Alphonso Davies, Little Fish, Big Ponds

By Benjamin Massey

October 30th, 2018 · No comments

Tony Lewis for Maple Leaf Forever!

Give the Whitecaps credit: their farewell to young star Alphonso Davies last Sunday left no page in the storybook unturned.

In his last match before moving to Bayern Münich Davies scored twice in a win over old rivals Portland before leaving in the 86th minute to a standing ovation. His parents named “Parents of the Match,” a tribute to that beer-sponsored Man of the Match award he’s not allowed to win but should have. Even the Whitecaps’ coach for the day, Craig Dalrymple, was perfect: an unsung hero in the Whitecaps’ youth organization going back to the pre-MLS days, probably the longest-serving man in Vancouver’s soccer operations not on the Football Death Panel and a much-respected man to whom many talented young players, Davies included, owe a great deal.

What else could you ask? For the game to have been relevant, maybe. But then Dalrymple would have been dropping cones for the U-18s rather than pacing an MLS touchline, and the Whitecaps would have sent Davies off far from the fans amid endless recrimination. Whitecaps veterans who should know better, like Russell Teibert and Stefan Marinovic, have already been in the press murmuring about poor team spirit, and aging scrub Efrain Juarez has been delighted to escalate it. Davies’s last day could so easily have tasted like sour grapes rather than ambrosia. All in all, Davies got a blessed ending.

Now he belongs to the ages. Or to Bayern, which is much the same thing, facing that big step up to the pantheon. Ask Kei Kamara, a very fine MLS player who washed out at Norwich and Middlesbrough, or Brek Shea, another pacey winger with size who was a young star in MLS until he went to England and became, um, Brek Shea. Except that neither was a league-record transfer for one of the top clubs in the world. What’s the MLS record for most pressure on a guy?

It comes with advantages. (An inability to choose either good or bad will be a theme of this post.) Learning cultured wing play from Franck Ribéry is good. Given the scale of their investment it’s safe to say Bayern will nurture Davies in the way Shea, say, wasn’t. Opportunities will abound: as Bayern boss Niko Kovač said, “when you spend that much money on a player, you don’t just put him in the second team.” Michael Petrasso could lose important years in the QPR U-23s because the club didn’t have much invested in him; Alphonso Davies, less so.

The kid obviously has every physical gift you could desire and to my knowledge Davies’s work ethic has never been questioned. He isn’t afraid to do the little things to win, whether it’s diving (all the time) or trying to kick Damion Lowe in the head. But his defining skill is his pace, and MLS is a pacey league, and the Bundesliga is not necessarily.

Davies finished the 2018 MLS season with eight goals on fifteen shots on target and 37 shots directed. More than half of his shots on frame, and 21.6% of the shots he attempted, went in. Good for him, but not sustainable even in MLS. Brek Shea could shoot like that in this league, once.

Current Vancouver Whitecaps in Breakout Season Before Europe
Name Year GP Min G G/90 SoG SD Sh% SoG% A A/90
Davies, Alphonso 2018 31 2420 8 0.298 15 37 0.533 0.405 11 0.409
Kamara, Kei 2012 32 2871 11 0.345 49 134 0.224 0.366 8 0.251
Shea, Brek 2011 30 2647 11 0.374 23 74 0.478 0.311 4 0.136
Season given for each player is his big year just before he went to Europe; for Davies it is the MLS season before his full-time departure, for Kamara and Shea the year before. Shea was injured in the 2012 MLS season and Kamara was in and out on loan in 2013.

While a player’s ability has everything to do with how many chances he can create, the proportion of those chances hit the back of the net is usually luck1. In his big season, Brek Shea generated more shots than Davies did in his. Shea was 23, a mark against him, but the enormous regression to the mean he’s suffered was more than just running out of time to develop. Davies would be sure to regress as well: 53.3% goals from shots on target is just not sustainable. If anybody expects him to score at about the same rate in a better league he will be badly disappointed. Even Kei Kamara, whose breakout seasons in hindsight have very little of the smoke and mirrors, could not keep it up in England. Then he turned right back into a very good striker in MLS. MLS to Europe is a long way.

Spreadsheets have good news for Davies too. He had 11 assists this past year, tied for fourteenth in the league, and among “physical wide players” the class is him, Romell Quioto, and human regression magnet Julian Gressel. A big guy who can move the ball like Davies can is… there’s no point trying to estimate his worth, the league doesn’t produce them. You can compare Davies’s finishing to Shea’s but Davies provides so many other contributions, with his assists totals never impressing. Davies didn’t even get statistical padding from a hot teammate cashing in his feeds: Kamara, Yordi Reyna, and Cristian Techera did no better than you’d expect, and between them and Davies that’s pretty much the 2018 Whitecaps offense.

MLS flatters offensive talent. The best striker in league history is Bradley Wright-Phillips, a one-dimensional star who runs well and kicks hard and was exceptional in the English League One but on his best day couldn’t star higher up the pyramid. Davies has never had a season in MLS half as productive as Wright-Phillips’s worst full campaign. Wright-Phillips was a known quantity when he joined MLS and nobody yet knows how good Davies will be. Wright-Phillips is an out-and-out striker; Davies is a winger who played wingback when a sweater cut off circulation to Carl Robinson’s brain. Davies is taller, stronger, more useful in his own third. But the comparison holds value: ain’t nobody spending a king’s ransom on Alphonso Davies for his man-marking. He and Wright-Phillips are both attacking stars whose powers are based on speed and who look very good indeed against second-rate CONCACAF defenders.

We know Canadian-trained players can succeed at Bayern Münich: they once plucked a Calgary lad by the name of Owen Hargreaves2 who enjoyed great success. His transfer to Manchester United fetched Bayern what was then the club record fee, since bettered by Toni Kroos and Douglas Costa, and while injury took out his career soon enough he was a cult favourite everywhere and genuinely excellent when healthy3.

But for all the things we would call Owen Hargreaves, “pacey” is not one. He was successful at Bayern because he played soccer well, and he survived a lot more Canadian coaching that Davies did. A good sign for Davies, who spent his formative years in Ghana and landed in Edmonton needing at most a bit of finishing before he was professional-ready. The argument that Canadian coaching inherently ruins players is overblown, but even if you believe it it hasn’t got much to do with Davies.

My inclination towards Davies is cautiously optimistic. You really can’t teach height or speed, but more importantly you can’t teach work rate, and Davies has all three. If you compare Davies to the like of Juarez, who has proven he can get it done at a world-class level but really doesn’t give a damn anymore, you see how much that’s worth. Davies has tools and desire. We can’t see that he has everything else he needs but that’s two hurdles cleared.

Still, let’s not kid ourselves. Alphonso Davies is a talented young man who in the past year probably looked better than he really is. That doesn’t mean he won’t make it, but don’t be afraid to be cautious.

  1. “Luck,” in the statistical context, meaning “things that might have everything to do with the good things a player is doing, but that he can’t replicate year upon year.” A hot streak, you might call it.
  2. I am strangely moved to mention that, by the current FIFA rules, Alphonso Davies is cap-tied to Canada.
  3. Damn it all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *