The debates within the Canadian soccer community began to rage before the ink had even dried on the contract.
When Alphonso Davies signed with Bayern Munich following a transfer from the Vancouver Whitecaps last summer, pundits and fans immediately began to question the merits of the move.
Is the Bundesliga the right league for Davies? How much playing time can he realistically expect to see with the Bavarian outfit? Will Bayern loan him out to another club? What kind of impact will he make in Germany?
That a rash of queries followed in the aftermath of Davies’ move to Bayern hardly came as a surprise. Still 17 at the time the transfer was completed, Davies is regarded as the brightest Canadian soccer prospect to come down the line in quite some time. Naturally, there is great interest – and concern – within Canadian soccer circles about the young winger’s career development.
What makes Davies so special, apart from his age, is the type of player he is, his player profile. Canadian soccer has a history of producing sturdy goalkeepers (Craig Forrest and Lars Hirschfield), stoic defenders (Jason de Vos and Kevin McKenna) and solid midfielders (Julian de Guzman and Hutchinson). It doesn’t have a track record of churning out dynamic goal scorers and technically gifted attackers. Developing creative players who are legitimate game breakers has never been Canada’s strong suit.
Davies, who turned 18 last November, is a notable exception. For someone so young, he demonstrates a lot of composure and maturity. He’s also a fleet-footed attacker, using his pace and skill on the ball to take on defenders one-on-one, and create a bit of magic with his probing runs. Solid in possession, the youngster combines creativity, mobility and strength into a tantalizing package.
Thus far, though, Davies has been limited to just five Bundesliga appearances – all of them off the bench, and totalling 56 minutes. He was also glued to the bench for both legs of Bayern’s round-of-16 series against Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League.
Davies has scored one goal for Bayern, in a recent 6-0 rout of Mainz in which he played 31 minutes, and both coach Niko Kovac and team sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic continue to sing the praises of their young Canadian star.
But with Bayern mired in a close title race – they trail first-place Borussia Dortmund by two points ahead of Saturday’s Der Klassiker and with only seven games left in the season – chances are that Davies will have to be content with the odd substitute appearance the rest of the way. Considering the Bundesliga crown hangs in the balance, Bayern is going to rely on experienced hands rather than inexperienced youngsters, so Davies will have to continue to be patient.
The good news is that the Bundesliga giants are keen to lower the average age of their squad, and veterans Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery are expected to leave the club at the end of the current campaign. So, Davies’ time could come next season, but even then he’ll face stiff competition for starts and regular playing tine from a number of Bayern’s other talented young internationals, including Serge Gnarby and Kingsley Coman.
Still, Canadian national team coach John Herdman, who has a vested interest in seeing Davies play as much as possible in the Bundesliga, believes the Canadian is benefitting immensely from just being at Bayern, even though he’s not playing much.
“I’m really happy with the opportunity he’s created for himself. I mean, he’s put himself into a very good club. He’s in the best environment to learn from. Alphonso is learning from some of the best players on the planet who have played in that position, in Ribery and Robben. Anything he can take at the age of 18 from players like that, that’s going to take him to the next level, and that next level might not come until he’s 20 or 21,” Herdman recently told Sportsnet.
That Davies hasn’t featured more prominently for Bayern doesn’t concern Herdman at the moment. He points to former Everton manager David Moyes, who brought a teenaged Wayne Rooney along slowly at the start of his career before he broke out at Manchester United, as an example of a manager properly handling a budding young star and not rushing him into regular first-team action before he’s ready.
Herdman believes Bayern’s handling of Davies has helped to keep the Canadian’s feet firmly planted on the ground, and that will greatly benefit his long-term development as a player.
“That’s one of the hardest things to do for young players; they go into their new clubs following a transfer with big hopes. What I’ve learned from the regular conversations I’ve had with Bayern Munich’s people – and they’re very happy with him and where he’s at – they’re well aware it’s a big adjustment for Alphonso, with the new language and culture,” Herdman said.
“What they’ve highlighted [Davies has to work on] is that confidence, that confidence to play freely when you’re playing with guys you only previously played with on FIFA . You have to play with yourself and fight through mistakes, and these are things he’s learning. When he gets that, it will only bring him to a next level for Canada when we play in more important games, including the Gold Cup and Nations League.”
Speaking of those two upcoming international tournaments, you can expect to see Davies take up his natural position as a winger, flanking Canada’s lone striker. Herdman deployed Davies as a left fullback, an area of the field in which Canada doesn’t have great depth, during the team’s first three matches of the Concacaf Nations League qualifying campaign.
But Davies’ future with the national team isn’t as a fullback, Herdman insisted.
“In games where we expected teams to defend deep, knowing there wouldn’t be much space in behind, we wanted him coming from deep and arriving onto things and on switches of play, rather than be the focal point for defences; having him in a chameleon-like role where he would appear in time and spaces where defenders were already preoccupied with other players,” Herdman explained.
“We’ve looked at him in deeper roles, like a fullback or wingback, but I think in the future in tougher matches, he’ll be deployed as a forward, and that’s his best position. You’ll see him higher up the field, giving us opportunities in transition.”