David Alaba: the best centre-back in the Bundesliga?
It’s a transformation that's been five years in the making, but Pep Guardiola’s prediction that Bayern Munich all-rounder David Alaba can become one of the world’s best centre-backs may just have come to pass.
"He's an unbelievable talent," the current Manchester City boss said of Alaba midway through his three-season reign in charge of the record champions between 2013 and 2016. "He can play anywhere. He's quick, good in the build-up and always 100 per cent focused. Without doubt he can be one of the best centre-backs in the world. He's a huge gift for Bayern."
With enough layers to satisfy an army of six-year-olds in a game of pass the parcel, few players are as versatile, let alone as accomplished in such a range of positions, as Alaba. Joining Bayern at the age of 15 from Austria Vienna as a precocious midfielder, the Austrian handyman was reimagined as one of the world’s leading left-backs by Louis van Gaal in 2010, via a loan spell at Hoffenheim.
He moonlighted as a central midfielder, winger and left-sided centre-half under Guardiola; Carlo Ancelotti took a leaf out of Bayern’s Conversion A-Z by deploying the Austrian in a central defensive role; and it was out of necessity rather than design that Niko Kovac shifted his trusty left-back inside for the trip to Eintracht Frankfurt on Matchday 10 of the 2019/20 season. At the time, first-choice sentries Niklas Süle and Lucas Hernandez were both out with long-term injuries.
A 5-1 defeat, hastened by Jerome Boateng’s first-half sending off, spelled the end for Kovac - but not for Alaba the centre-back. Hansi Flick was rewarded for keeping faith with the Austrian as Bayern ran out commanding 4-0 winners over Dortmund on his debut as interim coach, restricting the Black-Yellows to a single shot on Manuel Neuer’s goal - an unheard of statistic for BVB in the modern era of data collection.
Alaba has been a staple at the heart of the Bayern defence ever since. Even with record signing Hernandez available again for the return trip to Dortmund on Matchday 28, Flick entrusted Alaba with the role of keeping Erling Haaland in check.
"I'm very happy because David's a player who leads the back four and always gives instructions to his colleagues," Flick said of his universalist talent. "He takes the initiative, takes charge. You can hear him talking to the players. As a coach, I want to see and hear my players do that - to coach their teammates. He’s just a very intelligent player, and his development as a centre-back has been phenomenal. He ticks all the boxes as a central defender."
Watch: Bayern's much-improved defence under Flick
The numbers throw any notion of mentor-student bias out of the window. Despite standing at 5'10" tall, Alaba won all three of his attempted aerial challenges as Bayern came away from Dortmund with a 1-0 win. His former teammate Mats Hummels - a rangy 6'3" in the height department - was beaten to all three of his. Alaba also finished the game with the best passes-to-a-man ratio (95.4 per cent) in a performance that mirrored his team-leading averages across the campaign.
No Bayern player has had as many touches (2,716), hit the mark with as many passes (91 per cent) or won as many challenges as Alaba (60 per cent) in his 24 league outings as a centre-back in 2019/20. Tearing up the script for latter-day defenders but going by the rulebook, he was the only outfield regular in a Bayern shirt last season with a flawless disciplinary record (no yellow or red cards).
“He's outstanding for me as a left-back, but I think he's one of the best in the world at centre-back," said Joshua Kimmich, Bayern’s right-back turned Klassiker matchwinner from midfield. "I've told David that. His body language is amazing, he has great build-up play and keeps calm under pressure."
To prove that Guardiola, Flick and Kimmich really do know what they’re talking about, Alaba’s key metrics as a centre-back - aerial and slide tackles won, passing accuracy and touches - are superior to his efforts as a defensive midfielder, central midfielder, winger and left-back, climbing roughly 10, three and 14 per cent respectively. Crosses from open play are down, but long balls to a man are up - though that’s par for the course.
Alaba in central defence puts the onus on incendiary left-back Alphonso Davies to raid forward into opposition territory. The eight-time Bundesliga winner forged a slice of his own glittering reputation on such forays, and it’s testament to his credentials as a natural defensive general that 19-year-old Davies is able to thrive in the very position his Bayern tutor once held under lock and key.
"I have a guy like David Alaba beside me who is one of the best left-backs in the world and he’s helping me out," Davies explained after inheriting the left-back berth earlier in the campaign. "I’m very grateful for that."
As well as coaching one of world football’s most gifted teenagers on the fly, Alaba still finds opportunities to marry his bread and butter defensive work with attacking incursions. The 28-year-old can go all out quarter-back with Boateng-level punts up towards Robert Lewandowski.
Alternatively, he is able to advance into opposition territory and furnish the frontline, whenever the likes of Kimmich and Thiago drop back from central midfield. Bayern’s No.27 is no ordinary defender.
"Alaba doesn’t just perform to 100 per cent of his abilities at the back, but he closes the space, pings passes about and runs with the ball at speed. Usually players can only manage to do one or the other," observed Germany legend Lothar Matthäus as part of his Herz der Mannschaft podcast for Sky Sports.
"Alaba the centre-back is not something anyone bargained on at the start of the season. Now he’s the best centre-back in the Bundesliga."
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