When he first joined Spurs in 2014 most people thought he was being brought in to give competition to struggling first-choice left back Danny Rose. It soon became apparent that Pochettino’s aggressive system is particularly hard on fullbacks so having two serviceable options on either flank is essential.
What made the Davies-Rose competition interesting is that the two players offered very different skills. Davies is excellent on the ball and can play on the left side of a back three. Rose is able to get up and down the wing quickly, is a strong runner, and is very good at getting himself into goal-scoring positions.
Then something started to happen: Rose turned into the best or second best left back in the Premier League and one of the top six or seven in the world. Davies, meanwhile, seemed to stagnate. His lack of athleticism meant that he couldn’t cover as much ground as Rose and, like his opposite, backup right back Kieran Trippier, struggled to take on a man in space and beat him. He also began to struggle defensively, with the nadir perhaps coming last winter in the defeat at Anfield in which Sadio Mane flew by him time after time after time.
After Danny Rose gave his notorious Sun interview this summer, I think many of us were understandably worried that we were going to lose Kyle Walker and Rose in the same summer, leaving us with two fullbacks who are fine but not good enough to start regularly for a team with European aspirations.
So far this season Davies is proving the doubters wrong.
To be sure, he’s still limited athletically. It’s not a coincidence that his two best games this season have come against an immobile Everton and then against Dortmund’s Andriy Yarmolenko, a great player but not one renowned for his pace. When Spurs face Liverpool, City, or United, Rose is still the obvious best choice because of his superior pace.
But Davies has closed the gap between himself and his English international teammate. There are three things we’ve seen this season from him that suggest the Welsh fullback may be making something of a leap himself this season.
First, his delivery continues to be excellent.
This isn’t new for Davies. When he came from Swansea one of the main things people talked about was his delivery from wide areas. I’m not sure how many teams have their left back routinely standing over free kicks in dangerous positions, but it’s not hard to see why Spurs do. Davies has consistently gotten into dangerous positions on the left flank and provided excellent service into the box this season.
Second, the 3-5-2 has allowed him to push higher up and become more involved in the attack.
When you have a left back with good delivery who lacks pace, a four-man defense can limit his effectiveness. Due to the system, your fullbacks either need to be capable of getting up and down the wing quickly or they need to stay deeper to support the defenders. Because Davies is not fast, he had to stay deeper in the 4-2-3-1 than Rose, which limited what Davies could do in the attacking third.
With a 3-5-2 system that also deploys a converted center back in midfield, there is plenty of cover for Davies when he surges forward. Indeed, Eric Dier, Davinson Sanchez, and Toby Alderweireld are good enough that there is even opportunity for Jan Vertonghen to do his weird box-to-box center back thing.
What this has meant is that Davies has been able to consistently get into the 18 yard box to take shots and link up with the attacking band. He had one excellent look at goal yesterday from inside the box and, of course, scored a goal in the opening win against Newcastle.
Third, his defensive awareness has improved.
This is probably the most encouraging development. In years past, Davies would often be a bit of a defensive liability for several different reasons. Sometimes it was mostly athleticism, as against Liverpool, but sometimes he just switched off and lost a man or got caught ball-watching. That has not been a problem this year.
Yesterday’s game plan, particularly in the first half, appears to have been trying to sit deep, force the ball into wide areas, and absorb pressure. Once the ball was won, we wanted to break quickly and counter. It was Simeone-esque, really.
Such an approach is not how Spurs normally play. Our normal strategy is to simply eliminate opposition shot opportunities. We’re fourth in the league currently in shots allowed per match, trailing only Liverpool, Man City, and Man United. (However, of those three sides, only City has a lower xGA/Shot Against value, meaning the chances we do concede are far lower in quality than Liverpool’s and slightly lower than United’s.)
We are able to do this by pressing high and refusing to let the opposition keep the ball. Yesterday’s strategy of conceding possession, particularly in wide areas of the attacking third, demands a totally different defensive approach, especially from the back line. In normal games, we push up and break up play before it can even begin. Against Dortmund, we sat deep and broke up the final ball before the shot could be taken.
Here is a map of our clearances against Chelsea earlier this season (in red):
Now here is Dortmund:
By my count, that’s 20 clearances inside the danger zone in front of our own goal. We almost never have that many danger zone clearances. I don’t even remember the last time we would have had that many danger zone clearances. And here’s the impressive thing: Davies tied with new-boy Davinson Sanchez to lead the team with six clearances. This map shows only Davies’ clearances:
As you can see, five of his six clearances came inside the 18-yard box. So yesterday’s herculean effort from the defenders wasn’t just about Toby and Jan; it was about all five defenders.
People arguing that Davies is now a better fullback than Rose are not entirely correct. As was known at the time of Davies’ arrival in north London, the two players are extremely different. Davies should not be starting against fast, direct wingers like Mane or Leroy Sane. But the gap between Davies and Rose has shrunk. And in games where he doesn’t have to marshall a far more athletic winger, Davies is now a very good option for us at left back.