Robert Lewandowski scores the goals, Manuel Neuer keeps them out, Joshua Kimmich ensures the team ticks, but is it actually Alphonso Davies that makes it all work for Bayern Munich?
The Bundesliga leaders have been without their left-footed Canadian since the start of the year after he was forced to take time off from training due to a mild heart condition. That has limited the 21-year-old to only 16 Bundesliga appearances totalling 1,269 minutes this season.
Davies is back for the run-in, however, after making his comeback in Bayern's UEFA Champions League quarter-final first leg against Villarreal. Although the six-time winners slipped to a 1-0 loss in Spain, Davies - who played the full 90 minutes - came up smelling of roses, topping the team stats for shots on goal (three), successful dribble attempts (seven) and challenges won (15).
Indeed, if you reduce it down to pure stats, Bayern are a better team with Davies in the side. They average 2.5 points per game with him this season (prior to Matchday 29) compared to 2.16 without, score substantially more goals when he’s played (3.25) than when he hasn’t (2.75), and also concede fewer (1.0 per game compared to 1.1 without).
“Of course, we miss Phonzy. He’s an important player for us,” head coach Julian Nagelsmann said after the 4-1 win against Greuther Fürth on 20 February 20222.
Perhaps a generic statement from a coach about any of his unavailable players, but the 34-year-old genuinely means it about Davies. And he’s been making similar such comments all year.
It’s because Davies’s impact goes much deeper than pure goals scored or conceded. And we’re not even talking about the jokester side of him we’ve seen on social media, which no doubt lifts a dressing room.
We’ve seen over the last couple of seasons exactly what Davies can do at both ends of the pitch. Bayern’s 2020 sextuple was only his breakthrough year, but we witnessed his speed to get past both 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. The likes of Lewandowski, Thomas Müller and Neuer have been doing their bit for years. The new boss wanted to take that all to the next level as a team.
A short pre-season meant Nagelsmann began the campaign in the classic 4-2-3-1 formation that has brought Bayern such great success over the last decade (nine straight Bundesliga titles, two continental trebles, etc.).
It started well and the defending champions were top again after 10 games with a monstrous 38 goals scored. Nagelsmann’s plan then was to slowly introduce the tactical flexibility he’d created at his previous teams, RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim. He’d managed to get them comfortable switching between back three and fours, both between matches and during them.
But as he got to know his squad, he recognised that Davies could give him the best of both worlds. The coach converted the Canadian into a hybrid left-back, utilising his speed and versatility.
Watch: Alphonso Davies discussing 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. When on the attack, he would be more of a wing-back or outright winger.
That was coupled with Leroy Sane moving infield from the left, creating a second No.10 alongside Müller. Benjamin Pavard, the nominal right-back and by nature less attacking than Davies, wouldn’t copy that move up the other side but stay back and form a three-man defence alongside the two centre-backs.
A 4-2-3-1 would therefore become more of a 3-2-4-1 in the blink of an eye, and with the slightest tweak.
The key behind all that is Davies’s speed. He’s Bayern’s fastest player this season at 22.4 mph (36.04 kmph) and actually the second fastest in Bundesliga history (since data collection began in 2011) at 22.6 mph (36.37 kmph).
The man dubbed the “FC Bayern Roadrunner” by Müller also averages the most sprints per game for the club this term (37) as he’s continuously got up and down that left flank. Even when out of position or the opposition counter, he has the pace to get back and recover, reforming that four-man defence.
Watch: Davies primed Bayern's final push
To give you an idea of what Davies’s presence in the team does to opponents: Of the 18 goals Bayern conceded in the first 18 matchdays, 56 per cent came down the right half of the pitch. The remaining 44 were on the Canadian’s half.
Fast forward now to 28 games played and those values have reached parity, meaning that the majority of the 11 goals conceded since have come down Bayern’s Davies-less left side. 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 allowed Sane – switched from the right to the left earlier in the season – to take up a freer role while still keeping the flank occupied.
Nagelsmann tried to maintain that tactic in Davies’s absence by deploying an attacking front four behind Lewandowski of Serge Gnabry, Müller, Sane and Kingsley Coman. It keeps the width and the two central playmakers.
However, he couldn't quite perfect his defence. Nagelsmann has said that Coman is undroppable on current form (in terms of attacking), but he and Gnabry are not natural wing-backs when called upon at the other end. One of the times Lucas Hernandez has been used as the left-back was the 4-2 defeat at Bochum – although it should be noted that result was not his fault.
Omar Richards has also been tried there, for example in the 4-1 win against Fürth, but he was replaced and the formation changed at half-time with Bayern trailing. Nagelsmann said he had been too isolated and the team had struggled to get him into space and create two-on-one situations.
The point is that Bayern – and actually very few teams around the world – have a player of Davies’s quality who allows them the sort 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 of the Bundesliga and also into the quarter-finals of the Champions League. The cogs are still whirring as the Bayern machine grinds on, but Nagelsmann will be delighted to have Davies back at the business end, allowing him to oil all the parts with the Canadian as the lever between attack and defence.
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