Versatility, calmness are key for Canada’s ‘Iceman’ Jonathan David

Cuba goalkeeper Sandy Sanchez (1) looks on as Canada forward Jonathan David (20) vies for the ball against Cuba defender Yosel Piedra (6) during second half of CONCACAF Nations League play at BMO Field in Toronto, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. (Cole Burston/CP)

TORONTO — There is one noticeable takeaway from the all-time scoring list for the Canadian men’s national team. Nineteen-year-old Jonathan David, who made his senior debut in September 2018, is already in the top 10 with 11 goals.

David is now 12 goals away from breaking Dwayne De Rosario’s record. There are at least three matches remaining on Canada’s 2019 fixture list, so he should pull closer before the year is over.

The teenage forward scored in Canada’s 6-0 win over Cuba at BMO Field on Saturday, although he could’ve finished the night with a bigger haul. He was a post away from doubling his tally in the second half and had a couple of other opportunities that were hastily cleared by the Cuban defence.

David has scored most of his Canadian goals against Concacaf “minnows” like Cuba, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Dominica and French Guiana. But he also notched the opener in the Gold Cup quarterfinals against Haiti and assisted Lucas Cavallini in a 3-1 loss to Mexico in the group stage.

He was a menace for the Mexican defence when he entered the match as a substitute. Prior to the goal, David pressed Mexico’s Nestor Araujo, forced the turnover and set up Cavallini for a tap-in, all thanks to the youngster’s anticipation and awareness.

David created a goal for himself in a similar fashion versus Martinique in Canada’s opening game at the Gold Cup as well.

“I remember the first training session,” Herdman recalled from before the 2018 Toulon Tournament. “We had just come out of Murcia and we said, ‘We’ve never seen a player as clean.’ We had those players in camp in Murcia, who were all senior players. Then this kid in Toulon, we went, ‘He’s better than what we’ve seen in that camp.'”

Even at the Concacaf U-17 Championship in 2017, David’s movement and goal-scoring threat were discernible when he was still playing for his youth club in Ottawa.

“His understanding was right up there and this was him as a 17-year-old,” Herdman said. “I think he’s one of those forwards that can play anywhere in the front three and I think that’s the beauty of him. He’s just got a real high IQ. With that, he’s not going to get locked into one role.”

David has played in a variety of positions for Gent this season. He’s been deployed as a right winger who’s allowed to cut inside and dictate the game centrally, or as a second striker in a front two.

The majority of David’s minutes with Gent last season were spent in the latter role. He finished the campaign with 0.51 goals per 90 minutes (Gp90) and an expected goals per 90 (xGp90) of 0.34, which are solid returns. Only Jovan Stojanovic recorded a stronger Gp90 and xGp90 than David among all second strikers in the Belgian First Division in 2018-19.

Only three others – including Stojanovic – had a superior xGp90.

David’s heat map and stat radar from the 2018-19 Belgian First Division. (via Wyscout)

A notable improvement so far this year for David is his distribution. His dribbling remains effective, but he’s far more integral to Gent’s buildup.

David’s passing stats in all competitions for Gent. (via Wyscout)

That increase can be attributed to David starting regularly and a slightly smaller sample size of 946 minutes. However, the added positional versatility is surely a contributing factor, too.

“I think it helps me a lot because when you are a versatile player, that means you can adjust to any position and any situation,” David explained. “If I want to stay deep and just make runs in behind, I can also [do it]. If I want to come in, combine and be in the pockets, I can also do that because I have experience playing as a 10. I think it helps me a lot in different situations on the pitch.”

In Gent’s 2-1 win over Rijeka in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League playoff, David started as a right winger. He occasionally drifted inside but largely stuck to the flank.

David’s passes (left) and passes received vs. Rijeka. (via Wyscout)

David was deployed up front with Laurent Depoitre for the second leg and in the subsequent 3-2 victory over Cercle Brugge in the league right before the international break.

As expected, David’s contributions versus Cercle Brugge were spread across the pitch since he occupied those central spaces and had freedom to roam.

David’s passes (left) and passes received vs. Cercle Brugge. (via Wyscout)

That flexibility will behoove David for both club and country, especially as he continues to grow as a footballer.

“When you’re an out-and-out No. 9, you’ve really got to dig out a career because with the amount of analysis now, if you’re a one-position player, after the second game, people know you,” Herdman said. “They know every movement you make and they know the cues and the triggers on those movements.

“His timing is so clean. … He makes things predictable for people, but not predictable for the opposition.”

David was involved in all three goals for Gent against Cercle Brugge, contributing two goals and an assist in the victory. His trademark composure and off-the-ball movement were on full display.

It’s evident David has that keen sense every clinical finisher possesses. Even as he was bearing down on goal on Saturday night, he was one step ahead of the Cuban defence.

“I remember just making eye contact with Mark-Anthony [Kaye] and he played the ball in behind, and the ball was a bit behind me so I had to take the touch the way I did,” David explained. “After that, I saw the defender coming on my left side. So I took it around him, took a touch, another touch, and then I found myself inside the box. From there I saw the defender close to me, and I said to myself, ‘If I shoot now, I think he’s going to block it for sure.’ So what I did, I just decided to fake the shot to see what happens. And he slid, and then after that the net was wide open. And I just shot and I scored.”

“I think what I like about Jonathan is he’s so grounded.” Herdman boasted. “I call him ‘The Iceman.’ He’s just deadpan.”

“This is the way I am,” David said when asked about his new nickname. “I am always someone who is calm, so I don’t get excited or too nervous for stuff. I just stay neutral and I think that helps me a lot.”

As David continues to turn heads, the message remains the same: Just keep playing regularly.

“I just hope that Jonathan stays and plays at the right time,” Herdman stated. “I keep saying we go after things too soon. Just let it come to you. It’s going to come. It looks like he’s enjoying his football. He is scoring, but it’s the minutes that are important. He’s got to keep honing his craft and you can’t do that from the bench.”

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