“With his speed he could be a very good 100 metres runner, another Usain Bolt,” Schalke 04 U19 manager Norbert Elgert.
“Meep meep meep meep’ the Bayern roadrunner comes ahead and steals the ball!” Thomas
Two separate quotes, with two slightly different ways of getting their point across, about two different players. But the same attribute as a theme in both – speed which almost no-one else playing football is capable of matching – about two footballers in Leroy Sané and Alphonso Davies that will not just be playing their football at the same club but on the same left flank next season.
Bayern, unlike the majority of Premier League full-backs since 2016, have now succesfully completed the pursuit of Manchester City star Sané, and will be planning ahead for a season where they can stick him in front of the most talked-about Canadian teenager since Justin Bieber.
The immediate word which springs (or more like sprints) to mind is pace, and in fairness, in this case it’s not entirely lazy to say that this is what will distinguish the pair from the various other elite winger/wing-back combinations in Europe at present.
Achraf Hakimi is a man who, to put it lightly, has a bit of a spring in his step, and it is generally the case that once the former Borussia Dortmund right wing-back peeled away from you, you could just give up trying to catch him and walk back to the center circle.
He was playing the game at a crawling pace against Davies in Bayern’s 1-0 win over Dortmund in May, where the Moroccan looked about as quick as a sleepwalking Nikola Žigi? against a young left-back who makes it his business to protect every last morsel of space behind him.
But Davies is not the first full-back ever to be fleet of foot, and what is obvious from his defensively rigid showing against Die Borussen as much as his frightening acceleration is his sense of positioning.
In much the same way that the Looney Tunes Road Runner’s impressive record of dropping pianos on Wile E. Coyote’s head was as much to do with his guile and timing as his turn of pace, the Bayern roadrunner’s intuitive knack for defensive positioning is what really stands out from that Dortmund game.
In the much tweeted and retweeted video of Davies catching up to Erling Braut Håland when the former is well behind the halfway line and the latter is bearing down on the final third, it’s not just the Canadian’s wheels which impress but his sense of steering and when to take his foot off the gas.
Davies slows his momentum just early enough to avoid conceding a penalty, but also just in time to get an arm in front of Håland and put him off, and by the time that the Norwegian is finally ready to shoot the entirety of his fellow wunderkind‘s body is in front of him.
He’s not all recovery runs and tidy tackling either, and despite not starting Bundesliga matches regularly until Hansi Flick’s installation as manager in November, his attacking numbers are up there with anyone else’s in the league – he had the second most successful dribbles in the league during the 2019/20 season, while only five more players put more crosses into the box than the youngster in the same period.
How does this ode to Alphonso Davies have any bearing on Sané, you might ask? Well, think about what those numbers mean for a winger playing in front of Davies.
The teenager can overlap, create chances from the flanks, effortlessly track back to recover the ball and disrupt a low block with his penetrative dribbling. In other words, he’s a winger’s dream, providing defensive cover and a dynamic partner to attack deep defences alongside, and for one winger who is looking to return to and surpass his peak, he could be just the tonic.
Leroy Sané in the 2017/18 edition of the Premier League was pretty good. Like, more goal contributions than Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Son Heung-min good.
As with Davies, the key to Sané was blistering pace, with a side of basically everything else.
If football was all about pace, Daniel James would be the best player in the Premier League. If football was all about pace and skilful dribbling, Adama Traoré would be the best player in the Premier League. If football was all about pace, skilful dribbling and pas– well, you get the point.
In 2017/18, Sané combined all the virtues of a top forward to win the PFA Young Player of the Year award, and delving deeper into the stats gives us a picture of just how significant his achievements were that year.
To begin with, a pretty simple one – the only player with more assists than Sané in the league was a Mr de Bruyne, and given the attacking talent that I’ve already mentioned that is no mean feat. But as well as ranking 10th in the league for succesful dribbles, Sané was scoring with a ludicrous 53% of his shots on target.
Anyone who remembers his second and Manchester City’s fifth against Liverpool at the Etihad that season, a curling left-footed effort which you’d need three goalkeepers to get near, will recall exactly how deadly he could be at his best, a perfect storm of creativity, high-speed dribbling and a lethal finishing touch.
Many will probably suspect that this was the best it would get for Sané, who amidst rumoured attitude problems with the German national team – which his former coach Elgert chalks down to misunderstandings about his body language – and having suffered an ACL injury in last August’s FA Community Shield, is in the most difficult period of his career.
In his move to Bayern, he’s arrived at a project and a team with the same ambitions as Manchester City’s, but in a more familiar environment where at worst he adds depth to an already formidable squad, and at best he takes an already fearsome attack to new heights.
Indeed, when Sané does regain match fitness, he has a very realistic route to a permanent starting berth – while he is still a valued player in Bavaria, Kinsley Coman has not been able to produce at the exact same standard that his colleague on the flanks Serge Gnabry has, and Sané at his best would blow the Frenchman’s numbers out of the water.
In Davies, Sané has a defensive rock to rely on who will contribute to alleviating much pressure – the German will be leaving no rookie exposed if he wanders out of position, and with a player so multi-talented behind him, he can afford to focus on the simpler aspects of his game until he gets up to speed.
Davies, too, has an opportunity to reap the benefits of Sané’s impending arrival – he’ll have a player who was a lynchpin in a side that won the Premier League with 100 points just a few yards in front of him after all – and learning to cater his passing to the intelligent movement and superfast reflexes of a former Pep Guardiola lieutenant may well be the biggest test of his career.
But should Sané get back to even 80% of capacity? And should Davies match his intensity and quick thinking? Well, Bundesliga defenders had better invest in some rollerblades.