The injury of Niklas Süle posed a lot of questions for Bayern Munich coaching staff this season. There are many options within the squad for players to play the centre-back position, new arrivals Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard included. But they looked toward the wildcard of their left-back David Alaba. You could say the Austrian has had a desire for a new challenge after playing in this team for so long and he got his opportunity and has grabbed it with both hands, playing every minute since Hansi Flick has been appointed.
Alaba being deployed as a centre-back has changed the look of the team and helped the players around him. Introducing the explosive Alphonso Davies into the line-up at left-back and giving Jerome Boateng a mobile partner to cover space in-behind. During this analysis we will examine the details that make the dynamic David Alaba a truly top class ball-playing centre-back.
Game Alerting Influence
As a ball-playing centre-back you are starting your team’s play. With the entire game in front of you the opportunity is there to make significant passes that weaken the opposition defensive structure and put your team into advantageous positions. Alaba excels particularly well at identifying line-breaking passes into players in advanced zones. With the ball at his feet he keeps his head up and looks forward.
You can’t afford to give him space because he will punish you with his excellent passing range and execution. This season he’s made an outstanding 9.25 progressive passes per 90 minutes, which is better than a lot of team’s midfielders. Here, Chelsea sit off and allow Alaba time and space, the Austrian punishes them locating Robert Lewandowski eliminating four players out of the game as Bayern assault their attacking third.
It is not just about finding players in-between the lines or initiating progressive passing sequences. You can also influence the attacking third from a deeper zone, like a defensive midfielder would. Here he drives forward and sees the run of Gnabry on the right flank. The movements of Muller inside attracts the fullback which let’s the wide player sneak into space behind him. Alaba recognises what’s happening and plays a perfectly weighted long-pass to Gnabry, the sequence ends in a goal.
Playing through pressure
So what happens when you try to limit the space Alaba has to work with? A lot of centre-backs can struggle when being pressed. Sometimes forcing crucial errors or poor passing options that lead to less progressive play. Alaba however has been competing at some of the highest levels of European club football practically his whole career. So it is not surprising that he processes the game at a great speed. With the likes of Joshua Kimmich, Thiago and Thomas Müller looking to create solutions for him it makes the Austrian’s job even easier. Composed and calm on the ball, Flick’s side never look uncomfortable in-possession now even if the ball is circulating between the centre-backs. He’s completed 11.0 passes under pressure per 90 minutes.
Below Chelsea are 3-0 down, and ramp the pressure up as they are looking to get something out of the game. Despite Chelsea cutting off Thiago and Kimmich from him, Alaba knows the space where Müller will arrive so he executes the pass before Willian can close down the angle and breaks Chelsea’s first and second line of pressure.
Dynamism in and out of possession
When examining Alaba’s qualities he offers a different profile to Bayern’s other centre-backs. As seen in the player profile above, Alaba is 5’11 making him the shortest option at centre-back in Flick’s squad out of Boateng, Hernandez, Süle and Pavard. The more significant advantage Alaba offers is the dynamism in his skillset. Specifically in his athletic qualities, he brings world class sprint speed and acceleration which he can utilise to his advantage in various ways.
In possession he can use his acceleration to leverage the ball forward. Whereas some central defenders like to take a touch before making a decision on the ball, Alaba impressively does it all in one action.
He knows the ball is coming to him so he checks for what is in front of him before he receives the ball and the Hoffenheim forward can close him down. With one touch and the ball at his feet he burst forward with the ball, this keeps the ball constantly moving and in a progressive direction. The defenders next move was a pass to Coutinho who had the space to create a penalty box entry highlighting how noteworthy this is. Alaba has carried the ball forward more yards than any Bayern Munich player with 10 or more games played.
Defender’s average speeds are the lowest between all the other outfield positions in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Last season and largely throughout the Niko Kovac reign the lack of mobility at the centre-back position hurt Bayern. Mats Hummels and Boateng would be shredded during defensive transitions as they could not keep pace with players and close space in-behind down quick enough.
With Alaba now, gaps of space on his side of the pitch aren’t a problem. If there are gaps during this phase of play Alaba can quickly shuffle across to put out the fire. Below is a ball recovery map, many of the recoveries are coming from vacant space that opposition forwards will target, and as you can see he had no problems against Mainz in covering these zones.
Bayern Munich have been on a war path since the arrival of Hansi Flick. Putting their foot down in the Bundesliga, and even being named favorites to claim the Champions League. We hadn’t seen Alaba deployed as a centre-back since Pep Guardiola was at the helm but it’s proved to be a master stroke that has gotten the best out of him on an individual level and the squad on a collective. He embodies everything that is needed for a possession based team from their ball-playing centre-back, moving the ball at a quick tempo and passing into purposeful and progressive zones on the pitch.
By Craig Moniz.