“I don’t know if I can find myself anywhere other than the Premier League.” Jonathan David to La Voic du Nord, December 2022.
The last few seasons for Lille have been turbulent, both on and off the pitch. The club has changed ownership and has had to deal with issues concerning long-standing debt, the ripple effect of COVID-19 and the failed Mediapro TV deal. As such, it’s been crucial for the club to continue finding young talents with high ceilings who they can develop into stars before selling them on for profit to maintain the health of their financial books. This was the case with the likes of Nicolas Pépé and Victor Osimhen.
And yet, despite all of that chaos, the club still managed to pull off the very rare feat of finishing ahead of Paris Saint-Germain to win the Ligue 1 title in 2020-21. That was despite selling Osimhen and Arsenal centre-back Gabriel Magalhães in the summer before the season started.
But who did they sign to replace Osimhen that same window? None other than Jonathan David from Belgian club Genk. We’ll come onto him shortly.
On the surface, Lille’s 2022-23 season has been solid yet unspectacular. They’ve already eclipsed their points total from last season and have a chance at qualifying for the UEFA Europa Conference league. Despite that, it’s unlikely they’ll finish higher than fifth.
The underlying numbers suggest something more promising. Only PSG have generated more open-play shots and expected goals than Lille this season. And when accounting for game states and how many players are on the pitch, Lille’s chance generation has remained one of the best in France.
Part of the reason why Lille have been able to produce strong attacking numbers stems from Jonathan David having his best season since moving to Ligue 1. The Canadian has scored 21 goals in Ligue 1 so far this season, which is one behind top-scorer Kylian Mbappé. When you add in four assists, David is third for total goal involvements (25), and ranks in the 96th percentile domestically for combined non-penalty shots and open-play chances created per 90 minutes. His attacking output has been exceptional this campaign, and that’s made him a target for big European clubs, with Lille looking to cash in once again on an early-prime talent.
But what kind of player is David? Just how good could he eventually become? And how would his skillset translate outside of France?
David’s work without the ball during possession is intriguing but not yet complete. It’s common to see him drop slightly deeper into space and show for the ball, banking on his capabilities as a receiver. Sometimes it’ll be in coordinated sequences where he tries to pull a centre-back out of position, while Jonathan Bamba or Rémy Cabella occupy the space he’s vacated. There are moments where he can be a bit too focused on that and leave something on the table by not attempting runs in behind after dropping deep.
Given this, it’s no surprise that zone 14 – the zone located in the middle of the pitch immediately outside the opposing penalty area – is where David is most active.
For lack of a better descriptor, David shows some hesitancy when it comes to not gambling with runs in behind and occupying centre-backs. Perhaps his lack of size and physicality dents his confidence in his ability to create enough separation to get shots off in certain situations.
He doesn’t exactly shy away from trying to beat high defensive lines by bending his runs, but good strikers generally look to take advantage of those instances. The very good ones find open spaces while not having much to work with.
In fairness, David does show some bright moments against settled defences. Once positioned just outside the area and confident that he can attack the box, he’ll burst into the box to receive short passes that can lead to shots. If he’s already in the box, he’ll sometimes drift towards the far post to wait for a cross. He can also occasionally utilise double movements to set up the fade for the far post or peel away from the crowd for cutback opportunities.
The above map shows the passes that lead to David’s shots. A pattern of crosses and cutbacks clearly emerges. Four of his Ligue 1 goals this season have come directly via crosses, and he’s been on the end of more crosses than any other Lille player this season. In addition to this, only Kylian Mbappé (seven) and Lionel Messi (five) have received more cutbacks than David (four) this campaign.
During counter attacks or artificial transitions, David shows a willingness to attack the box with straight-line runs, and at other times he hunts for rebound opportunities while trailing the play.
With more space to work with, he’ll also run into the channels. He did this very effectively in Lille’s 4-3 victory versus Monaco last year. First, David curls his run down the channel and sets off towards the left half-space…
He sets himself up for a one-vs-one against Axel Disasi…
… before using a change of pace dribble to breeze past him and set up a quality scoring chance that eventually leads to a tap-in for his team-mate.
This has been David’s best season when it comes to his individual shooting. His non-penalty shot volume has increased by 37.7% to 2.95 per 90 minutes, ranking him in the 83rd percentile among forwards in Ligue 1. It’s common to see an increase in shot volume, especially to this degree, come with a drop off in shot quality but that hasn’t been the case. His non-penalty expected goals per shot (0.22) ranks in the 80th percentile and has remained at a similar level to his previous two seasons.
Part of what helps him as a shooter is being comfortable taking them with either foot. Of David’s 95 shots in Ligue 1 so far this season, 30 of them (31.5%) have come with his weaker left. His ability to let fly off both feet is partly reflected in his shot chart below, which includes some attempts from the wide left zone.
At this stage in his career though, the deficiencies in his movement he shows without the ball makes it hard to envision him getting into the 3.5+ shots per 90 territory that you see from the best forwards.
Passing and Link-Up
David has become a capable, instinctive passer and overall connector of play. He can receive ground passes and has good touch with either foot when it comes to making wall passes which help move Lille up the pitch. The striker is an excellent focal point for his side – only Mbappé (279) has received more progressive passes than David’s 278.
David is quite creative in attempting flick-ons and has the technical skill to operate within quick combinations. In those situations where the tempo increases, David can fire off short forward passes for nearby team-mates making runs. His assist for Cabella’s second goal against Monaco is an example of how good he can be in these dynamic moments.
The ball breaks forward in transition and David drops deep to receive, dragging his marker with him…
With Cabella making a third-man run, David instinctively helps the ball on for his team-mate…
And Cabella is now bearing now on goal…
Overall, in Ligue 1, only four players have created more chances for team-mates than David’s 45. It’s perhaps an aspect of his game that is overlooked.
How Good is Jonathan David?
David has an interesting profile because he’s got a number of strengths but it’s arguable that none of them yet are top tier.
His off-ball movement is not elite, although how far off it is from that level is up for some debate and he does have some shooting flexibility to his credit. He clearly holds his own when sealing his opponent and acting as a release valve.
To borrow an NFL phrase, David’s passing and ability to initiate combination plays help ‘move the chains’ into higher value areas. Overall as a playmaker though, he’s more of a tertiary creator. While he does rank seventh in total chance-creating carries in the league, not a ton of them have been from long-distance carries where he bends the defence before making something happen.
Compared to others within the big five leagues in Europe, David’s goal contribution numbers are good but rank a couple of levels below the absolute elite level.
His goal scoring in Ligue 1 is juiced up to some extent by the seven penalty goals he’s converted. Remove those and his output of 0.61 non-penalty goals and assists per 90 has him within the top 75, which is good but not great.
Expected goals and assists paints him in a better light in the top 40, but still a rung below the likes of Victor Osimhen and Erling Haaland. As mentioned earlier, David being a non-elite box threat and playmaker puts a ceiling on his total shot output (which admittedly has still been quite solid this season).
Trying to guess translatability is never an exact science, but it’s possible to make a reasonable guess. Ligue 1 attacking talents have generally done well in different environments. David already has experience playing in a possession-based side that consistently faces low blocks while utilising width to stretch opponents (Lille are second in total number of 10+ open play sequences and have the third longest average time per sequence). That’s certainly a positive. There’ll also likely be a bump up in surrounding talent at his next stop.
While David not being a heavy on-ball initiator helps with his portability to other teams, the questions concerning the true extent of his off-ball prowess and passing make it harder to tell how much of a ceiling-raiser he ends up being.
It’s at least slightly plausible to imagine David in a role similar to Roberto Firmino with Liverpool during his heyday, where he got to play alongside prolific inside forwards in Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané who made runs in behind while the Brazilian occupied deeper areas and made things happen. In that case, one would have to think highly of David’s back-to-goal play and playmaking for that to be his best path towards stardom. Perhaps he ends up once again in a striker duo like was the case with Burak Yılmaz, but that might take away from what’s made David stand out this season.
When it comes to thinking about David’s floor/ceiling, a noteworthy comparison might be Alexandre Lacazette. Both were proficient with their link-up play and bringing others into the fold. David is a bit quicker while Lacazette was slightly more adept at creating individual shooting opportunities. Both made a leap in their early 20s and in Lacazette’s case, he continued adding different things to his game which helped him produce 0.75 non-penalty goals and assists per 90 from 2015-17 in France.
If David does move on from Lille this summer at or near the reported €65 million fee being quoted, the downside would be that while it’s unlikely for him to be a complete bust, he may not provide added value on his deal which was also the case with Lacazette at Arsenal (although David would be nearly two and a half years younger than Lacazette was when he made his move).
It’s not out of the range of possibilities that he gets to a point where he can elevate a big club’s attack to a very high level. But it’d involve a noteworthy jump in skill.
Jonathan David is clearly a good player, and maybe ends up as a great one during his prime. Top European sides will be hoping that if they acquire him, there’s another leap on the horizon for the Canadian striker.