Jonathan David is emerging as an elite striker at Lille. Where will he go next?

Space has always been at a premium for Jonathan David. “We only have a handful of domes here in Ottawa,” David’s former youth coach Jay Da Costa told First Time Finish last year. “Those domes get used up, not just by soccer, but baseball and football and other organisations too. It’s hard to get time and, usually, when you get it, you’re only training on one-third of the field, sometimes one-sixth.” Ottawa’s cramped domes – large, inflatable tent-like structures that shield pitches from the harsh Canadian winters – were an early step on an unusual career path for the young forward, who is now ready for his next big jump. However, such fast progress was not always so certain.

Ten appearances into his career in France, having joined Lille from Gent in August 2020, David was without a goal or an assist. Lille won nine of those games but David moved from a guaranteed starter to an intermittent presence due to his lack of form. It took him until last November’s 4-0 win over Lorient to finally score a goal. Although his movement, speed and interplay hinted at his quality, he scored just two goals in his first 25 games for the club.

In 2021, however, David has transformed. His record of 21 goals in 34 league games this year includes a winner at PSG and a late double against Marseille, plus the opener in Lille’s win at Angers on the final day of last season. All were crucial in helping the club pull off a shock title triumph. His brace in the first nine minutes of Lille’s 2-2 draw at Monaco this weekend took his tally to 10 in the league this season, making the 21-year-old the leading scorer in France.

Difficulties settling in are nothing new for David, who had a nomadic childhood. He was born in New York, moved to Port-au-Prince in Haiti when he was three months old before settling in Ottawa as a six-year-old. “Anywhere you go, the beginning is always difficult,” said David of his move to Canada. After developing as a young player at Ottawa Gloucester Hornets, the forward signed for the Belgian club Gent in January 2018.

He was only 17 at the time so spent six months training with the youth side, a period David says was crucial to his adaptation, before scoring five goals in his first five games for the first team. He grew up fast in Belgium. “I was living on my own,” said David. “I know my family is only one phone call away but I have to find solutions to problems for myself.” Solutions were found, both in Belgium and Lille. His 83 games for Gent brought 37 goals, 15 assists and interest from abroad.

He chose Lille. Much was made of Burak Yilmaz’s match-winning performances, veteran José Fonte’s commanding defensive displays and goalkeeper Mike Maignan’s unerring consistency, but Lille would not have won the title last season without David. His burgeoning confidence gave the team dynamism and energy during an intense run-in. With Yilmaz injured for 13 games at the start of the year, Jonathan Bamba’s riotous early season form evaporating and Jonathan Ikoné typically erratic, David helped the team maintain their momentum.

With Liverpool apparently interested and Inter reportedly lining up a bid for January – Lille will want a fee surpassing the £25m they paid for his services – this is increasingly likely to be David’s final season at Lille. However, despite his obvious ability, the uncertainty about his best position could give clubs pause. He is strong and capable of bringing others into play, often dropping off to play as a second striker, but David is not yet wholly suited to the lone forward role used by many bigger clubs. He also lacks the one-on-one skills of top-level wingers and has been less effective when used wide. Elements of his game could be compared to Wissam Ben Yedder, or perhaps Luis Suárez. David’s time playing in Ottawa’s tight domes draws parallels with Ben Yedder’s futsal experience – both players have sharp control and protect the ball well.

At Lille, thanks to Christophe Galtier’s strict 4-4-2 – which has been replicated by new manager Jocelyn Gourvennec – David has been used almost exclusively in a front two. The role suits his unusual skillset perfectly, giving him the freedom to drop off into space in support of his partner or play on the shoulder of a defender. However, his tight control and sharp interplay means David is at his best when playing close to teammates. Inter’s 3-5-2 could be an ideal fit, but he may struggle to find a niche elsewhere. As David said himself before joining Lille: “I don’t want to go somewhere and just stay on the bench. It’s about taking the right step.”

However, judging by his steep trajectory, David’s ceiling is high. Without Galtier, Lille have not performed as well as they did last season but David has been one of few players to keep progressing, along with Sven Botman and Tiago Djaló. When he arrived at the club he was nervous and unable to impact games, but he is now full of swagger. David uses possession intelligently and his finishing has become much more considered. Another year or two in the right environment could make all the difference for David as he looks to take that next step and become an elite striker.

Whether playing on the bustling streets of Port-au-Prince, in the freezing domes of Ottawa, or in congested Ligue 1 penalty areas, space has always been at a premium for David. Soon or later, though, as his talent truly blossoms, it will be the space left by David in Gourvennec’s team that will become the problem for Lille.

Talking points

Ligue 1 again descended into farce on Sunday night amid more crowd disturbances. The headline fixture between Marseille and Lyon was halted after just a few minutes, as Dimitri Payet was struck heavily on the head by a full water bottle thrown from the Lyon support. Marseille players have been hit by projectiles in three of their seven away games this season. This incident mirrored scenes at Nice in August, when Payet was felled before a mass brawl erupted. Nice were deducted a point and forced to play games behind closed doors; similar punishments are likely here. The LFP has completely lost control of the situation, with similar incidents and violence between fans now almost a weekly occurrence. So far, punishments for fans and clubs have not changed anything. The authorities must act to change the tide. Banning whole groups of fans permanently may be their only option.

Brest’s freewheeling 4-0 win over Champions League-chasing Lens on Sunday was the standout result of the weekend. After no wins in 15 matches, Michel Der Zakarian’s side have managed three in a row after an equally impressive victory against Monaco before the break. Having morphed from a stoic defensive coach with Nantes to an all-guns-blazing entertainer at Montpellier, the Armenian is one of the most reliable managers in French football and he has finally found the right formula in Brittany. The workmanlike but balance-providing attacking midfielder Jérémy Le Douaron – who was scouted from third-tier side Stade Briochin last summer – has been key. He gives Brest’s talented wide players Romain Faivre and Franck Honorat the required freedom and they are now up to 13th in the table.