Saturday, January 29, 2022

Jonathan David: The Lille modern super forward who went from amateur to top transfer target in four years

By now you will have undoubtedly heard the name Jonathan David. A goalscoring marvel in France, at the vanguard of the rise of Canadian football and a regular feature in transfer columns: he is firmly established in the rarefied air of next big things. A star of the present. A potential superstar of the future.

In the modern era these players do not usually arrive near fully formed. Even when they are in academies their names are whispered, multi-million dollar transfer fees the norm even before they have played a professional game. Not David.

It is just short of four years since the Canada international made the move to professional football, joining Gent. Prior to that he had been playing at an amateur level with Ottawa Internationals. He had “only one goal: to get to Europe”, as he put it on arriving at his current club Lille. Before he was even a teenager that was the ambitious goal he had set himself and one he would stick to rigidly, even offers to go professional in the MLS at 16 could not sway him from his path.

“I always felt he could go and do the things he has done,” says Hanny El-Maghraby, the youth coach who David credits with making him the player he is today. “Between me and him it was always just the reality, this is where you’re going and we’re going to work every day as if that is the end point.

“To make it that far from here you need more than talent and skill. It’s the attitude, the humility, his willingness to trust and listen. There are many points along the way where he could have made other decisions that would have altered his course. He was willing to stay away from the distractions; that’s not a quality everyone has. He knew what he wanted to do. Nothing else matters.

“We weren’t trying to realize a dream. There was an objective that we were going to reach. It has not surprised me how well he has done. It was always the view and objective that he would be where he is today. So it does not surprise me but every time I see him on that stage doing the things he is doing of course it is surreal.”

That is certainly a fair word to describe David’s fulfilling of those lofty ambitions. In a league that includes Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and a certain Lionel Messi it is David who leads the scoring charts with 12 goals for Lille across 1366 minutes (a little over 15 full matches).

Crucially it is not as though he is just filling up on numbers against relatively lower tier opponents. His Champions League group stage campaign brought three goals as the unfancied French champions advanced to the last 16, setting the stage for a round of 16 tie with Chelsea that could further thrust him into the spotlight.

Across Europe’s top five leagues he ranks eighth in goals scored so far this season with 12 and ninth in expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes, 17th for non-penalty xG. Impressive numbers indeed, all the more considering how infrequently he manages to get shots away. One of the continent’s top scorers this season, his numbers are all the more impressive when you note how few shots he is managing for Lille during what has been a stuttering defense of their Ligue 1 crown. David scarcely scrapes Europe’s top 200 for shots per 90 minutes, his tally of 2.38 slightly fewer than West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen or Lyon midfield Houssem Aouar.

Low shot volume and high xG stems from one of David’s most impressive traits, his ability to find space in the penalty area to get a shot away. The bulk of his goals and indeed his shots have come from within the 18 yard box, roughly around the width of the goal posts, generally the ideal positions from which to score.

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Where Jonathan David has taken his shots from in Ligue 1 and the Champions League this season. The size of the bubble reflects its xG value TruMedia

So far so orthodox, but David’s game goes beyond finishing, something which has never been more crucial to a striker at the top level. For most of the sport’s history most of its teams had such a clear answer to that question that it still feels faintly ludicrous to be asking it now. Get ball. Put ball in net. Leave the rest up to everyone else.

It is the most decisive job on the pitch, perhaps the hardest. That should be enough for any player. For some managers it is not anymore. One need only glance at the Premier League’s top four where two No.9s — Alexandre Lacazette and Roberto Firmino — play facilitating roles for wide forwards who operate in more advanced areas while another, Gabriel Jesus, has been repurposed as a winger in a side that let its one true striker go unreplaced in the summer.

If you want a forward that can do more then David ticks a fair few additional criteria you might have in mind. According to Statsbomb data from the last year he ranks in the 90th percentile of forwards across Europe’s top five leagues in two categories: non-penalty goals and pressures. The 21 year old is a tyro without the ball, in Ligue 1 this season no center forward has recovered possession more frequently for their side.

Often played as a more withdrawn second striker of Burak Yilmaz during his time at Lille, David has shown in passages of play such as this against Wolfsburg that he has an excellent reading of the game.

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David waits for a pass to intercept in Lille’s Champions League tie against Wolfsburg Wyscout/Sky Sport

As Yilmaz chases down Maxcence Lacroix David tracks Joshua Guilavogui, presuming that under such fast moving pressure the Wolfsburg center back will look to get the ball away as quickly as possible. Not only does the Canada international beat his opponent to the initial pass but he then proceeds to hare after the ball when it breaks free, forcing Koen Casteels to boot the ball long.

Getting young players to buy into off the ball work can often take time but for David it took root early on, inspired by the football he was watching from afar. “Our model in 2011 was Barcelona: the possession and the pressing,” says El-Maghraby of David’s days at youth level, which saw his Ottawa Internationals youth team entered into the men’s league to challenge them more. “What they were trying to do was what we were working to implement at the time: pressing, winning the ball back, pass angles, they were all things we worked on heavily when he was with us.

“He has the willingness to do it and the intelligence. It all falls together when you have those attributes.”

Not everything David does well shows up on the stats sheet. While his numbers for key passes, progressive passes and expected assists all reflect well on his contribution away from goal, what you do not see in the numbers are the off ball runs in which he drags defenders away to free up lines of attack for teammates.

He runs hard and in doing so takes defenders with him. In the closing minutes of a 0-0 draw with Lyon he drives forward with such explosiveness that full back Damien Da Silva feels compelled to follow, freeing up the flank for Gabriel Gudmundsson to charge forward.

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David’s off ball running makes space for Gudmundsson Wyscout/Blue Sport

In a 2-1 win over Troyes, opposition center back Oualid El Hajjam seems to be laser focused on Yilmaz with David some way behind the attack. Then a burst of pace from the Lille No.9 and El Hajjam finds himself drawn to the man attacking his near post, opening up space for Yilmaz at the back. It should be noted that the Troyes center back does quite well excellently to block Jonathan Ikone’s cross; he has to be that good under such pressure.

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David’s late run into the box draws attention away from Yilmaz Wyscout

El-Maghraby notes: “What you’re seeing from him right now in terms of how he connects with teammates, lays off the ball and is a team player in the build up, that is something he has done for a while.”

There is room to grow in his work to bring teammates into play. Watching from afar El-Maghraby can see work being done by David to develop into a forward who can impose himself on defenders without another center forward alongside him, to play with his back to goal and hold possession up for teammates. He does not win many of his aerial battles; if he were to move to England those struggles might be even more pronounced. Similarly those who know David well note he has been working hard on the training ground to improve his scoring from outside the box.

It is fair to assume he is well aware of those weaknesses. “His biggest strength is his tactical understanding of the game,” says one source who has seen him develop throughout the course of his career in Europe.

He himself explained it to Soccerbible as a desire to do more than just shine in the spotlight: “To be honest, I’m not really looking to be the headline player. I’m a striker, so my job is to score goals. And, as everyone knows, attackers usually get the glory.

“But in my positioning and in my movement, I’m thinking about what’s going to help the team, not just to make myself a hero. Of course I want to have good stats, but that’s not the starting point.”

Words to impress those managers watching on, mulling a transfer. There are plenty of them.

In a summer that is expected to be dominated by striker movement David will be among those on the move. His agent, Nick Mavromaras, confirmed as much last month, telling Radio Canada: “For us, the goal is to finish the season in Lille, but it will be his last season there for several reasons. I think the Premier League is a good option for him.

“I think that he likes Spain a lot also because he likes the feeling of the ball and the very technical players. These two leagues are a big priority for him, but nothing is excluded.”

Lille believe they can hold on to their No.9 until the end of the season at least, the chance to test himself against Chelsea offering a strong incentive for David to stay put. Come the summer his club are sure to drive a hard bargain and it will help their cause that there are numerous sides who have closely followed his progress. At Liverpool he is viewed as a potential successor to Firmino and at 21 could freshen up a frontline that is hitting its thirties at the same time.

Arsenal, meanwhile, will be in the market for a new striker this summer and have admired David since his time at Genk. His versatility marks him out as a potentially significant upgrade on Lacazette, another who brings the best out of those around him but who is out of contract in the summer. Should Barcelona’s finances allow them to afford a sizeable asking price then they would be a tempting offer for a youngster who grew up admiring European football — and in particular Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry — from afar.

Whoever wins the race the likelihood is that David will start the 2022-23 season as a marquee striker for a top European club. Five years before he was still an amateur. It is a rise few could have imagined. David is one of those who could.

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