When Pep Guardiola takes the reigns of a new side, one of the first concepts to observe is his use of full-backs. At Barcelona, he used Dani Alves as an auxiliary right-winger in the big games. Alves was even used there to the extent of keeping him up alongside Lionel Messi and allowing Carlos Puyol to play the traditional right-back role.
At Manchester City he stylised these positions in a way unseen in the league before. Right-back, Kyle Walker, tucked in alongside the centre-backs and the left-back, before becoming one of the midfield and changing the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, into a 3-3-1-3; far harder to press with more passing options.
In his intermediate spell at Bayern Munich, the Catalan raved about the intelligence of his captain and right back, Philip Lahm. Pep claimed him to be one of the finest he had ever coached. Yet, while Lahm’s brain and football intelligence are well-known entities, the significant development and tactical changes seen in Guardiola’s other Bayern full-back, may well see him held in the same esteem.
The player in question is, of course, David Alaba.
Alaba the Left-Back
Playing as a full-back in a Guardiola team requires mental and physical mettle. The likes of Alves and Walker may rise to this standard, others such as Benjamin Mendy and Danilo deemed to fall short. The success for Pep, and how quickly he finds it, rests on the success of these players. While at Bayern, having Lahm and Alaba at his disposal was an immediate advantage.
Lahm was thirty-years-old, having played across the back-line for the German national team for the best part of a decade, as well as in central midfield. His versatility, and the quality he possessed in being so versatile, made him a Guardiola favourite.
Alaba’s role was slightly different pre-Guardiola. He had established himself as a regular starter for the club within two years of Guardiola’s arrival, and he had won two successive Austrian Footballer of the Year awards in this period.
However, Pep’s ideals and preconceptions coming into a job make no-one’s position guaranteed and secure from replacement, just ask Joe Hart. Alaba had demonstrated an energy and work rate under the previous manager, flying beyond the central midfielders to join left-winger, Franck Ribery, in an overload that few teams could handle.
Pep’s arrival saw a change in the young Austrian’s game. Where many coaches look to stretch the play with full-backs, Guardiola prefers to overload central midfield zones to keep the ball, and protect the defence. Rather than continue flying up the wing as he had done, Alaba was now drifting centrally, mirroring Lahm’s movement on the other side to make that 3-3-1-3 shape discussed earlier.
Rather than providing speed and crossing from wide, Alaba, who was still only 22-years-old at this point, was now being asked to withhold his runs and help form a passing roadmap to keep the Bayern ball popping around the midfield. It speaks of an incredibly intelligent player, and one who understands the role he must play within a team, to be able to execute such a command.
In this 2013/14 season, Alaba was completing nearly sixty passes per game at an 89.3% success rate, and his key passes had risen from 0.7 to 1.4. One can interpret this as being the effects of a Guardiola side that dominate ball possession with a nosebleed inducing high defensive line. Alternatively, this tells us that Alaba was operating more centrally and executing dangerous passing lines rather than relying on an overlapping run to find a cross.
Again, the context of Alaba’s manager’s style can explain Alaba’s defensive output dropping from 3.5 tackles and interceptions to 2.8. For this ultra-proactive ball-playing style to be implemented, it requires both full-backs to execute their positional roles.
Alaba’s technicality to shift into a midfield three to allow his winger a greater expanse to exploit, is what made Ribery so dangerous. The inverted run of the full-back would suck attention away from Ribery even further. Similarly, when the Frenchman cut inside onto his favoured right foot, Alaba filled that vacated space with a sprint from the midfield three, into a more conventional left-back position. It requires constant thought, awareness of space, and making use of the gridlines his manager wants to create in possession.
Guardiola’s chess game was being successfully deployed thanks to the work of his young Austrian.
Alaba the Central Midfielder
In Bayern colours, keeping the ball as dominantly as the German champions do requires the full-backs to play like central midfielders. Therefore, it is no surprise that Alaba starts in such a role for his national side. It is often seen in international football, how managers often move technically gifted defenders upfield to utilise their ability to improve their lacking attack.
Austria were touted as dark horses for the 2016 European Championships. Although not a squad oozing with talent, they did have a collection of experienced players across Europe’s top five leagues. Marko Arnautovic, Kevin Wimmer, Marcel Sabitzer, and Julian Baumgartlinger, all played or have proceeded to play at big clubs. The presence of Bayern’s Alaba furthered this optimism of making an impression on the tournament.
As a whole, Euro 2016 was a miserable and slow affair with little quality and too many dry and uninspiring matches. Austria also disappointed, exiting at the group stages with a solitary point. Alaba was fielded as a central midfield pivot with Baumgartlinger. This was positionally not dissimilar to how he played in Germany, just without the rotation of movement and spatial interactions of the players around him.
In a side that underperformed drastically, Alaba’s analysis reads of a player trying to lift the game of those around him. His 3.7 shots per game is high for any central midfielder, let alone one that is accustomed to playing in the defensive line. Alaba’s two key passes while being fouled 2.3 times per game point to a player grabbing his team, and pulling them forward single-handedly. Being dispossessed 4.3 times per game during their three matches only adds to this impression; a hugely intelligent and talented all-rounder, without the surrounding means to support it.
In Austria’s 2-1 loss to Iceland, a set-piece was played towards Alaba who is hardly a physical aerial target at 5’11”. He is hauled down in the penalty box, and a penalty is awarded. This acts as a microcosm of Alaba’s role for the national team; the quality and aura he possesses makes him integral to moves that aren’t suited to him and require him to be available to his teammates. Yet, this same reputation and appreciation of his ability also makes him dangerous. Austria’s opposition often see The act of stopping Alaba, as stopping Austria altogether. The penalty was subsequently missed, of course.
In this game, Austria’s search for dominance and a winning goal made them horribly exposed to Iceland’s counter-attacks. With Alaba tasked with providing quality in the attacking third, he also finds himself running back to his own goal to prevent the counter. It is too much for one player handle alone, and it is no surprise that Austria was so poor if this is how they utilise such a player.
Alaba’s Bayern performances under Pep demonstrate he is more than equipped to play as either a dynamic central midfielder, or as a defensive screening presence in a three-man midfield. It is likely he will forever play this role for Austria, irrespective of his role at club level, as he’s head and shoulders above his Austrian compatriots. Alaba doing so likely requires him to solve all of their attacking and defensive shortcomings. Even for a player of his unrivalled versatility and adaptability, it requires a level of player around him to support whatever role he is tasked.
Alaba the Centre-Half
Perhaps the most interesting and impressive phase of the Alaba cycle comes in his role as a centre-back for Bayern this season. The club had brought in left-back, Lucas Hernandez, for a fee in excess of £70m. Another versatile full-back in Benjamin Pavard was also signed from Stuttgart. Was there space for Alaba anymore? For all his usefulness and tactical intelligence, Alaba had sustained twenty separate injuries since 2013/14, albeit none severe enough to curtail, nor affect an entire season.
In moving Joshua Kimmich into a central defensive midfield role, it also seemed that the days of Alaba’s full back-come-central midfielder position had gone too.
However, the German outfit was due to suffer an injury crisis across its defensive unit. Hernandez suffered an ankle injury in October to keep him out until January. Niklas Süle would miss 25 games through injury, and while Jerome Boateng would remain fit all season, his physical decline made his permanent selection a gamble.
Up steps Alaba, originating from left-back, to central midfield, and now at centre-back. This proved the most exciting adaptation of his talent, with his physique arguably less suited to the physicality of being a centre-back than any other role. The presence of the ageing and slowing Boateng, also required Alaba’s adaptation to be a swift one, if he was to cover and protect the big German successfully.
His ball-playing and calmness in possession have been integral to the side. Alaba has played an enormous 87.4 passes in a Bayern team that struggled to find a rhythm for the first half of the season. Alba has played five long balls per match which nearly double that of his 2013/14 season under Guardiola. The versatile Austrian’s tackles and interceptions are the lowest of any of the seasons referenced in this article.
This wasn’t a case of moving a left-back into a centre-back role. This was a left-back becoming a fully formed centre-back, having never played there before. Amongst modern players, only Frenkie de Jong can be realistically discussed in this same way, as a master of all arts.
The Bundesliga has eventually swung Bayern’s way, being won at a canter due to the drop in the form of Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach. In the early stages of the season, we saw these sides aim to rough Bayern up and unsettle their new centre-back pairing. All of the three teams fighting for Bayern’s crown all possessed an array of fast and physical strikers; Dortmund’s Haaland and Sancho combination, Leipzig’s Poulson and Werner, and Monchengladbach’s Thuram and Plea. Yet, Bayern have still only conceded 32 goals, with Alaba starting 27 of their 33 games to date.
Alaba is not required to make many tackles due to Bayern’s high possession rate and the proficiency of Kimmich ahead of him in screening the play. His physical strength has been highly impressive for an adapted centre-back in a league of physical strikers, as has his ability to bypass the opposition press, and feed the midfield and forwards.
This may be unsurprising given Alaba’s ability on the ball and his proficiency at both dribbling and passing, but being able to execute it as a centre-back is a treasured skill that many do not possess. Not to mention, in Alphonso Davies, Bayern have a left-back that plays as high and wide as possible, leaving huge space behind him should the opposition win the ball and counter.
Much has been made of Davies’ exceptional pace and recovery speed that enables him to bomb forward like this. However, it is Alaba’s presence as the left-sided centre-back, and someone who understands the role of the left-back, which means that Bayern are largely guarded against the counter-attack down the left.
Whilst Alaba played as an inward moving full-back under Guardiola, Davies and Pavard are instructed to pin back their opposite numbers to allow space for the wingers and attacking midfielder to run in behind. Alaba’s ability to hit long passes out to these full-backs, as well as hitting centre-forward, Robert Lewandowski, adds another dimension to their play, aside from possession paced build-up. Again, Alaba is integral to this being an option.
The comments made by Guardiola regarding Lahm helped fuel a revolution in football thinking amongst armchair fans; players who enable those gifted around them, and the coach to execute a strategy, are the ones most integral to success.
Without Lahm and Alaba’s intelligence and awareness to shift inside to make a midfield three in possession, Ribery and Robben would not have been so devastating in the created space.
Similarly, if Alaba was not so talented and selfless as to play as Austria’s playmaker, goalscorer, and defensive organiser, they likely would not have qualified for any major tournaments, let alone be discussed as dark horses. Austria didn’t qualify for the World Cup two years later, perhaps giving weight to the idea that Alaba alone cannot sustain the quality of their entirety.
Had Alaba not taken so quickly to playing as a ball-playing centre back this season, then Bayern may not have established the form to fend off Dortmund, Leipzig and Monchengladbach, and win their eighth successive title.
Alaba is a unique player in that his versatility is not a means to diminish his ability. Rather than his shifting in position hindering the talent he has, it enables him to showcase this talent in other factions of the game.
David Alaba continues to surprise through his innovation of each position he plays, and already deserves to be held in the same breath as Phillip Lahm.
Written by: Tom Underhill – @TomD_Underhill