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The Tactical Impact of Joao Cancelo’s Signing

The Portuguese fullback isn’t known for his defensive ability, but his arrival gives Inter and Spalletti options.

Portugal v Andorra - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Yesterday, Inter Milan reinforced their fullback positions by signing 23-year-old Portuguese right back João Cancelo on a season-long loan from Valencia. The deal also includes an option for Inter to make the signing permanent next summer.

While Cancelo is a young, talented, and promising player, he is by no means known for his defensive ability, making this signing an interesting move for Inter. Apart from the club’s secret desire to one-day field a Starting XI comprised solely of players named João (three down, eight to go!), signing Cancelo is a bit of a surprise given that the Portuguese is not a defensive upgrade over incumbent right back Danilo D'Ambrosio.

Without an obligation-to-buy clause, the signing is a low-risk addition for Inter, but depth aside, the club would be foolish to acquire a player without the intention of actually playing him. So why, despite his defensive flaws, did the Nerazzurri choose to sign Cancelo? Simply put, he gives Inter and manager Luciano Spalletti the flexibility to tactically adjust.

FC Internazionale v Empoli FC - Serie A
What does Cancelo’s signing mean for incumbent right back Danilo D'Ambrosio?
Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

In Spalletti’s preferred 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 lineups, the fullbacks have very traditional, defense-first roles. In these formations, Spalletti will very likely continue to start D'Ambrosio, who despite his average pace, is much more solid defensively than Cancelo. In matches that are level, or when Inter have the lead, D'Ambrosio would be the more reliable, defensive option.

However, Cancelo is essentially the inverse of the Italian right back. The Portuguese has impressive pace and offensive ability for a defender. In matches where Inter trail, or need to break a late deadlock, Spalletti could choose to swap D'Ambrosio for Cancelo to create more of an offensive outlet and overload the right wing. Having Cancelo push up would give Antonio Candreva more positional freedom to drift inside, behind Mauro Icardi, and essentially serve as a secondary striker.

This would admittedly leave Inter susceptible to a counter attack, but if the team is losing, that’s a risk you have to be willing to take (and in such a situation Cancelo’s pace would be more valuable than D'Ambrosio’s).

ICC Singapore - FC Internazionale v Chelsea FC
With Cancelo now at Inter, could Spalletti use Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 formation?
Photo by Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty Images for ICC

The same can be said vice versa. If Spalletti starts Cancelo, and Inter have a late lead, the Italian manager could choose to sub-in D'Ambrosio as a way to help shut-up-shop and solidify the defense for a potential a victory.

While Cancelo adds a more offensive dimension to Inter’s defense in a four-man back line, the Portuguese’s arrival also gives Spalletti the ability to forgo that formation altogether when he sees fit. Considering João Cancelo’s skill set, and Inter’s current squad, Spalletti could take a page out of Antonio Conte and Chelsea’s playbook and deploy a 3-4-3 formation.

The following lineup demonstrates what is now possible if Inter choose to use Dalbert and Cancelo as left and right wing-backs, respectively.

In this structure, Inter could rely on a back three of Skriniar, Miranda, and D'Ambrosio, thus allowing Dalbert and Cancelo to push up and provide more width and attacking support. Much like is the case with reigning Premier League champions Chelsea, doing so would allow the left and right wings (Perisic and Candreva) to focus more on offense, as there’s natural, built-in defensive cover, and less of an onus for the wingers to track back to defend. Additionally, with added width behind them, Perisic and Candreva would be less positionally locked to the wings, giving both more freedom to drift inward and support Icardi.

Defensively, when Inter are without the ball, Dalbert and Cancelo could use their pace to get back and form what would essentially be a five-man defensive line.

This proposed 3-4-3 formation isn’t without it’s potential flaws, though. Using it leaves Inter a man down in the center of the pitch, creating more work for the midfield pair (Vecino and João Mario in this example), and puts more pressure on the libero center back (Miranda). The formation is also taxing for the wing-backs, who are expected to both jump forward and trail back throughout the match.

FC Internazionale v ACF Fiorentina -Serie A
At the very least, Inter signing João Cancelo gives Spalletti options.
Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

While those may seem like too many red flags, it’s important to note that Spalletti is not restricted to one lineup, even within a match. The Italian could choose to use this formation sporadically, as an in-game adjustment, or not at all. The mere fact that this lineup is now a possibility for Inter is exciting.

The club hired Spalletti this summer because they believe in his abilities; motivationally, as a leader, and tactically. Adding João Cancelo, an attack-minded fullback, to the mix of players at Spalletti’s disposal gives the Italian more freedom to experiment. While Cancelo doesn’t improve Inter defensively, it may not matter depending on how Spalletti uses him. The Portuguese brings a different element to Inter’s fullback options. It’s now up to Inter’s manager to find the right way to make it work. Based on all that we’ve seen to this point, there’s very little reason to doubt Spalletti’s ability to do just that.