SC Freiburg 1-3 Bayern Munich Schwarzwaldstadion
(Grifo 59' - Lewandowski 16', Zirkzee 90+2', Gnabry 90+5')
The scoreline looked comfortable in the end for Bayern Munich, but it was anything but.
For large parts of the second half in the depths of the Black Forest, the champions had been out-played, out-thought and out-fought by a rampant Freiburg.
Vincenzo Grifo’s equalizer just before the hour mark was no more than the hosts deserved, and Christian Streich’s team came close to a second on numerous occasions.
Interim Bayern coach Hansi Flick has been operating with a makeshift defense ever since taking over from Niko Kovac in November – and it was rocking here. Flick needed to relieve the pressure and looked to the bench for a possible outlet.
As the board went up, Dutch striker Joshua Zirkzee was given the nod. The 18-year-old, whose first-team experience before tonight consisted of four minutes at the end of Bayern’s 3-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League, replaced Philippe Coutinho to make his Bundesliga debut.
Two minutes later, he’d fired home inside the box with his first touch to win it for Bayern. Serge Gnabry promptly added a third to give the scoreboard a flattering flourish.
Gnabry is enjoying something of a breakout season himself but at 24, is already a veritable veteran in this new-look Bayern Munich team, a leadership figure and role-model for the likes of Zirkzee – and for Alphonso Davies, for whom things haven’t quite gone according to plan in Munich.
Since his dramatic arrival from the Vancouver Whitecaps for an MLS record fee of ten million euros back in January, the Canadian has been thrown in at the deep end and is playing out of position. But he’s absolutely thriving.
Bayern signed the teenager with the future in mind – a long-term option to replace veterans Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery who were set to retire. But not even the most far-sighted on Säbener Straße could have predicted quite how quickly the left winger would establish himself in the first team – let alone that he would start making the left-back position his own.
In Freiburg on Wednesday night, just one month on from his 19th birthday, Davies made his 12th consecutive first-team appearance on the left of Bayern’s back four, and didn’t waste any time showing why Flick has placed so much trust in him.
With just over a quarter of an hour played, Davies won the ball deep in his own half and played a one-two to launch a counterattack. Less than ten seconds later, he was 75 meters further up the field, still with the ball at his feet on the edge of the Freiburg box. From there, he crossed for Robert Lewandowski to open the scoring.
"We signed Alphonso a year ago because we considered him to be one of the best talents in his age group," said Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic in a recent interview with Munich’s Abendzeitung newspaper. "That has to be the Bayern way in this age of crazy transfers: we need quality which can help us straight away, which doesn’t come cheap, so we also need talent with the promise of quality."
At the moment, Davies is ticking both boxes. Of course, he still has a lot of work to do on his defensive positioning but that is hardly a criticism in a constantly changing back four. In truth, inside the final 20 minutes Davies showed that some of that defensive work has already been done - the teenager made a pivotal block to deny Nils Petersen.
The situation is difficult enough for a defender of such international experience and pedigree – let alone a rapidly converted teenage winger. Then again, despite his tender age, Davies has already learnt a thing or two about how to deal with difficult situations.
In his early years, those situations were literally life-threatening as his family was forced to flee from Liberia to Ghana, where the young Alphonso grew up in a refugee camp, before moving to Canada, where his football career began. In comparison, the current travails of Bayern Munich are trivial, and Davies is taking everything in his stride.
"Our fans love him," raved Salihamidzic. "They’ve been waiting for just such a player, so young and unburdened with speed, technique and physical presence."
But he also also sees the success of Davies – and Gnabry before him and perhaps Zirkzee after him – as vindication of Bayern’s recent transfer policy which, in comparison to other clubs of a similar stature, has remained conservative as the club has resisted paying some of the huge sums seen elsewhere.
"I’m especially pleased with Alphonso’s performances because he’s proving that young players get their chance at Bayern Munich – when they work on their development and when the quality is there."
Davies, Zirkzee and Gnabry showed that quality in Freiburg on Wednesday night, right when Bayern needed it most.