While the Premier League is shrouded in uncertainty at present, one thing has remained a constant — Manchester City winning football matches.
With COVID-19 outbreaks hitting other clubs and forcing a glut of postponements, Pep Guardiola’s side have managed to escape largely unaffected, allowing them to quietly start putting one of those runs together that can break their title rivals.
Sunday’s 4-0 victory over Newcastle was City’s eighth on the bounce, and was inevitable from the moment Ruben Dias was gifted a free header inside the 6-yard box in the fifth minute.
This was not City at their best or even close to it — there were a couple of stray moments, sloppy passes and poor challenges that could on another day have been punished — but it was ultimately a match won on autopilot.
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City are so well drilled that they know what to do wherever they find themselves on the pitch, and perhaps no player exemplifies that footballing intelligence more within the City ranks right now than Joao Cancelo
The Portugal fullback has spent the majority of the season playing at left back, but switched across to the right at St. James’ Park due to the absence of Kyle Walker, and put in yet another supreme display.
A defender in name only, Cancelo is comfortable wherever he finds himself, whether it is attacking high as a right winger or defending deep as a left back.
His standout moment on Sunday came from a central position, drifting past two weak tackles before smashing in a fierce strike from 25 yards.
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This was his third goal of the season in all competitions, to go with his seventh assist, the latest of which came when his hooked cross from Kevin De Bruyne’s through ball eventually made its way to Dias for the opener.
Fullbacks have become an integral part of successful sides in the modern game, not least in Guardiola’s great teams at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now City.
Cancelo, though, is the first defender to be directly involved in 10 goals in a single season under the Catalan coach since David Alaba achieved the feat for Bayern back in 2013-14.
Such a return puts him firmly in the bracket of the league’s most dangerous attacking fullbacks, alongside Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Chelsea’s Reece James.
Statistically in 2021-22, Alexander-Arnold is ahead with two goals and 10 assists, while James has five goals and six assists, but Cancelo has a technical ability that perhaps separates him from his rivals.
Take his delicious floated pass to find Gabriel Jesus in the build-up for City’s fourth against Newcastle, Cancelo’s ball taking out a number of defenders before Jesus teed up Raheem Sterling for a tap-in.
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Such a moment might not make the statistical impact it deserves, but it will be appreciated by his team-mates and manager
Alexander-Arnold’s driven crosses are among the most dangerous in the league, while James has a dynamic directness to his game, but it is questionable whether they would be quite so threatening if they were asked to switch flanks as Cancelo has been forced to do both this season and last.
The ex-Juventus man’s passes with the outside of his foot from central areas, meanwhile, can carve open defenses, though he remains comfortable in high and wide positions as City bid to stretch opponents when launching attacks.
And so while Cancelo is one of the quieter men on the pitch when City are playing, he is starting to make a big noise as the champions move menacingly through the gears to spend Christmas at No. 1 once again.