The heir to left-back David Alaba or the long-term successor to emeritus winger Arjen Robben? That is the question facing Bayern Munich, and the future direction of Alphonso Davies.
Still only 19, Davies is 12 months and counting into a deal dated until 30 June 2023. Such is the impression he has made in a touch over 20 first-team appearances in a Bayern shirt, it is fair to assume the club will renew terms with the Canada international long before then. If only a contract for life was an option…
"We signed Alphonso Davies a year ago because we saw him as one of the best players of his generation," Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidizic told Munich's Abendzeitung in November 2019. "We're delighted that this is now being confirmed with every game he plays. The fans have been waiting for a young player like him with such raw pace, technique and a physical presence. He can become a really important player for Bayern."
Watch: Alphonso Davies discusses his breakout season at Bayern
Some might say Davies already is, even if the ripening process has been accelerated by accident rather than design. In the space of one October 2019 week, serious injuries to first-choice central defensive pair Lucas Hernandez and Niklas Süle left Bayern desperately thin. Hamstring and rib troubles also forced Alaba to miss a few games around about the same time, leaving Davies to fill the void at left-back.
There was no madness to the method. Davies had been deployed in defence by Canada coach John Herdman on five occasions, and played 30 minutes of the 2018 MLS All-Star game against Juventus in the position before switching to Bayern. He even opened his Bundesliga account operating out of the role in a 6-0 rout of Mainz in March 2019. And while coach Niko Kovac lost his grip on the back of a 5-1 drubbing to Eintracht Frankfurt on Matchday 10, Davies cemented his.
Between late October and the end of the 2019/20 Hinrunde, Davies made 13 successive starts in all competitions on the left-hand side of Bayern’s back four. He produced four assists - including one 60-yard gallop and cute pass for Robert Lewandowski in Freiburg on Matchday 16 - while his average numbers for challenges won and pass completion are regularly pushing 60 and 90 per cent respectively. Stop-gap or not, he’s a natural.
“I’ve always been confident Davies can fulfil the role of left-back,” explained assistant-turned-interim coach Hansi Flick during the winter break. "He’s our get-out-of-jail-free card with his pace and strength to recover his position, and he’s a great passer of the ball. We’re hoping to see more moments like his assist for Lewy, and we want to develop him into an even better player. It’s about performances, but we’re certainly well equipped at left-back with him and David [Alaba]."
As Flick touched on, Davies is too good not to start on current form. The 54-year-old has also said how he is more than happy for Alaba, who "ticks all the boxes for a centre-half", to continue at the heart of the back four. Nevertheless, there will come a time when he has a full complement of defenders at his disposal.
Record signing Hernandez, for one, is up and running again following ankle surgery. Germany international Süle could still return before the campaign is out, barring complications. At the start of the campaign, those two, flanked by either Benjamin Pavard or Joshua Kimmich on the right and Alaba on the left, were regarded as Bayern’s strongest hand.
Hernandez can also play left-back as he did throughout France’s 2018 FIFA World Cup-winning campaign, and will only be 24 at the start of next season. Alaba is approaching 28, but has been spared any serious physical ailments. Club legend Philipp Lahm was 33 when he retired in 2017, though with no outward signs of his powers waning.
Davies might not have a clear run at Bayern’s left-back berth until he hits his perceived peak, a year or two after Canada have co-hosted the 2026 World Cup.
It’s not entirely beyond the realms of possibility that Davies skips the queue but, in the interim, Bayern have a decision to make. Even if he’s not considered first-choice in the left-back area with everyone fit, 'Kid Canada' has surely outgrown the U23s team - metaphorically at least - and there’s only so long a player can spend on the bench before regressing.
A short-term loan to another Bundesliga club could be part of the masterplan. Alaba, Lahm and Toni Kroos dipped their toes in the Bayern senior team before being farmed out to Hoffenheim, VfB Stuttgart and Bayer Leverkusen respectively; all returned with a vengeance.
Alternatively, Davies goes back to where it all began.
Davies has made nine appearances in one of the wing positions for Bayern, albeit all as a substitute (three on the right, six on the left). Compare that to 11 of 17 senior internationals and 65 Major League Soccer outings in an advanced attacking role. Installed as left-back against Borussia Dortmund on Matchday 11 of 2019/20, he completed more passes than any other player (44 of 47) - two of which resulted in shots on goal - and three of four dribble attempts. You can take the boy out of the attack, but not the attack out of the boy.
"My mindset growing up was attack, attack, attack, but now it’s defend, defend, defend," he told the Edmonton Sun in December 2019. "It's different because now when I want to go forward, I have to be aware of the guys behind me. If I get caught with a long ball, I could be in big trouble. I'm playing the game as a defender right now, and hopefully one day they put me up top."
From the outside looking in, that was where Bayern saw Davies when he made the switch from Vancouver Whitecaps. The most successful era in the club’s history had been shaped by two wide men without equal in Robben and Franck Ribery. Respective 10- and 12-year stints yielded nine Bundesliga titles, six DFB Cups and the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League, before the pair bowed out at the end of 2018/19, leaving an indelible mark on football, Bayern and a certain Canadian.
"When I first walked into the locker room at Bayern, the first person I saw was Robben — I couldn’t believe it. 'Is that really him?' So I started staring at him. I shouldn’t have done that but I started staring at him, Davies recalled. "He was my favourite player as a kid, and is an absolute role model. His left foot was unbelievable. I watched him play while growing up. Those were great moments. I miss him."
Davies spent less than six months in the company of Robbery, predominantly on the training pitches at Säbener Straße. Recurring injuries had restricted Robben to nine league appearances during the first half of 2018/19, and only three from the bench following Davies’ arrival. "I’m no longer a youngster of 16 who has no idea what injures can do to you," he conceded after announcing 2018/19 would be his last as a footballer. Teacher and student did not get the opportunity to link up on the field of play.
Ribery’s body was the marginally more resilient. The Frenchman featured 25 times in the Bundesliga in 2018/19, eventually departing for Fiorentina despite turning 36 earlier in the year. Davies played in the same team as the 2013 European Player of the Year once - the 6-0 win against Mainz on 17 March 2019, when he became Bayern’s first scorer born in the 2000s and their youngest in almost 20 years with a well-taken goal in a crowded penalty area, on his weaker right foot.
It was the kind of strike Robben had the pleasure of putting away when he wasn’t waltzing in off the right-hand touchline and bending an arced finish into the corner of the opposition goal. Davies hasn’t patented his signature move just yet, but he shares the pace, hunger, trickery, and cultured left foot that gave the Flying Dutchman wings. All that, plus a leggy gait befitting an Olympic gold medal-winning hurdlist.
"Davies possesses qualities that you rarely see in the Bundesliga - he’s certainly one of the fastest players I’ve ever seen, maybe even the quickest," commented Salihamidzic following the Canadian’s historic goal-scoring cameo against Mainz. "He can play anywhere the coach wants him to. He's not only one for the future, but one for the here and now - he's a real diamond."
Watch: Relive Davies' milestone Bundesliga strike against Mainz
Other Bayern players of a similar ilk have been spoken about in similarly effusive tones. Serge Gnabry assumed the Robben role on the right wing for the majority of the 2018/19 campaign, collecting 10 goals and five assists in the Bundesliga alone and the record champions’ Player of the Season gong. Bayern’s first-choice right winger by a distance, the Germany international is on track to top those numbers in 2019/20 - only his second season at the club.
On the opposite flank, Kingsley Coman has long been touted as the next in line to Ribery. The Frenchman perhaps boasts more of a natural flair in the one-on-ones than Gnabry, but cannot escape a chequered injury past. The former Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus tyro has totalled just 96 Bundesliga appearances since moving to Bayern in summer 2015, producing 16 goals and 18 assists. Gnabry’s already approaching 60 combined, and hasn’t even reached 100 German top-flight outings - though he isn’t immune to physical toils either.
Injuries are a natural part of football, but set-backs of a more serious variety appear to be just that little bit more common and frequent in wingers than they are for other players. Robben’s Achilles heel was actually his groin; Ribery maxed out at 263 days on the sidelines after one of multiple ankle surgeries; Coman said as recently as December 2018 that a fourth ankle op could end his career. Being able to run with a football at speeds in the region of 21mph and tie opposition defenders in knots at the highest level can be a double-edged sword.
Without tempting fate, Davies has been spared the sharp edge of the blade since making history as the second-youngest player in history to play in Major League Soccer at 15 years, eight months and 15 days. His longest absence to date stretched three games owing to a twisted knee. All but two of the Bundesliga matches he has started for Bayern, he has finished. Coman, by contrast, has only gone the distance in 36 per cent of his.
Logic would suggest Davies will have opportunities to strut his stuff on the Bayern flanks - and there’s a strong probability it will be in front of Alaba - not beside him - on the left.
A Davies-Alaba tandem is a tantalising prospect. Two attack-minded, but defensively versed left-touchline-hugging raiders over- and underlapping, and generally making a real nuisance of themselves. It would be just a little bit of history repeating.
Alaba was 16 when he struck up the makings of a lasting friendship with Ribery - nine years his senior - and the pair's off-the-pitch rapport soon translated into one of the Bundesliga's most potent partnerships on it, with the duo enjoying an innate understanding of the other's moves and intentions on the left flank.
The Austrian, who became Bayern’s youngest-ever player when he made his debut at 17 in 2010, is now lending an empathetic ear and applying the 'do unto others' approach to his work with Davies.
"I was thrown in at the deep end very early, maybe even younger," Alaba told Sport1. "So it's nice to see him swimming so freely! He is doing really, really well.
"He's a boy who wants to develop, who listens and can be guided in training sessions. He's a player who is very brave, and he improvises well. You need that at the top level these days and he really does it very well."
Like must attract like. As well as the Alaba-esque instinct to create overloads in the final third, break-neck speed and unbridled willingness to recover his position and make tackles, Davies has that self-same infectious pride in others and enthusiasm you cannot teach.
He celebrates every team goal as if he has scored the winning penalty in a World Cup final, and has already showed signs of taking some of Bayern's newest squad members under his wing. When 18-year-old Dutch forward Joshua Zirkzee scored with his first touch for the second time in as many matches against Wolfsburg in December 2019, the Edmonton ace was first on the scene to congratulate him.
"We saw how it went for Joshua Zirkzee, he got his chance and scored two goals in two matches," Davies told the Bayern website. "I didn't expect to be playing left-back, but FC Bayern give young players a chance to play, and I'm glad about it."
Teenaged wingers Oliver Batista Meier and Leon Dajaku could be next in line, after being promoted from the reserves late in 2019. They already know Davies relatively well from the B-side ranks, and will only benefit from working day in, day out with the Canadian in the months and years ahead - even if could be one of the players blocking their route into the Bayern team of the future.
The exact positioning of Davies' piece in the Bayern puzzle is up for discussion, though the laws of probability would suggest he will - as long as Gnabry is fit and firing - line-up as left-back, left-wing-back or left winger.
By Davies' own admission, he "didn't expect to be playing left-back" after a year at the club. The Bayern No.19 also "hopes to be given the chance to play up top some day". Perhaps he should have seen this coming.
"He could be like any other attacking full-back," Canada international Doneil Henry - Davies' former Whitecaps teammate - told The Province. "You can see it in Marcel de Jong, you can see it in Dani Alves - these guys were wingers before. It’s not that it takes away from their game, because you still see them bombing up the pitch.
"But that’s the modern-day full-back. You’re basically an attacking winger. Is it killing Phonzie’s game? Not at all. He’s learning a position. He’s understanding the movements of a full-back, so that when he’s playing as a winger, he understands what he needs to do.
"You have to see it from both sides and you have to understand, with a skill set as wide as Phonzie’s, wherever he is, he’s going to be a danger. The great thing about it is Phonzie is able to play positions that could potentially be his best position — he just doesn’t know it yet."
It's a welcome riddle for player and club. The good news is being left-back doesn't have to blunt Davies' influence going forward, in much the same way that playing higher up the pitch won't leave Bayern wanting defensively.
First-team prospects in the short, medium and long term are enhanced either way - and the record champions are laughing, safe in the knowledge that the talents of one of North American soccer's most prized exports are not going to waste. Left-back, left wing, happy days.
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