Joao Cancelo leaving Manchester City to join Bayern Munich is one of those transfers that takes the football world aback.
Given the sudden nature of it all and because of the size of the clubs and the player involved, questions are inevitable.
Why are City allowing one of the best players in their squad to leave with no intention of bringing in a replacement, considering they are hardly stacked with full-backs?
Will City even sign a replacement? (That one is simple: no.)
So how did it get to the point where the situation deteriorated so rapidly throughout January that City believed they would be better off playing the second half of the season without Cancelo?
There was not one major flashpoint that led to this outcome, but rather a series of smaller incidents and a general pattern of behaviour that City saw as disruptive which began after his return from the World Cup.
The 28-year-old’s reaction to being on the bench against Arsenal in the FA Cup on Friday night — the third game in a row in which he was left out of the City XI and not brought on — was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Pep Guardiola. A move to Bayern was hastily arranged over the weekend.
This is how events unravelled throughout January to the point that a loan deal was agreed on Monday, with the Bundesliga champions having a €70million (£61.6m, $76.3m) option to buy.
Chelsea away, January 5 — ‘Cancelo was furious’
At the very heart of this issue is the fact that Cancelo does not like it when he is not playing football and he does not hide those feelings especially well. In fact, just a few months into his time at City he was looking to leave for Barcelona over a lack of playing time, but eventually stayed.
A year later, at the end of the 2020-21 season, he was among a number of players who had annoyed Guardiola by showing their displeasure when they were left out of the team. Cancelo lost his place for the Champions League semi-final second leg and the final — and his feelings were obvious.
After Cancelo signed for City back in 2019, The Athletic spoke to several of his former coaches and others who had followed his career and an outcome like this was not exactly unexpected.
It has been known for some time that he is “like a volcano”, according to one source close to City who, like others in this article, wished to remain anonymous to protect their position. Even those close to him do not dispute he is unhappy when left out of games and that he speaks his mind.
The Portuguese came back from the World Cup in a funk because he had not played as much as he would have wanted. After starting all of his country’s three group games, he was on the bench for the next two in the knockouts, only coming on after half-time for the quarter-final defeat by Morocco.
During the World Cup, the Portuguese newspaper Record published an article titled ‘A sense of injustice haunts Cancelo’ and told of how ‘frustration was written all over his face’ while he sat on the bench for the last-16 match against Switzerland. It went on to say that the player felt ‘misunderstood’ and ‘not properly valued’ by his coach Fernando Santos.
Like others in the City squad, including Kyle Walker and Phil Foden, Cancelo was eased back into action upon his return from Qatar. All three started at Stamford Bridge on January 5, but Walker and Cancelo were withdrawn at half-time.
“I’m so sorry for Joao, I asked him to play in a position he wasn’t used to,” Guardiola said afterwards, having deployed him on the right wing.
Cancelo was furious. Team-mates tried to calm him down in the dressing room but, ultimately, everything went downhill from there.
“When he’s in a good mood, he’s excellent,” says another source close to the team. “When he’s in a bad mood, he’s a bad boy. He thinks he is the best and doesn’t accept any advice or correction.”
Sources close to Cancelo point out that he is a good person with a kind heart, and that is corroborated by many of his team-mates.
Southampton away, January 11 — A low point on the pitch
Cancelo was put back on the bench for the FA Cup game against Chelsea a few days later, which did little to improve his mood — and that was clear in training.
Like in previous situations of this type, his feelings were obvious and the coaching staff felt it affected his performance levels during City’s preparations, more so than it had done immediately after his return from Qatar.
As part of a process to restore him to his best, Guardiola picked Cancelo to start at Southampton in the Carabao Cup as a right-back, with Walker at centre-back. Walker was again substituted at half-time, while Cancelo played the whole game.
His performance was dire — a low point — but Guardiola stuck with him for the Manchester derby a few days later.
After that though, John Stones was back in contention after a brief absence and has proved himself one of City’s relatively few solid performers following the World Cup. Nathan Ake also belongs to that group and given Cancelo’s application in training over that period he was an obvious candidate to make way.
Tottenham and Wolves at home, January 19 and 22 — from the bus to the bench, by himself
Cancelo was then left out of the 4-2 comeback win against Tottenham, a match that was arguably more memorable for Guardiola’s very public attempts to fix the complacency that had crept into his team.
Cancelo was far from the only target of Guardiola’s ire — he insisted everybody was culpable — but the Portuguese had been causing the manager several headaches.
After the Spurs game, the City players were in no doubt about Cancelo’s feelings — because he told them. The fact that he had lost his place to 18-year-old Rico Lewis, who has made the right-back spot his own since the World Cup, was a major source of consternation.
It was at this point Guardiola and his staff became especially concerned, as they felt Cancelo’s behaviour was starting to affect the group at a time when Guardiola had launched his public effort to save City’s season by putting his squad’s mentality into public focus.
Of course, one person’s ‘disruptive influence’ is another’s ‘strong personality’ and Cancelo would surely dispute this.
The coaching staff saw poor body language, which may not be the most serious of footballing crimes but it meant he was seriously in breach of Guardiola’s ‘no bad faces’ policy — whereby players have to have a supportive attitude when not playing.
When Cancelo was named on the bench for the game against Wolves, his feelings were not confined to the dressing room: soon after arriving at the Etihad Stadium, he walked from the team bus to the home dugout and sat on the bench by himself. This was beyond previous incidents in years gone by.
Ake was left on the bench for that game, but it was Aymeric Laporte who played left-back with Lewis on the right.
Lewis was replaced at half-time but it was Ake who came on rather than Walker or Cancelo — both of whom remained on the bench for the whole game.
Arsenal at home, January 27 — ‘He did not pay attention in meetings’
In the past year at City, Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Bernardo Silva and Ake have been out of the team and/or looking to leave, but have, essentially, smiled through the pain.
Cancelo could never put up with such a scenario, and if City were happy to let go of the more cheerful figures in their squad it is no surprise they would do so for somebody deemed more disruptive.
Guardiola’s former assistant, Juanma Lillo, was a key figure for Cancelo at City in that respect, as he usually managed to calm him down if there was ever a difference of opinion with the manager. Lillo left in the summer, however.
It would be easy to write Cancelo off as a bad character but that would be harsh, even if he is emotional when not playing and that has led to problems at several of his clubs.
Guardiola has highlighted how Cancelo shares the same childlike love for football as Foden, who always has a ball with him — and on January 1 2022, Cancelo played with a scar on his head in a key league match against Arsenal. The night before he was attacked in front of his wife and young daughter by four intruders looking to steal jewellery.
He is a strong but complicated character and last week he asked his agent, Jorge Mendes, to find him a move away.
Things came to a head when Guardiola left him out against Arsenal on Friday. After that, staff felt that Cancelo did not pay attention in the tactical meetings and did not listen to instructions from the coaches.
Guardiola and his staff had had enough: after weeks of similar incidents and actions, they felt he needed to move on.
After the game, Guardiola was asked about Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta’s decision to leave several of his key players on the bench. “Bernardo didn’t play, Kyle Walker didn’t play, Mr Cancelo didn’t play,” he replied. “If we lose, you’ll say why didn’t they play?”
It would have taken some reading between the lines to expect a transfer being put in place over the next 48 hours, but ‘Mr Cancelo’ is a fairly large hint at the situation.
So was this when discussing Ake’s recent form: “Not one person in the locker room… maybe… ah, I don’t think so… nobody is not happy for him.”
Midway through his point, the thought seemed to occur to Guardiola that somebody might not be entirely happy with the emergence of a new left-back, but he let it go.
In hindsight, these examples are similar to a post-match interview in March 2021 when Guardiola said, “The players who help me a lot this season, I will rotate less. The rest will be on the bench.” It soon emerged that Raheem Sterling had questioned his team selection on that very day and was left out of the squad for the next game.
On Saturday, Cancelo posted a picture on his Instagram story accompanied by the words, “Don’t let anyone dim your shine”.
Cancelo and Guardiola talked and it was agreed a transfer would be best. Once that was decided it was, in one sense, lucky that Bayern Munich came forward.
On the one hand, City’s decision to let their star left-back leave midway through the season, with no replacement lined up — six months after letting Zinchenko depart — clearly leaves them short of options and that may well cost them this season. This, after all, is a player who is viewed by one person The Athletic spoke to for this article as a better decision-maker in the final third than most forwards.
On the other hand, they have decided that had Cancelo stayed, the squad would have been negatively impacted. Had Bayern not signed him, they would have had another problem to resolve.
It is not an ideal scenario by any means but, in Ake and Lewis, City do have cover at full-back that they did not necessarily expect to have in the summer and given the situation, they would rather move forward like this.
Bayern, for their part, have been huge admirers of Cancelo for several years now and were delighted to swoop in for a player they never expected to become available. On Wednesday, it will be one year to the day since Cancelo signed a two-year contract extension at City.
There is a €70m clause to make the deal permanent in the summer and while reports in Germany insist Bayern will look to strike a deal for less than that, the likelihood is Cancelo will not return to Manchester.
Things unravelled very quickly.
Read the full article here