UCL ROUNDUP: Alphonso Davies shines in new Bayern role; CanWNT stars set for UWCL
As has become almost customary over the last few years, there was a strong Canadian presence in this week's UEFA Men's Champions League matchday, as the group stages of the 2022-23 competition reached its midway point.
In fact, it was the first time that three different CanMNT players started and won games for different teams in the competition, setting the table for a fun back-half of group stage action where each have a very real chance of carving out a spot in the Round of 16.
Ever since Alphonso Davies became the first-ever Canadian to lift the Champions League trophy back in 2020, our national team heroes have shined bright whenever they take the field for those fabled European nights, embracing the spotlight that comes with it.
Let's review, shall we?
Alphonso Davies finds new role for Bayern
Despite reaching a special milestone, it was business as usual for Alphonso Davies in Bayern Munich's 5-0 victory over Viktoria Plzeň in Group C action on Tuesday.
He made his 24th appearance in the competition, surpassing the great Atiba Hutchinson to lead Canadians in Champions League showings all-time, all while performing at a consistently high level for the Bavarians.
Davies went for 45 minutes on the day and was taken out at half time to rest – Bayern have 'Der Klassiker' against Borussia Dortmund looming this weekend – but the young Canadian phenom still played a massive role in his team's success, assisting in crafting Bayern's 3-0 lead before the break.
Plus, he did so in a new role, one that he's started to adopt this year – that of the inverted full-back, popularized by the likes of Dani Alves and João Cancelo.
Instead of maintaining his traditional overlapping full-back role, Davies has fully evolved his game to a more central approach under head coach Julian Nagelsmann this season.
Before, his job would be pretty simple for Bayern; operate as a full-back defensively, but burst forward into wide areas when his team won the ball, giving them width in possession. Starting lower on the field as they built up, Davies would then burst forward as they progressed up the field, allowing him to stretch the opponosition defence before getting the ball into the box when in the final third.
Now? Instead of mostly hugging the touchline, Davies instead drifts into central pockets, often tucking into the half-space that exists between opponents' full backs and centre backs when Bayern has the ball.
Often paired with the speedy Sadio Mané down the left, the two are now frequently seen swapping positions in the final third, with Davies's ability to cut inside helping open up space out wide for the Senegalese international, giving Bayern a different look in possession.
That doesn't mean that Davies isn't making those same bursting overlapping runs along the touchline, though. But, he is now varying his points of attack, sometimes operating almost as a midfielder.
Just look at Bayern's average position map from this latest game, to see how much this has become the case; Davies' (no. 19) average position in his team's build-up was actually more narrow than Mané's (no. 17).
Ever since Nagelsmann came in as Bayern's coach last year, he's been tweaking Davies's role to become more of a varied threat in the final third – just like the former Leipzig boss did when he turned Angeliño into a final-third weapon.
Given that Davies had been more of a traditional winger coming up as a youngster before transitioning to a proper full-back at Bayern under Niko Kovač and Hansi Flick, Nagelsmann has returned him to those roots, with some modifications to add a bit of a midfield touch to that package.
As a result, when you look at the numbers over his four seasons with Bayern, you can see the changes that Nagelsmann has brought to his game.
For example, after putting up 27.60 touches in the final third per 90 minutes in 19/20 and 26.90/90 in 21/22, he’s put up 31.97/90 and 28.41/90 in the final third in his two seasons under Nagelsmann.
In fact, when it comes to most of those metrics, there has been a similar jump across the board for Davies, as seen in the chart above.
These numbers aren’t a perfect example of that growth, as they only represent his numbers in the Bundesliga, and not his numbers in the Champions League, but it does give an idea of what has changed under Nagelsmann.
To get a further visual look at that change, just take a look at how Davies’s heat map has evolved from his first season until now, too, as he is occupying far more central channels and spaces in the final third than he ever did before.
And here's this season:
The tweak is both clearly-visible, and crucial on many fronts.
To begin, there's what this could mean for Davies' role with the CanMNT, where he's been asked to play a lot more centrally in a bit more of a free role, one that sees him sometimes operate almost as a no. 10, allowing them to use his attacking skills more often than if he were at full-back.
Then, of course, there's what that could mean for him at Bayern, as it could show that there is a plan for Davies to eventually move up the pitch on a more permanent basis, or even into midfield, following in the footsteps of former Bayern full-backs Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba.
That's key, as while Davies's exploits at full-back have been fun to watch over these couple of seasons, it feels like at 21 years of age, he has a lot of evolution left in his game. A more forward-facing role would allow him to further develop as a player, becoming even more of a threat for club and country.
Certainly Nagelsmann believes that, and given his credentials as one of the top young coaches in the world, you'd back him in that quest as he too looks to unearth even more from one of the game's brightest young talents.
"He now plays a lot through the middle, no longer the classic full-back who sticks to the sideline. I looked for a new position for him and found it," Nagelsmann said this week after Bayern's UCL match. "He's doing very well there and feels good about it.
"For me, that's a really big step he's taking in terms of flexibility. He can play on the wing, he can play through the middle. Therefore I’m very happy (with Davies)."
We are, too!
Tajon gets first taste of UCL, Eustáquio continues to shine
While Davies is off setting the record for most Champions League appearances for a CanMNT player, one fellow Canadian saw the field in the competition for the first time over in Belgium.
That, of course, was Tajon Buchanan, who, fresh off of returning from injury, was slotted right into Club Brugge's starting lineup for a home clash with Atlético Madrid.
Despite Brugge's strong start to the competition – having won both of their first two games over Porto and Leverkusen – manager Carl Hoefkens gave a big vote of confidence to Buchanan by inserting him into a winning lineup, showing clearly that he sees the young Canadian as a big part of his plans.
Buchanan rewarded his coach's confidence big-time in that first start. Despite the grandeur of the occasion, he did not look at all out of place for Brugge, making himself at home down the right-hand side.
Great #UCL debut for Tajon Buchanan. In 79', he had:— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) October 4, 2022
16/18 passing (89%) (Map Below)
1 key pass (0.08 xA)
1 big chance created
6/12 duels won
2 fouls won
Also nearly had an assist
Good to see from a #CanMNT perspective pic.twitter.com/zkMDjuZLVk
Deployed in more of an out-and-out winger role in a 4-3-3 instead of the wing-back role he had typically employed in past Brugge games, Buchanan looked very comfortable ... and he should – this role is not too dissimilar to the one he once played with the New England Revolution in MLS.
Tasked with dropping into a 4-5-1 off the ball, he was given license to drive forward in possession, and Brugge took advantage of that, feeding him the ball in possession.
As a result, he ended up toying with Atlético left-back Reinildo, spinning around him a few times and carving out some crucial real estate in the box.
Plus, he helped directly create a goal, even if he wouldn't technically get an assist for it, as one of his drives into the box ended with him setting up Ferran Jutglà for his team's second in an eventual 2-0 win.
FotMob says it's good (for now), so here's a look at Tajon Buchanan's 1st #UCL assist— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) October 4, 2022
Great lay-off from him, even if a bit accidental
He's been very, very active for Club Brugge. Can't believe it's his 1st start since June
Fantastic to see#CanMNTpic.twitter.com/2R2eUKaETe
It was a bright start for Buchanan, who helped Brugge storm to a six-point lead atop Group B, all while showing his penchant to shine in big games. Now back and healthy, he's something of a major wildcard for the CanMNT, who will benefit massively from what he can bring to the table at Qatar 2022.
Buchanan wasn't the only CanMNT player impressing in Group B action, though; Stephen Eustáquio continued to turn heads with his third-straight start for FC Porto, too.
Eustáquio put up another big performance in the heart of the Porto midfield as they grabbed their first win of this year's edition, 2-0 over Bayer Leverkusen.
With the result, Porto climbs to second in Group B, boosting their dreams of qualifying for the knockout stages, with Eustáquio playing a big role in that quest.
Continuing to shine for Porto, his recent development has been great news for Canada, who will lean on him heavily in Qatar.
Business as usual in another #UCL start for Stephen Eustáquio. In 90', he had:— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) October 4, 2022
21/29 passing (72%) (Map below)
3 shots (0.16 xG)
8/9 duels won
Monster defensive performance. He's in great form #CanMNT pic.twitter.com/MP4EMYnqMw
Crowded Canadian field in UWCL offers intrigue
Sure, it's been fun to watch that CanMNT trio shine in the Champions League (a quarter when Cyle Larin sees the field for Club Brugge), and things stand to get even more exciting for Canadian soccer fans in the next few weeks.
With the men's competition fully underway, the women's edition of the UEFA Champions League is also set to kick off in the coming weeks as well, meaning that there will be even more of Europe's continental competition on tap to round out the year.
Canada has heavy representation in the UWCL, too; six CanWNT players who will take the field in the 16-team group stages.
#UCL/#UWCL draw is out, here's how it stacks up from a #CanWNT/#CanXNT perspective:— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) October 3, 2022
Group A: Jessie Fleming, Kadeisha Buchanan (Chelsea), Ashley Lawrence (PSG)
Group C: Vanessa Gilles (OL), Julia Grosso (Juventus)
Group D: Cloe Lacasse (Benfica)
Some fun matchups there https://t.co/1FmbXI2TeL
Led by five-time winner Kadeisha Buchanan – who will see the field in this competition with a team other than Lyon for the first time having joined Jessie Fleming at Chelsea – this field is deep; Cloé Lacasse (Benfica), Julia Grosso (Juventus), Vanessa Gilles (Lyon) and Ashley Lawrence (PSG) round off the list of Canadians vying for Europe's top club prize.
Each will be expected to play big roles for their respective clubs in this competition, as they begin their latest chase of continental glory.
So, don't be surprised to see a Canadian potentially lift a trophy here, especially given Buchanan's past exploits in this competition, making it one to keep an eye on from a Canadian perspective as the CanWNT continue to push towards the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup next summer.