This season, the Vancouver Whitecaps have experimented with Alphonso Davies in a left back role. The fan reaction to this has been, to put it mildly, less than positive. With this in mind, I think it’s worth looking into whether or not this is a good thing. There are two aspects of this problem that must be considered. First, whether it is good for Davies’ development to play at left back. Second, whether or not it improves the team. This article will examine both of these points.
A common argument against playing Davies at left back is that it hurts his development. It is generally argued that the Whitecaps should look to primarily nurture his attacking talents in order to help him reach his potential. We will deal with this point only briefly because I do not take it particularly seriously. When you listen to interviews with Davies, it is clear that Carl Robinson still wants him to be an attacking force when he plays at left back. In an interview with AFTN, Davies said that his instructions are more or less to just go up and down the flank. It’s not like they’re asking him to play defense-first. They still want him to bomb forward. Furthermore, I think that it’s likely that a wing back role is in Davies’ future. He’s a defensively responsible player who still has talent going forward and these players are in demand at the moment. I see Davies becoming a Victor Moses type player who plays as a wing back for his club and in more of a pure attacking role for his country. I can sense the cynicism to this comparison. Is Victor Moses really the bar we want to set for our generational talent? To this I say that Victor Moses was a regular starter for a side that won the Premier League and is an important part of a team that qualified for the World Cup. If Davies achieves either of those things in his career I think we can call it a success. Thus, playing Davies at left back does not negate his ability to develop his offensive ability, nor does it hinder his career prospects.
The other aspect of Davies playing left back is the tactical one. Typically when Davies is moved back, it is to accommodate Brek Shea in a more pure attacking role. I often see people lament moving Davies further back (including myself if you look through my tweets). The orthodoxy states that you should have your best players closest to the opposition’s goal. Honestly though, I understand the rational for playing Davies and Shea as a tandem down the left side. The way that most goals are scored in soccer is through achieving an overload in some part of the pitch. The Whitecaps are somewhat lacking in quality down the middle so playing two attacking players on the wings to overload the fullbacks is not a terrible strategy. Davies has the pace to join the attack and to get back and defend, so the rational for the Davies/Shea combo is not unreasonable. The only question that remains is whether or not it actually works in practice.
In 119 minutes with Davies at left back and Shea at left wing the Whitecaps have scored two, conceded two, had 17 shots for, and conceded 13 shots. Looking at this data it would seem that the effect of playing Davies and Shea at the same time is negligible. The Whitecaps produce about the same number of shots and goals as they allow with Davies and Shea on the left. It is worth noting that both of the goals that have been scored with the duo together on the left have been by Shea and Davies was involved in the buildup of Shea’s goal against Real Salt Lake. Of the 17 shots generated only three of them were by Shea or Davies with two of the three being Shea goals.
To really understand this data we must compare it to the Whitecaps as a whole over the season. The Whitecaps have played 661 minutes, scored 8, conceded 11, had 58 shots and conceded 88. To make this information a little easier to compare let us break it down into the average shots/goals per 90 minutes.
Comparison (All figures rounded to one decimal place)
- The Whitecaps average 1.1 goals per 90 overall and 1.5 per 90 when Davies and Shea are playing together on the left.
- The Whitecaps average 8 shots per 90 overall and 12.6 per 90 when Davies and Shea are playing together on the left.
- The Whitecaps concede an average of 1.5 goals per 90 overall and concede the same amount when Davies and Shea are playing together on the left.
- The Whitecaps concede an average of 12 shots per 90 overall and 10 per 90 when Davies and Shea are playing together on the left.
All-in-all things do improve a bit with Davies and Shea together on the left. The Whitecaps produce marginally more goals with the duo playing together and take significantly more shots. Defensively they concede about the same number of shots and exactly the same amount of goals. That being said though the sample size is small and even then the difference is fairly marginal. Based solely on the eye test I think this strategy might work better if the ‘Caps kept a bit more possession. It seems to me that because they don’t have the ball all that much Davies is always forced to drop deep and cover. If they had =/>60% possession then Davies could roam forward more and we could see that left side overload do a bit more damage. This, however, is pure conjecture and I have no way of showing it would actually work out this way.
Meh, it’s a thing they can do I guess.