Joao Cancelo and Trent Alexander-Arnold: The virtuosos transforming the full-back role

Defensive ability 

Guardiola once famously quipped “I don’t train the tackles. What are tackles?” but Cancelo is arguably the personification of that belief. City’s dominance over most opponents, advantage in possession statistics, plus Cancelo’s superb, instinctive reading of the game, mean that he usually senses, and counters, danger before it even materialises. In his 28 league appearances this season, he is averaging less than one foul per game and a total of 63 tackles. Cancelo’s 49 interceptions and 21 blocked shots this season also point to a sound reading of the game. In short, he has more interceptions and blocks than he does tackles.

Ability to dictate play 

No player in the Premier League has passed the ball more often this season than Cancelo, who has a staggering 2,334 to his name in his 28 league appearances. It says much for Guardiola’s philosophy and approach that four of the top five in the league’s list are City players and three of them are defenders. Aymeric Laporte and Ruben Dias join midfielder Rodri in the top five with Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk, in a distant fourth, the only non-City man at the top of that list. But it is Cancelo – who averages over 83 passes per game – who is, by that metric, the busiest player in the Premier League. It speaks to a wider premise of the full-back becoming one of the key positions in football. “Today the position of full-backs is more important in terms of the way teams are playing,” Guardiola said. “All the teams, when they play narrow and deep, the spaces are there. “The four full-backs on Sunday are exceptional.”

Trent Alexander-Arnold

Delivery 

Trent Alexander-Arnold is one of the most productive footballers on the planet, a feat made more remarkable by the fact he is achieving this as a full-back. For Liverpool, he is a once-in-a-generation player – the natural heir to Steven Gerrard in a totally different role. Alexander-Arnold has 11 Premier League assists this season – top of that chart – and 13 goal involvements. He participates in a goal-scoring move every 177.9 minutes. His set-piece deliveries have been rightly compared with David Beckham, as has his ability to provide a perfectly weighted, precision cross with minimal backlift. His long and short-range passing from all zones of the pitch is pure Gerrard. Jurgen Klopp’s decision to utilise Alexander-Arnold as a full-back was a stroke of genius, recognising how much more space and time he would find near the centre circle against opponents who do not press high, while calculating there would be more chance to exploit his creativity away from the midfield congestion. “I don’t know exactly when I decided [to play Trent at full-back],” said Klopp. “He developed in a way that nobody could have expected.”

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