How Joao Cancelo has improved Bayern Munich


Bayern Munich's third high-profile signing over the winter, Manchester City loanee full-back Joao Cancelo has hit the ground running for the record champions.

Primarily a right-back, the decision to bring in Cancelo may have seemed a puzzling one at first glance, given that Bayern are already well-stocked in that department, with Benjamin Pavard, Noussair Mazraoui, Josip Stanisic and Bouna Sarr all in the squad, while there's Alphonso Davies and Daley Blind on the other side of the pitch.

However, Mazraoui is on the sidelines for the immediate future, Sarr is recovering from injury and Stanisic still relatively unproven at the highest level, with just 21 Bundesliga appearances (eight starts) to his name since making his debut in April 2021.

While providing some immediate competition for Pavard might have been a motivating factor – Cancelo is an experienced campaigner at 28, having won titles galore at Manchester City and Juventus – Nagelsmann hinted at the chief reason during the Portugal international's official unveiling at the end of January.

Watch: Cancelo's arrival at Bayern

"He’s a full-back who’s very strong going forward, who slightly prefers playing on the right to the left, but generally doesn’t mind," said the Bayern tactician.

"He also has the ability to go inside and then hits very good crosses to the far post. We play against a lot of deep opponents, and he has good dynamism and also good long-range shots, good crosses towards goal, but also bending away from goal from the right. He just has a bit of a different profile to the other players we have."

In short, rather than merely providing like-for-like defensive cover in a squad that will bid for glory in three competitions over the coming months – Nagelsmann declared his intention to go on the front foot.

Was the signing a knee-jerk reaction to his team starting 2023 with three consecutive 1-1 draws? Absolutely not. Sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic admitted that the club have "had a lot of contact in the last few years and we’ve also attempted it a few times, but it didn’t work out."

Joao Cancelo's (l.) arrival from Manchester City has added another string to the bow of record champions Bayern Munich. - FC Bayern München

It is more plausible then, that Cancelo's signing is part of a strategy aimed at refining the art of winning even further, killing two birds with one stone.

In line with the received wisdom that attack is the best form of defence, Cancelo gives Bayern an extra dimension going forward while also solving a concerning (for them, at least) defensive trend.

While it is true that many opposition teams sit deep and try to pounce on the counter-attack, most have also discovered the best way to get at Bayern: down their right side.

Davies' presence on Bayern's left is as effective a deterrent as they come. The Canadian is the third-fastest player ever in Bundesliga history at 22.69 mph (36.51 km/h) and the third-fastest in the league this season at 22.35 mph (36.00 km/h).

Cancelo has won league titles in Portugal, Italy and England. - OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

That groundspeed, coupled with his muscular physique and strength in the tackle means it is virtually impossible to get past the man Thomas Müller dubbed "the FC Bayern roadrunner".

So much so, that many teams don't even try: when Augsburg beat Bayern 1-0 on Matchday 7, only six percent (yes, six!) of their attempted attacks were down Davies' flank, compared to 31 percent down Bayern's right.

That is no anomaly. Of their 18 Bundesliga matches in 2022/23 before the transfer, 12 teams focused their attacks down Bayern's right wing.

On Matchday 17 in the 1-1 draw with Cologne, a whopping 65 percent of the Billy Goats' forward forays were down the Bayern right, the highest percentage of any side this term, followed by Schalke (Matchday 15, 54 percent), Frankfurt (Matchday 18, 45 percent) and Wolfsburg (Matchday 2, 46 percent).

It makes sense, too. The teams that have predominantly attacked down Bayern's right have had more joy, in relative terms: in those games before Cancelo joined, Bayern had averaged 1.92 points and 2.5 goals scored per game.

In fixtures where teams tried to poke holes down the left and get past Davies, Bayern had averaged 2.33 points and 3.66 goals per game. In short, if you had attacked down Davies' side of the pitch in the pre-Cancelo era, the odds were overwhelmingly against you.

In a sport in which marginal gains matter and can be the difference between success and failure, such details may seem small, but are in fact hugely significant. The arrival of Cancelo was aimed to redress Bayern's on-field defensive imbalance.

If you have two physically imposing, fleet-footed and attack-minded full-backs on either flank, teams and players will already be wary before they even get started. It would also channel opposition attacks into the more congested centre.

That theory proved to be totally validated during Bayern's 4-2 win at Wolfsburg on Matchday 19 - Cancelo's debut in the Bundesliga and (perhaps not coincidentally) Bayern's first league win of 2023 at the fourth attempt.

Niko Kovac's Wolves sent 34 percent of their attacks down Cancelo's right side, 33 percent down the left and another 33% in the middle. Clearly they could sense no particular weak spot to target, confronted as they were with the defensive assurance of the Portuguese international.

While Bayern conceded two to a Wolfsburg side making an ambitious bid for European qualification, Cancelo had already shown his defensive worth by contributing to the club's first clean sheet of the year on his first competitive appearance - a resounding 4-0 DFB Cup win in Mainz.

As Bayern have won more challenges (2,000) than any other team in the Bundesliga this season, opponents will need a huge slice of luck getting through the lion's den in the middle that is Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Dayot Upamecano and Matthijs de Ligt.

Any doubts about the new Bayern number 22's attacking class were also quickly vanquished by his first two showings.

Bayern have recorded two straight wins with Cancelo (1st.l) in the side. - IMAGO/Revierfoto/IMAGO/Revierfoto

His laser-fine passing ability regularly found holes in the Mainz defence in the successful cup last 16 clash. It took only a little over a quarter of an hour of play for Cancelo to claim his first assist in a Bayern shirt, as he shimmied past Mainz's Aaron Martin to chip a cross in for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting to volley in at the far post.

The Bayern fans had again barely settled in their positions at the away end a few days later in Wolfsburg when Cancelo produced his next piece of masterful supply work. He picked out Kingsley Coman around the edge of the box with a wonderfully weighted cross, and the Frenchman thanked his new team-mate by dispatching a polished volley straight in to give Bayern a 2-0 early lead.

Cancelo had 81 touches of the ball against Wolfsburg - the third most of any Bayern player, despite him being substituted off after 78 minutes. He recorded a passing accuracy of 85 percent, which is highly respectable given the frequency with which he seeks to open up opposition defences with risky passes and crosses.

All in all, it has been a highly promising start for the Portuguese full-back at the Bundesliga champions. Bayern fans might just have reason to hope the new man in their star-studded collective proves to be the vital ingredient in their push to win this season's mega-tight title race.