Tottenham, Ben Davies, and Gentle Improvement
Ben Davies is not Danny Rose. He will never play football with quite the same spirit or verve, nor will he likely be of similar value to Tottenham Hotspur. Nevertheless, since Rose suffereed his injury during the goalless draw with Sunderland in late January, Davies has been gently growing into the hole he’s been tasked with filling.
He’s not perfect. He lacks the acceleration and skill to raid deep into opponent’s halves and defends in a more passive, positioning-based way, but Davies has started to do something which is often seen as impossible: he’s reclaiming his reputation.
Generally, when a player falls out of favour at a club, with the manager and the fans, his trajectory is set. The negativity surrounding him tends to shape his performance and, over time, the perception of what he offers becomes the reality.
Had it not been for Rose’s injury, Davies would likely never have received another Premier League chance. The gap between the two, despite being marginal eighteen months ago, has now grown to a chasm and, even if it hadn’t, the qualities offered by the former are ideologically better-suited to Mauricio Pochettino’s way of playing. In a team which relies on its full-backs (or wing-backs) for its width, there is no natural home for a conservative player who looks more assured in his own half than he does in the opposition’s.
Nevertheless, even if this process doesn’t end in wholesale transformation, it has still provided evidence of growth and has been testament to the importance of continuity and confidence.
It’s a point made by the detail within two recent games: Spurs 4-0 win over Stoke City in late February and their 3-2 victory over Everton nine days ago. Both were played at White Hart Lane, each time in their semi-customary 3-4-2-1 formation.
Below, courtesy of FourFourTwo’s StatsZone, are graphical representations of Davies’s performance in the two games.
Stoke City (h):
The blue arrows represent successful passes, the reds are failed attempts, and the various green shapes represent completed tackles, interceptions, and dribbles. But the point to note, really, is the volume of activity which occurs in the final-third of the pitch. Tottenham were much more dominant against Stoke then they were Everton, but Davies’ performance in the second game was still more penetrative.
That’s interesting, because it’s his inability to provide that kind of attacking support which has formed much of the case against him. Comparing two games is always a slightly imperfect science which ignores the stylistic differences between the individual players faced, but it still provides some insight into how Davies is adapting to the task he’s been given – and how he’s growing towards the sun, so to speak.
Part of that movement has been engineered by Pochettino. Almost every British-based full-back who has played for him has improved. In late 2016, Danny Rose spoke publicly about the effect his manager has had on him and how, unlike under previous coaching regimes, he was actually given tailored instructions as to how to play his position. The impression, therefore, is of a coach who pays greater attention to the position’s minutiae and views the role as more than just a team’s appendix. Beyond the back-and-forward imperatives of the role, Tottenham’s full-backs seemed to be equipped a layer of nuance. It’s telling, for instance, that Pochettino managed to extract more from Luke Shaw at Southampton than Jose Mourinho has managed at Manchester United. And that, despite his move to Liverpool, Nathaniel Clyne has lost his England place to Kyle Walker.
Davies is benefitting in the same way: with each passing his week, his comprehension of what is expected grows and he becomes that much surer of where he’s supposed to be on the pitch at any given moment and how he should be using the ball in particular situations.
But, just as importantly, the hesitation has melted from his game, too. He will never be a blindingly quick player, but the most restricting part of his attacking game has more often been his inhibition. Rose holds certain athletic advantages over him, but the distance between the two is accentuated by attitude: one is aggressive, almost carefree, and the other is definitely not. In the past, Davies has often played with one eye on what might be developing behind him and that’s manifested in countless cut-backs, slow-downs, and cautious passes; he has placed greater emphasis on not making mistakes than he has on being a positive influence.
That habit largely remains, but it’s fading – and that’s the value of continuity. While equipped with improved tactical comprehension, he has also – presumably through trial-and-error – learnt what risks he can take and developed a better understanding for the covering abilities of those around and behind him (most often Jan Vertonghen and Victor Wanyama).
These are kind of factors which are too readily dismissed as non-specific platitudes. They sound like part of the apologist’s armoury and, when a defensive supporter pleads patience on account of the need for adjustment, that’s typically how the rest of the world reacts. But Davies’ last few weeks, though neither Earth-shattering nor of any real long-term relevance, has testified to their continued relevance. The change has been subtle, perhaps not sufficiently dramatic to alter many perceptions, but it’s real enough.