He may have been a surprise late arrival, but Joao Cancelo was no panic signing. And it took him just 17 minutes of his debut to prove it, as Bayern Munich eased into the quarterfinals of the German Cup on Wednesday.
Bayern head coach Julian Nagelsmann has long had the Portuguese wingback right at the top of his dream shopping list. But even a man as tactically-minded as Nagelsmann wouldn’t have imagined his pre-match assessment of his new loanee would be proved right so quickly.
“He’s a full-back who’s very strong going forward, who slightly prefers playing on the right,” Nagelsmann said, before announcing a team with a back three and Cancelo at right wingback. “He also has the ability to go inside and then hits very good crosses to the far post.”
Cancelo had read the script. After a couple of smart, penetrating forays inside, he stood up his man on the right and dug out one of those “very good crosses to the far post.” Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting did the rest, steering in from a tight angle.
It was a piece of play that Bayern’s regular rightback, Benjamin Pavard, just isn’t quite cut out for, the Frenchman more comfortable centrally, as he was on Wednesday.
Cancelo’s quality on the ball comes as no surprise. At Manchester City, he looked the archetypal Pep Guardiola fullback for several seasons. Solid enough defensively and comfortable enough to tuck in to midfield, take on his opponent or shoot from distance. There were echoes of how Guardiola used Phlipp Lahm at Bayern in Cancelo’s time at City.
But the falling out between Guardiola and Cancelo has offered Bayern a readymade solution to one of their more glaring problems. Teams often attack their right side, with Pavard’s limitations, his alternate Noussair Mazraoui out injured, and Alphonso Davies a formidable opponent on the other side.
While Cancelo’s more eye-catching qualities come when he’s going forward, he’s a solid defender with a huge amount of top-level experience. Bayern will need that when the Champions League returns in two weeks’ time. But, right now, they need players that can find a way to unlock deep defenses too. Three successive 1-1 draws since the Bundesliga returned from the World Cup have shown that.
He won’t be able to do it on his own, but an easing of the creative burden on Jamal Musiala and Joshua Kimmich also gives Bayern threats in different areas of the pitch: “He just has a bit of a different profile to the other players we have,” noted Nagelsmann.
They used those different threats to great effect on Wednesday, with Musiala and Leroy Sané adding goals in the sort of clinical first half display Bayern had yet to produce in 2023. Davies headed a fourth late on as the Bundesliga champions cruised through the second half.
Bayern, and Cancelo, will doubtless face much greater challenges than a Mainz side who barely landed a punch. But progress in this competition has been fraught in recent years, with exits at the hands of Borussia Mönchengladbach and second tier Holstein Kiel in the last two years.
Though it may never be the priority, Nagelsmann needs the German Cup. A league title is not always enough for Bayern, just ask Niko Kovac, and Champions League progress is a long way from guaranteed. So is the title right now, with the Bundesliga tight at the top. But early signs, and that assist, suggest Bayern are already a better team than they were last weekend.