Is Alphonso Davies Bayern Munich’s most important player?
Robert Lewandowski scores the goals, Manuel Neuer prevents them, Joshua Kimmich makes sure the team works, but is it really Alphonso Davies who makes everything work for Bayern Munich?
The Bundesliga leaders have been without their Canadian left foot since the start of the year after he was forced out of training with a mild heart condition. This has limited the 21-year-old to just 16 Bundesliga appearances totaling 1,269 minutes this season.
If you boil it down to pure stats, Bayern are a better side with Davies in the side. They’re averaging 2.5 points per game with him this season compared to 2.1 without, scoring far more goals when he played (3.25) than when he didn’t (2.63) and concede less (1.0 per game against 1.1 without).
Look: Davies the Canadian superstar
“Of course we miss Phonzy. He’s an important player for us,” said head coach Julian Nagelsmann after the recent 4-1 win over Greuther Fürth.
Maybe a generic statement from a coach about one of his unavailable players, but the 34-year-old really means it about Davies. And he’s been making similar comments all year.
That’s because Davies’ impact goes far beyond pure goals scored or conceded. And we are not even talking about his joker side that we have seen on social networks, which undoubtedly raises a locker room.
We’ve seen over the past two seasons exactly what Davies can do at both ends of the court. Bayern’s sextuple of 2020 was only his breakthrough year, but we witnessed his speed in getting past attackers and defenders, his ability to take on a man and also deliver the final ball.
When Nagelsmann took over from Hansi Flick for this season, he saw Davies as the key man to create his perfect Bayern. People like Lewandowski, Thomas Müller and Neuer have been doing their part for years. The new boss wanted to take it all to the next level as a team.
A short pre-season allowed Nagelsmann to start the campaign in the classic 4-2-3-1 formation that has brought Bayern such great success over the past decade (nine straight Bundesliga titles, two continental treble, etc).
It started well and the defending champions were on top again after 10 games with a monstrous 38 goals scored. Nagelsmann’s plan then was to slowly introduce the tactical flexibility he had created at his previous teams, RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim. He had managed to get them comfortable switching between back three and back four, both between and during games.
But as he got to know his team, he recognized that Davies could give him the best of both worlds. The coach converted the Canadian into a hybrid left-back, using his speed and versatility.
Look: Davies discusses tactics under Nagelsmann
Davies would be in his usual position on the left of a four when Bayern didn’t have the ball and were in defensive mode. In attack, he would be more of a wing-back or an outright winger.
This was coupled with Leroy Sane moving into field from the left, creating a second No.10 alongside Müller. Benjamin Pavard, the nominal right-back and inherently less attacking than Davies, would not copy this move on the other side, but stay back and form a three-man defense alongside the two centre-backs.
A 4-2-3-1 would therefore become rather a 3-2-4-1 in the blink of an eye, and at the slightest adjustment.
The key behind it all is Davies’ speed. He is Bayern’s fastest player this season at 22.4 mph (36.04 km/h) and makes him the second fastest in Bundesliga history (since data collection began in 2011) at 22.6 mph (36.37 kph).
The man dubbed the “FC Bayern Roadrunner” by Müller is also averaging the most sprints per game for the club this season (37) as he continually moves up and down that left flank. Even when out of position or against the opposition, he has the pace to come back and recover, reforming that back four.
To give you an idea of what Davies’ presence in the team does to opponents: of the 18 goals conceded by Bayern in the first 18 matchdays, 56% have come in the right half of the pitch. The remaining 44 were on the Canadian side.
Fast forward now to 27 games played and those values have reached parity, meaning the majority of the 10 goals conceded since have come down to Bayern’s left side without Davies. Also remember that they concede 0.1 more per game without him in the team.
At the other end of the pitch, as mentioned, his presence has allowed Sane – who switched from right to left earlier in the season – to take on a freer role while keeping the flank busy.
Nagelsmann attempted to maintain this tactic in Davies’ absence by deploying an attacking front four behind Lewandowski of Serge Gnabry, Müller, Sane and Kingsley Coman. He keeps the width and the two central playmakers.
However, he hasn’t quite perfected his defense. Nagelsmann said Coman is unbreakable in his current form (attacking-wise), but he and Gnabry are not natural wingers when called down the other end. One of the times Lucas Hernandez was used at left-back was the 4-2 loss at Bochum – although it should be noted that the result wasn’t his fault.
Omar Richards also had a try there, for example in the 4-1 win over Fürth, but he was substituted and the formation changed at half-time with Bayern trailing. Nagelsmann said he was too isolated and the team struggled to get him into space and create two-on-one situations.
The thing is, Bayern – and indeed very few teams in the world – have a player of Davies’ quality that allows them the kind of tactical versatility that Nagelsmann wants. The pure numbers also show that the Munich club are closer to their expected top level with him.
They are still top and also in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League. The cogs are still turning as Bayern’s machine continues to turn, but Nagelsmann will be delighted to reunite with Davies soon, allowing him to oil all the pieces with the Canadian as leverage between attack and defence.