After his hat-trick of assists against Club Brugge in the Champions League, Joao Cancelo set up both goals in the Manchester derby. But his wonderful pass to Raheem Sterling for the opener against Everton topped the lot.
Cancelo is in the form of his life but do not expect the full-back to be encouraged to think further improvement is not possible. Speaking to Manchester City head coach Pep Guardiola, the message is clear. There is always the possibility for more.
“It is not that we want him to do anything differently,” Guardiola tells Sky Sports. “We just want him to be better, to be more focused in some particular areas of the game, sometimes to be more calm and to be more relaxed in some certain positions.”
Guardiola’s pursuit of excellence is relentless, continually pushing. Perhaps it can even be draining for some. But there is no question that this mentality helps to improve his players – the evidence of that is everywhere at Manchester City.
Cancelo was not the man of the match in their 3-0 win over Everton on Sunday. That award went to Rodri. The Spaniard scored the second with a stunning strike but delivered a consummate midfield performance throughout, breaking up play and setting the tempo.
As Gary Neville noted on co-commentary, Rodri is the perfect example of why second-season syndrome under Guardiola means something else entirely. “He has developed so well in that position over the last couple of seasons,” Neville told Sky Sports.
“This happens quite a lot during Pep Guardiola’s time at Manchester City when you see a player come in during that first six months and you think, ‘I’m not quite sure they fit in, I’m not quite sure they are at the level that City have had in the past’.
“And then they just tend to grow and grow and get better. Rodri is doing that and has done that now. There are lots of them.”
As well as Rodri and Cancelo, Neville offered up the example of Riyad Mahrez. There is also Bernardo Silva. The Portuguese was named as City’s player of the year in his second season at the club.
“Every player can improve if he is open to it,” says Guardiola.
“Not because I am right and he is wrong or because I am a manager and he is a player, that is ridiculous. It is just because every player – like every person in our normal lives – has the opportunity to learn and improve.
“You can be a better person, you can be a better player, better with your left, your right, your head, your concentration in this specific duel. There are many things. If you accept the challenge and you want to do it, you can become a better player. That is the target.”
Sometimes it is about challenging them to do something differently. Cancelo was signed as a right-back but has found a role for himself on the left. From there, he can cut inside on his favoured foot.
But he showed against Manchester United that he can now go on the outside too – swinging in a cross with his left foot that was diverted into the net by Eric Bailly.
“Cancelo can overlap as well. It depends on the situation.”
Phil Foden’s development has seen him used all over the pitch. “Phil can play here, here or here,” adds Guardiola, gesticulating across the desk. “He can do it.”
Gabriel Jesus has been reimagined – and reinvigorated – as a right-winger. “Gabriel can play up front or on the side. He has got the quality to do this.”
One wonders whether it is also an attempt to broaden their education, perhaps even to focus the mind. Tasked with operating further forwards last season, the now 31-year-old Ilkay Gundogan appeared to add a hitherto unseen dimension to his game.
Guardiola acknowledges the point but in his mind it is purely pragmatism at play when making these calls. “Sometimes you need a specific player in one position,” he explains.
“It depends on the opponents and how they defend. Sometimes we need another type of game. Sometimes the form of the players changes it. Sometimes a player is blocking another player so we find him another position.
“We talk all the time about tactics, but we rarely talk about the human being and how he is feeling. Sometimes the players have personal problems, they aren’t happy, they are sad. That can influence things on the pitch. What we try to do is help them to be fresh.”
Thoughts inevitably turn to the only player in the Manchester City first-team squad who is experiencing his first season under Guardiola. Club record signing Jack Grealish has made an acceptable start to his time at the club – no more. His coach is optimistic.
“Of course, every player needs time. When you arrive in a new environment you need time to know exactly what you have to do. But he has settled really well. He knows many of his team-mates from the national team. This is not a problem.”
Importantly, the player is ready to embrace the challenge.
“If he did not want a different challenge he would have stayed at Villa. Every time that you do something it is because you want that challenge, you want to prove yourself in other environments, in Europe. This is the point.”
Grealish has gone more than 10 hours without a Premier League goal for City now but encouragement comes from the example of other wide forwards at the club.
Raheem Sterling scored seven goals in his first season under Guardiola but found the net on 18 occasions the following year. Silva, Mahrez and Leroy Sane all increased their goal output in their second seasons. Learning the subtleties of the role is key at City.
“It is important that wingers score goals. But for wingers to score, it needs the process of the team for us to do it. We are not a team that puts the responsibility to score goals on one single player. I think we already have 14 or 15 players who have scored goals this season. It is the way that we play that is important.”
Even so, it seems logical to expect that Grealish will be asked to make more of those runs into the area, those movements towards the back post, that have reaped such rewards for Sterling. Both he and Silva scored against Everton by getting into the box.
“I would say that is impossible to score goals if you are not ending up in front of the goal. This is impossible. We talk about that. Guys, in the final third, go to the goal. Arrive there. The more times that you are there, the more chances you have to score a goal.”
Ultimately, Grealish will be given every opportunity.
“He is a City player and he has adapted quite quickly,” adds Guardiola. “But he did not come for five months, he came for five or six years. Afterwards, it depends on him. We can do everything in terms of the environment. But in the end it will depend on him.”