international duty in Qatar.
Having failed to get on the pitch for their last two Premier League games against Spurs and Wolves, it was rumoured that he wasn’t paying attention during tactical meetings or to instructions from the coaching staff.
It says a lot for the extent to which Pep Guardiola expects to run a tight ship at Manchester City that Cancelo’s shenanigans were only tolerated for a few weeks. It’s hardly a surprise, either. Guardiola has long had a ‘no bad faces’ policy at the club, in which players who are not making the first team are expected to be supportive of those who are.
“You can not create something when people who are not playing regularly are creating problems,” he said as long ago as 2017. “Bad faces, bad behaviour from those guys… when that happens, forget about it. You cannot stay if it happens.”
Small wonder, then, that it took a just a few days to ship Cancelo off on loan to Bayern Munich until the end of the season, and with Bayern having an option to buy at the end of the season for €70m (£61m), it seems unlikely that he will play for Manchester City again. And although those already familiar with Cancelo’s temperament might not necessarily have been surprised by the direction all of this has taken, there will still be disappointment that such a talented player, who provided seven assists in 35 Premier League appearances and who racked up more minutes than any other last season, should be leaving the club at this time, and in this way.
Manchester City already have cover for Cancelo in the form of Nathan Ake and Rico Lewis, with the latter having broken through to a regular spot in the first team this year, after making his Premier League debut for the club in August. But even allowing for this, the swiftness and decisiveness with which City have acted tells a story of the extent to which Guardiola will not tolerate disruptive voices in his first-team squad.
Guardiola is now in his seventh season at Manchester City, and it seems fair to say that he retains every bit of authority that he has had since he first arrived there. Perhaps Cancelo’s temper is something that cannot be fully reined in, and this may be reflected in the fact that Bayern Munich will be his sixth club in eight-and-a-half years.
But while the decision to go to Bayern Munich isn’t something that will cause too many gasps of surprise – the ten-consecutive-times winners of the Bundesliga are top of the table yet again, though there are only five points between them and sixth-placed Eintracht Frankfurt this time around – merely to hear talk of such insubordination at City of all clubs is something of a surprise, even allowing for Cancelo’s somewhat volcanic reputation.
Because one of the most distinctive features of the teams that Pep has built has been, for all their relentless success on the pitch, the extent to which the egos of individual players have not been a significant issue. Players have been allowed to leave when they wished – Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko to Arsenal last summer, for example, or Leroy Sane in the summer of 2020 – but it should be clear from the outset that anyone intending to play anything like a full role in this squad has to fully buy into the project.
The benefits are obvious – lavish wages and the opportunity to challenge at the absolute pinnacle of the European club game – but to get an opportunity at this rarefied level within City’s system requires a level of self-discipline that Cancelo was apparently unable to maintain. He will leave the Etihad Stadium with two Premier League winners’ medals and an EFL Cup winners’ medal, but with the Champions League trophy still missing from his to-do list. We’ll have a better idea of whether he’s enhanced his chances of winning the most coveted medal of all by the end of this season.
City and Guardiola, meanwhile, have sent a clear message. We may occasionally score cheap points for laughing at Pep’s bouts of overthinking, but when this happens it is really little more than an over-reach of the attention to detail which, coupled with a frankly jaw-dropping amount of money, got both him and Manchester City near the top of the game’s food chain in the first place.
Perhaps the player concerned simply doesn’t care and believes that he can exact his revenge by winning the Champions League before Manchester City do. However this turns out, Mister Cancelo certainly seems to have successfully burned his bridges with both the manager and his club.