Joao Cancelo might have been the missing piece in Bayern Munich’s puzzle.
The Portuguese fullback, for so long a key player at Manchester City, looked a perfect fit on his Bayern debut, needing only 17 minutes to set up the opening goal in a 4-0 win over Mainz in the German Cup, on Wednesday.
The game gave an indication of Cancelo’s greatest asset for Bayern — his versatility — and why the German champion could make his loan deal permanent for 70 million euros ($77 million).
Cancelo played on the right of midfield, not the left back position he usually occupied for Pep Guardiola at City, and Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann played with a back three like his old Leipzig team did, not Bayern’s usual back four. Nagelsmann explained the idea was to exert more pressure through the centre of midfield against a defensive-minded opponent. It worked as Bayern picked up its first win of 2023 following three 1-1 draws in the Bundesliga.
That doesn’t mean Cancelo won’t play his more familiar left-back role, too. The formation switch Wednesday was more of a variation than a fundamental change in how Bayern plays. The absence of Lucas Hernández, with a severe knee injury, picked up during France’s World Cup campaign, left Bayern short of cover on the left and relying on the recently injury-prone Alphonso Davies.
In the longer term, and especially if Bayern activates Cancelo’s buy option, he might end up at right-back, the position he generally plays for the Portuguese national team. Benjamin Pavard’s performances there have been less than convincing at times this season, and the French defender has been linked with a move to Barcelona at the end of the season. Noussair Mazraoui is a versatile fullback, but he hasn’t played since Morocco’s history-making run to the World Cup semifinals. Bayern says he has inflamed tissue around his heart following a coronavirus infection.
Bayern is just about on track to meet its aims for the season — top of the Bundesliga, still in the German Cup, a perfect six wins from six in the Champions League — but there’s been a precarious look to the German champions at times this season. Bayern only leads the league by one point, and its opponent in the last 16 of the Champions League is Paris Saint-Germain, with the first leg on Feb. 14.
Sunday’s game against Wolfsburg could be a good test of how Bayern functions under pressure with Cancelo on board. Bayern may be unbeaten against Wolfsburg since 2015, but the team from northern Germany is a tenacious competitor with an eye on Europa League and potentially Champions League qualification — not to mention 12 goals from its first three Bundesliga games of the year.