Miasanrot Awards: Most improved player of the season 2019/20
When news of Bayern’s interest in Lucas Hernandéz broke about a year ago, most people nodded their heads in approvement. He was seen not only as an excellent centre-back, but also as a fitting addition to the squad to fill the vacancy at left-back behind David Alaba that had not been properly filled since the departure of Juan Bernat. But things took a different turn. Now neither David Alaba nor Lucas Hernandéz play at left-back, but an altogether different player has grabbed public attention in spectacular fashion in that position.
When sporting director Hasan Salihamidžić introduced Alphonso Davies as Bayern’s freshest addition to the squad during the summer tour of 2018 in the US, nobody quite new what to make of that. Although s considerable Goalimpact score for a 16-year old and the general mood were largely positive, there was a latent suspicion that a so far non-descript sporting director was trying to bolster his public image by pulling off a spectacular stunt. And so a few months later a young Canadian football player went on his journey to Munich, in his bag a meanwhile well-known life story that has earned him the sympathies and the hearts of everyone in a way that few other young players ever do. Yet what matters on the field at Bayern are not endearing origin stories, but proper super hero skills.
Davies took the first steps in his new surroundings in Bayern’s second team and in first team training, without, however, leaving much of a mark. Sure, he played a small role in the second team promotion run, but the sporting equivalent of the millions of Euros Bayern had dished out for him remained conspicuously hidden. And lo and behold, it did not take the tabloid media long to begin remarking that his efforts in training were rather sobering to observe.
Looking back now, Davies is a prime example of how one can be tempted to judge a young player’s talent prematurely. If they do not perform as well as expected in the fourth division, this can be due to wider problems with the team and not their lack of individual quality. This is true for Alphonso Davies, as it is for the players competing for the teams of the UEFA Youth League. Perhaps it is not down to a lack of individual quality of the players when Bayern lose to Dinamo Zagreb, but to a scattershot composition of the squad. The judgement of youth teams may generally need to be done with a bit more circumspection than it sometimes appears to get.
From a lukewarm pre-season preparation, Davies emerged as one of the winners. Already back then there were first glimpses of Niko Kovač’s (and Hansi Flick’s?) idea to pull him back from winger to full-back. But when the various competitions commenced, his situation seemed unchanged at first. He made his first competitive start on matchday 9 thanks to an accumulation of injuries by several other first team players. Kovač deserves high praise for sticking with Davies even as the noose around his neck kept tightening during the following weeks. When Kovač’s road did eventually come to an end three matchdays later, Davies might have been the only player in the squad who was not entirely happy about that.
Yet despite the worry the (as yet) interim coach would fall back on relying on experience, Davies kept his place in the first eleven. His performances in the four games he had started had been solid, but before the “Klassiker” against Dortmund, the majority opinion was still that he was a liability in defense. And now he was to face Achraf Hakimi and Jaden Sancho bearing down on him on his side, two players of an entirely different order of quality. As we all know, the story unravelled in a different way. Davies’ performance put both his counterparts’ to shame and he even managed to deliver the coup de grace to Jaden Sancho of being substituted during the first half. He won three dribbles, nine of his eleven challenges and completed almost all of his passes. Back then I wrote in my post match report:
Maybe in years hence this game will not be remembered because of Hansi Flick’s first victory in charge, but because it was the breakthrough of one Alphonso Davies.
Well, I was not quite accurate regarding Hansi Flick, but the game certainly was Alphonso Davies’ big entry on the German football stage. His entry on the world stage was yet to come.
While everybody was still drooling over the young Canadian’s breakthrough, there was one person who tried curb the general enthusiasm: Hansi Flick thought that the former winger had been focusing too much on the defensive and that he should recover his offensive drive again. A rather amusing remark, looking back now.
Davies’ most notable characteristics are certainly his acceleration and top speed. After a series of rather conservative interpretations of his left-back role in the beginning, he started brandishing his enormous physical abilities in attack as well, overrunning opponents at will like a force of nature. In the games against Freiburg and Chelsea, for example, he initiated goals all by himself by picking up speed in his own half before surging forward at an unstoppable pace rendering all his opponents helpless. In doing so, he is not one of the much dreaded one trick pony kind, but often shines with feigned dribble moves and courageous, forward-thinking positional play. Yet one may be cautiously sceptical whether he would be quite the same weapon if he played as a classic winger instead of a full-back. His style of play profits a lot from the extra room for acceleration that his more withdrawn position affords him.
Nevertheless, the strongest argument against pushing him up to an outside forward position are actually his defensive skills, which he has managed to massively improve within a very short time. Anyone who thinks that his whole defensive play is based on chasing down opponents and stealing the ball from them misses his more fundamental abilities in this area of the game. Davies is not the first lightning quick full-back in the Bundesliga and he will not be the last. His (former) Bundesliga contemporary Achraf Hakimi, for instance, is about as quick as him, but is nowhere near the same level of decision making quality in defense. Davies’ unique ability to chase down opposing players anywhere on the pitch at a moment’s notice is based in large part on his foresight and intuitive anticipation of what will happen next. Once he has closed down an opponent, he is able to win the ball back without giving away a corner kick or a silly penalty. As impressive as Davies’ athletic abilities are and despite all the praise he is receiving, his more traditional footballing skills still tend to be underestimated. He is much more than a simple sprinter, much more than just the roadrunner.
And yet his incredible speed undoubtedly helps him a great deal. Because for him, too, there ist still a lot of room for improvement. Sometimes his defending is still a bit sloppy, which he has so far almost always been able to make up for with a quick burst of speed. Twitter is brimming over meanwhile with highly dangerous situations, which Davies is able to clear effortlessly thanks to his athleticism. In the few instances when he does not get there in time, David Alaba bails him out. Alaba knows the ins and outs of his familiar left-back position by heart and if necessary starts covering for Davies’ mistakes even sooner than they can be noticed by any opponent. What is more, he is also Davies’ instructor on the field who shows him where he still has to improve. This is an almost singular occurrence because when – if ever – do a student and his most important teacher, who is himself a master of his craft and in his absolute prime, play directly alongside each other?
The whole team appeared to be running on fumes towards the end of the season, and Davies was no exception. He was sent off against Bremen as a conclusion to a very poor performance and even in his better games he had some really weak moments. The break will do him a world of good.
Some of his teammates, too, have made remarkable progress in the last season. David Alaba, Thomas Müller, and in many respects Jérôme Boateng as well have made their way back to world class. But for all of them, it was a comeback or a reboot, but not a first-time rise to unprecedented heights. There was no other breakthrough (including a reboot) quite like Davies’ all season.
Davies has already introduced himself to the world against Chelsea earlier this season, but the season is not over yet. Whatever elite opposition Bayern may have to face in the Champions League later this month, one name will definitely appear on the first team sheet. Our most improved player and surprise of the season: Phonzie Davies!