Is Bayern Munich's David Alaba the world's best left-back?
Is Bayern Munich's David Alaba the world's best left-back? bundesliga.com compares the Austrian with the other contenders: Marcelo, Lucas Hernandez, Jordi Alba, Andy Robertson and Alex Sandro.
Ask a Bayern fan if they would swap Alaba for any left-back in the world, and you are likely to get a very firm 'Nein' and a quizzical look as to why they would even consider it.
They believe he is the best left-back on the planet, but is he? bundesliga.com makes the case that he is…
The days of a left-back being the one who was, well, left back when his team went forward are long gone. Before the pure shot-stopper morphed into the sweeper 'keeper, it was the full-backs that underwent a revolution, and ever since Roberto Carlos and THAT free-kick against France in Le Tournoi in 1997, left-backs have no longer been 'just' defenders.
With his strike in Bayern's 5-1 thrashing of Eintracht on the final day of last season, Alaba took his all-time Bundesliga haul to 21 in 221 Bundesliga games for Bayern, a total that compares more than favourably to Marcelo's 25 in nearly 350 La Liga outings for Real Madrid, and outdoes Alba's 13 in 271 Spanish top-flight appearances for Valencia and Barcelona. Add in his 33 top-flight assists, and Alaba has been involved in a Bayern goal every four Bundesliga games; not a great return for a striker, but stratospherically good for a full-back.
Watch: David Alaba's Top 3 free-kicks for Bayern Munich
Liverpool man Robertson may have won the UEFA Champions League last season but he still has work to do to catch up with Alaba - the Scotland captain has scored five top-flight goals in his career - while Hernandez netted just once for Atletico Madrid in over 60 Liga games before making his summer switch to Bayern to play alongside - and potentially inside of - Alaba.
Alex Sandro does have an impressive return of 10 goals and 13 assists from 106 Serie A outings, but the Juventus man has had the luxury of many of his defensive duties having been lifted from him by the Serie A champions' immovable back three while Alaba has mostly played in a flat back four.
In a team where, in recent seasons, you could pick any one of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Robert Lewandowski, Thiago Alcantara and Thomas Müller to take set-pieces, it says much about Alaba's ability to bring a dead ball alive that he is sizing up the shot when a free-kick is awarded within striking distance of goal.
The secret? "I was already working on that when I was very young," explained Alaba, who has netted six of his last 13 goals from direct free-kicks. "I'm always trying to refine it."
"He's good going forward, but when he has to defend…" How many times have you heard that about a left-back in the modern game? Yes, they need to attack, but left-backs also have their 'day job' to do in helping keep opponents out.
Hernandez got the nod over Manchester City left-back Benjamin Mendy in Didier Deschamps' FIFA World Cup-winning team because the Atletico Madrid man is more of an old school defender, while Robertson boasts an impressive 67 percent of tackles won — coming out on top in more than two of every three.
But the Liverpool full-back has already accumulated 18 yellow cards in his 115 English Premier League appearances. By comparison, Alaba only has 11 — the same tally Hernandez has amassed in a quarter of the games — and has never been cautioned more than three times in a season, meaning he has yet to miss a Bundesliga game through suspension. Ever.
That iron-willed discipline runs through his game. Rarely caught out of position, the sense of timing that serves him so well in the opponents' final third also comes in more than handy when making his challenges with the Austrian averaging fewer than one foul per 90 minutes over his Bundesliga career.
"Discipline, and always wanting to learn more," is what Alaba revealed he would tell his 14-year-old self to focus on if he got the opportunity. And if that fails? Pace: clocked at 21.4 miles an hour this season, only Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman and Niklas Süle are more fleet-footed in the Bayern squad.
Less tangible to measure than trophies or tackling stats, but there is no doubt Alaba is a man who - while he might not shout the loudest - can have an impact, even in a dressing room that must strain to contain the wall-to-wall ego.
"He brings the dynamism we need," Jupp Heynckes said in 2012 when Alaba stood in for the injured Bastian Schweinsteiger, while Pep Guardiola -then boss at Bayern - was lost for words: "He's just incredible, he's just…wow! He can play everywhere."
That was after Guardiola had employed Alaba as a makeshift centre-back during an injury crisis and found that the switch caused no dip in his individual displays nor in the team's performance.
Born in Vienna, perhaps it’s no surprise he can waltz into virtually any position on the pitch and still appear gracefully at ease, and if you can impress Pep, you can impress anyone. Even Der Kaiser.
"He's a huge talent and a polite guy who can play football," was how Bayern and Germany legend Franz Beckenbauer described him, while teammate Jerome Boateng hailed the impact Alaba has on lifting spirits: "Everyone likes him, he's always laughing."
The same could be said of Madrid's Marcelo, who is four years Alaba's senior, but he does not have to carry the burden of a nation's expectations on his shoulders in the same way as Alaba.
The first man to be named his country's Player of the Year six times, Alaba now leads his nation onto the pitch, a natural progression for a player who has been the biggest fish in the pond of Austrian football since he was a teenager, and one who has thrived in the unforgiving sharkpool of talent at Bayern since making his Bundesliga debut aged 17.
"I'm really proud," he had said when named captain by Austria coach Franco Foda in September 2018. "But actually, I have always tried to go forward and take responsibility."
Alaba has to bow to Marcelo in this area…at least for now. The Madrid full-back has four UEFA Champions League winner's medals, four La Liga titles and two Copas del Rey in a prodigious haul of 22 club trophies, as well as the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup with the Selecao.
Alba has 15, including a UEFA European championship, a UEFA Champions League and a quintet of La Liga wins, while Hernandez can boast of having won football's ultimate prize: the FIFA World Cup.
As an Austrian, Alaba will struggle to scale the summit of world football in his national team's colours, but he has already been to the top of the German and European game with Bayern, collecting 17 major titles with Bayern.
His parents - his father George hails from Nigeria, his mother, Gina, from the Philippines - must have had to make significant space on their mantlepiece for their über-gifted son's medal haul that includes eight Bundesliga Meisterschale, four DFB Cups and the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League.
"I cannot yet judge whether it's the right step. Yes, I probably could have already played in the second or maybe even the first division in Austria, but that wasn't my goal. I always want to achieve more, which is why I moved to Bayern," said Alaba - then 16 - when asked why he had set himself the seemingly impossible target of succeeding at Bayern when he could have had it easy on home soil.
Given his desire, doubled with his talent and a contract with Bayern that runs until 2021 and will most likely go beyond, Mr. & Mrs. Alaba might want to start thinking about getting a bigger mantlepiece…
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