Breaking down Jonathan David's game and exploring how the CanMNT can continue to get more out of him going forward
Over the last few years, Jonathan David has quickly become one of the key contributors on this CanMNT team. In this, I look at how so, before seeing how they can get even more out of him.
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Due to his unique skill set, he remains such an intriguing player on so many fronts.
But that’s Jonathan David for you. Everywhere he goes, he just finds a way to score goals, yet he remains quite misunderstood as a player, as despite being one of the best #9s in CONCACAF right now, he’s far from your typical striker.
On paper, he lines up as a striker, and scores goals like a striker, yet it feels wrong to base his game purely on goals, which just happen to be a bonus of the tireless work he does to help his team win games.
So while he’s been one of the more prolific strikers in Ligue 1 these past 2 seasons, scoring 21 goals in 50 games in France’s top flight since moving there back in 2020, it’s hard to describe him as a #9, showing how unique of a player he is.
From the work that he does off of the ball, including defensively and in possession, to his play on it, including his passing and hold-up play, combined with his finishing, he does it all for his team up front, showing why he’s been a crucial part of the successes of his professional clubs, KAA Gent and Lille, as well as for the CanMNT.
Plus, most impressive from David is his remarkable consistency as a player, because while the goals will go dry for games at times, something that happens to everyone, David can remain useful through those droughts, showing why it feels unfair to just suggest that his game is all about scoring.
Because of that, it’s made him a very misunderstood player in some circles.
One such example is when he suits up for Canada, where he’s obviously expected to score goals as one of the team’s #9s, and considering that he’s got 17 goals in 22 games for his country, he’s obviously done that, but even then, many still wonder if he could have more to give in a Canadian shirt.
And to be fair, it’s certainly something that isn’t unfair to suggest, especially as of late, where he’s scored just 2 goals in his last 8 games for Canada heading into the start of the November international window, but at the same time, the good news is that despite that, he’s managed to stay useful for his team over that period.
Plus, there are ways that Canada could get more out of David's skill set, too, so while David will want to step up here and properly bust his slump for Canada, he’s also been played in some positions that aren’t necessarily the best for him, including as a lone #9 in a 4-3-3.
If there’s one thing that’s clear, is that David’s best position is as a second striker, which he plays for Lille, as he’s at his best when he’s just operating underneath someone, allowing him to drift into certain pockets.
And the good news? Canadian head coach John Herdman is starting to realize that now, deploying David in a 2-man strikeforce alongside Alphonso Davies (and later Tajon Buchanan) in the last game of their October camp, a 4-1 win over Panama, one where David had a very productive game, scoring 1 goal and adding 1 assist.
So seeing that, I went back and rewatched that Panama game, looking to better understand what worked so well for David in that game, and what Canada might want to consider when it comes to getting the most out of him.
Here’s some of what I found.
His tireless work defensively is key:
And to start, it’s only right to begin by looking at the work that he does defensively, because while it might not pop out right away, it’s such a key part of his game.
At Lille, for example, he’s a fiend on the press, actually sitting in the 92nd percentile in pressures and 93rd percentile in successful pressures among all forwards in the top 5 leagues and European Competition in the last 365 days (as per Football Reference).
So seeing that, it’s no surprise to see that sort of play translates over to Canada, where he has no problem leading his team in their press, which for those who are unfamiliar with how Canada plays, is quite aggressive.
Just take a look back at a few clips from the Panama game to get an idea of how he does that.
Despite having played 175 minutes in the week before that game, which along with the travel between Lille, Mexico City, Kingston Toronto, should’ve left him bone-tired, he still found the legs to apply pressure at every opportunity, showing his willingness to defend.
And what’s most interesting for David is what he views as a pressing opportunity.
On some occasions, he remained passive, instead just choosing to move laterally and block passing lanes, sensing that his opponents were in control of the ball, knowing that in that case, the best move is to save energy and funnel them into one of Canada’s traps.
But then, when he senses the opportunity to put his opponent under pressure, he pounces, helping his team win back the ball in some key areas.
Just look at this next clip as an example. Sensing that Panama might be under a bit of pressure, David turned on the jets and forced them to turn the ball over, leading to a decent counter-attacking opportunity.
It didn’t amount to anything, but that it all started with a nice sprint from David, one that shows why he’s among the best in Europe at applying pressure in those sorts of situations.
And that’s just one among many examples. Here’s another one of them.
In this clip, David and Davies do well to push up the field when they realized that Panama might be slacking off, forcing them into a risky pass. To give credit to Panama, they played right through the press with a nice pass, which happens, but all throughout the night, they often misplayed that sort of pass, so in this case, it was just a good gamble from David and Davies that didn’t pay off as they would’ve hoped it to.
And just take this next clip as an example of one of the situations where it did end up paying off for Canada.
Here, right after a goal kick, David does well to turn on the jets and force the ball right back to Panama’s goalkeeper, Luis Mejia, who wasn’t so comfortable with his feet as his teammates were, and it showed here, as David did well to force him into a change of possession.
There are many clips like this, so I won’t bore you with all of them, but all of this just shows how important pressing is for David, who most certainly doesn’t take the responsibility lightly.
A lot of strikers don’t like to do that dirty work, but not David, who seems to feed off of it, knowing that it helps his team win, and that’s just one of the many little things that he does so well as a striker.
His linkup play is crucial:
But while defence is certainly a big part of David’s game, the thing he might be best at is his linkup play, which is where he certainly distinguishes himself from other strikers.
Be it from deeper positions, where he likes to drop into, or from up front as more of a true #9, David just loves to get touches on the ball in build-up sequences whenever possible, doing his best to help destabilize defensive blocks.
And he’s pretty good at it, too. When looking at his FBref charts, he’s in the 92nd percentile in pass completion percentage, 90th percentile in short passes completion percentage, 85th percentile in medium passes completion percentage and 89th percentile in long passes completion percentage, showing his ability to complete all sorts of passes to his teammates.
Along with his ability to generate key passes, where he sits in the 78th percentile, and passes into the final third, where he sits in the 77th percentile, he also does a good job of turning some of those passes into dangerous opportunities for his teammates, too, which is huge.
And when looking back at the Panama game, you can see why he sits among the best forwards in Europe in terms of his passing numbers, as he just does a good job of looking for the sorts of plays you don’t often see strikers try to make.
First, let’s start with a clip from the beginning of the game.
It’s not a clip he’ll look back fondly on, as he ended up turning over the ball, but there’s a lot to like here from David.
Despite being in a position where most strikers would’ve probably just ran forward and tried to go for goal, especially when that defender that ended up blocking his pass dropped off, David did well to try and search for a better option, knowing that he wasn’t in a great position to do that.
So while he should’ve done better with the pass to Davies in the middle, either playing that pass earlier or instead getting it to Jonathan Osorio on his right to cross it in, that he was looking for that sort of incisive ball is a positive sign.
Unlike your typical striker, he wants to look out for his teammates before thinking about scoring himself, and that can be good to see.
At the same time, though, there are some instances where he does that to an almost frustrating level.
Just take this next clip as an example of that.
Here, he most definitely should’ve shot the ball, but he instead looked for David Wotherspoon with a surprise cutback, and while it was a nice pass, it just wasn’t the right look in that scenario, and Davies reminded him of that afterwards.
But you’ll take that from him, because when some of the passes and ideas that he has do come off, they can be magic.
Just take this next clip as an example of that.
Having dropped a little deeper to receive the ball, David did well here to run forward and play an inch-perfect pass to an onrushing Davies, one that probably should’ve ended up in the back of the net.
But that’s the trade-off you get with David.
He’ll have moments like the one in the clip earlier where he’ll almost be too unselfish, but then he’ll have a play like that one, one where he does so well to drop into space and create a chance for his teammates, which is something that you don’t always see from your striker.
And seeing that, it’s also important that Canada understands that, and plays off of David as such.
The more they do that, the more David can stamp out his influence on games, especially from deeper positions.
The good news, though, is that his teammates are starting to recognize that, with this clip being a good example of that.
So while this near-turnover might’ve been frustrating when it happened, that Tajon Buchanan recognized the position David was in is a good start, and you have to imagine that after a few games those sorts of passes between them become routine.
Because of that, expect a lot more of that going forward from David and company, with the next 2 clips being a good example of that.
They might not be the sorts of plays you’re used to seeing from strikers, that’s just what David does, and to be fair to him, he does so at a pretty good level, showing why they’re so important to how his team plays.
And thanks to that, the pay-off from him doing that can be huge.
Just take Canada’s winning goal against Panama, as an example.
Did David probably mishit the original pass to Davies, nearly ruining the opportunity? Probably.
But how many strikers are that deep in their half to receive the ball and spring a teammate in transition in the first place? Not many, but that’s the sort of play that David has in his repertoire, and it shows why it’s important to have a partner beside him, because if not, as he was in previous games where he was all alone up front, he’s playing that pass to no one, and as seen here, that was a big mistake.
He can operate like a true #9, too:
But for all of the talk of the work that David does defensively and in possession, at the same time, there’s a reason why he’s been one of the more prolific strikers in Ligue 1 these past few years, and that’s because he does know how to operate like a true #9 at times, too.
And we saw that against Panama, where for all of the other work he did, he did have moments where he showed why he’s scored so many goals at the club level these past few years.
Plus, what’s most interesting about David is that the work he does at a #9 is often not that flashy, but it’s just so effective.
Just take this next clip as an example of that.
Here, nothing really happened, as Canada failed to get a ball into the box, and their subsequent shot got blocked, but David did some great #9 work there, first making a great run into the box, and then making himself ready for a potential rebound off of that shot.
It wasn’t flashy, yet, that’s what David does so well, and if you look back at most of his goals for Lille and Canada, is how he makes goals happen for himself.
If you ever watch him off the ball, you’ll notice that he’s always in a constant state of movement, meaning that he’s never stationary long enough to be marked by an opponent, making him open for all sorts of passes, crosses and rebounds.
Just take a look at this next clip as an example of that.
Here, the attention will obviously be on Davies’s run and shot, but try and look for David if you can.
There, you’ll see that he first finds a nice space in between the Panamian defenders for a potential pass, and once he realizes that isn’t happening, he then puts himself in a position to chase a rebound on Davies’s shot.
Because of that, he’s not spellbound by Davies’s quick feet as literally everyone else on the field is, making him the only one on either team to react to the rebound, one that he’s unlucky doesn’t fall to him.
If you watch him for Lille, that’s something he does very well for them, too, and it’s those sort of little details that can make such a big difference for a striker who wants to score goals.
But that’s David for you. Thanks to that constant state of movement, he makes himself so hard to mark, allowing him to find such dangerous pockets on the field.
And from there, if his teammates find him, watch out.
Sometimes, it doesn’t work out for him.
But when it does, it’s magic, as it was on Canada’s 4th goal of the game, where David just kept on running after what seemed like a lost ball from Davies, burying home with ease to put that game to rest.
Again, so while it might not be a part of his game that will stand out, that sort of movement helps explain how David scores so many goals.
He might not be the biggest, fastest or strongest striker, yet he just knows how to get himself into positions to score goals, which is as important of a skill as any for a striker to have, showing why he’s been able to become one of the best in Europe these past few years.
So when looking at all of this, one thing is clear - David needs to play up front with a partner to get the most out of him.
Be it Davies, Buchanan, Cyle Larin, new commit Iké Ugbo, Lucas Cavallini, Liam Millar or heck even someone like Jonathan Osorio, he just looks so much better when he has someone to play off of, as we saw here.
With the work that he does off of the ball to offer support to his teammates, he’s just so much more valuable when he has the freedom to roam and do that, and as seen above, that doesn’t mean that he can’t score goals or be a poacher, either.
It might not be what we’re used to seeing from strikers, but that’s what makes David so special, and is why he’s garnered the attention of scouts over recent years, as he’s such a complete forward.
For Canada, they’re starting to realize that, too, so they just need to continue to make the most of his skills, because if they do, watch out.
Still only just 21-years-old, his best years are still ahead of him, so this is just the start of what’s to come for David, which based on what we’ve already seen from him, is quite an exciting prospect as they continue their journey towards the 2022 World Cup (and beyond).
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David shortly before scoring vs Panama (Keveren Guillou) (IG: @kevereng)