David Alaba’s free transfer to Real Madrid in the summer of 2021-22 caused quite a stir in the Real Madrid community. Alaba walked into a dressing room this summer that had just been vacated by Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane — two giants of the central-defense industry. Despite having played at this position at Bayern Munich, Alaba’s strengths were projected to be elsewhere (at left-back and even at the defensive midfield slot). Four months on from his debut, Alaba has more admirers than doubters at Real Madrid.
Alaba’s leadership quality caught the eye of the Real Madrid faithful rather quickly. Real Madrid had great leaders on and off the pitch with multiple international captains donning their shirts. Alaba was added to that list, but not just on paper. Initially, he started at left-back with Nacho and Militao in the center. Currently, he is well settled into the center-back role with Militao as his partner. But Alaba has been a vocal presence throughout this season so far, irrespective of his position. From organizing the defense to communicating with the goalkeeper - Alaba does the whole reliable defensive leader’s routine.
With the departures of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, Real Madrid’s aerial domination was bound to dip. Real Madrid has won 49.5% of their aerial duals this season compared to the 55.4% of their aerial duels won during the 2019-20 season (when Ramos and Varane played the full season with the team). Alaba wins 58.3% of his aerial duals compared to his center-back partner, Militao (65.7%). His limitation in the air has even led to conceding goals. Numerous lost aerial duals inside the penalty area is not really a trait that a center-back would want to have.
Alaba’s positioning and intercepting ability have been two of his pros. The screening ability of the opponent’s ball circulation is a trait more associated with Alaba’s center-back partner Eder Militao. But the Austrian doesn’t lag far behind in this regard. Alaba often steps out to pick an opponent’s pass, especially if Real Madrid is trying to defend their central channel. The defensive action map above also suggests that he has done well in recovering balls in deeper and in higher positions of the pitch.
Since the return of Ferland Mendy, David Alaba’s offensive avatar has been liberated to a new degree. He already seems to have great communication with Mendy to change positions on the fly. With Mendy going inside, Alaba goes wide and unleashed his deadly crosses more consistently now.
Alaba’s press resistance and his tendency to present himself as a passing outlet go a long way in helping his teammates to get out of difficult situations. In this particular sequence, Barcelona shifts their press from left to right but Alaba remains completely calm under pressure, moving between players to pass it out of pressure. Eventually, Real Madrid wins the ball back due to the foul on Mendy.
Alaba was an elite progressor of the ball before arriving in Madrid and he has shown no signs of stopping. Among Real Madrid players, only Toni Kroos and Casemiro have provided more passes into the final third than Alaba. For passes into the penalty area, Alaba is only behind Karim Benzema and Vinicius Jr — the team’s two top scorers. Alaba makes Real Madrid’s top five for the total number of progressive passes as well. He is also within the top five players in the squad for the total number of progressive carries and second-best for progressive distance covered, just behind Vinicius.
David Alaba has come to Real Madrid with a wealth of experience at another huge club. He feels no pressure, adapting to the high demands at the Santiago Bernabeu. There are some defensive glitches that need fixing (or need further adaptation from the manager). Based on David Alaba’s performances in the first few months, he is a galactico-esque signing that we not only needed but also deserved.
[Statistics were collected from Fbref up to the Real Madrid match against Rayo. Visualizations were also prepared for the same timeline.]