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How David Alaba will help Real Madrid next season, despite being on a crazy salary

Kiyan Sobhani dives deep into what the Alaba signing means for next season and beyond

FC Bayern Muenchen v FC Augsburg - Bundesliga Photo by Stefan Matzke - sampics/Corbis via Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

As both Real Madrid and Barcelona navigate a cold financial landscape as they emerge from a cocooned, transferless COVID-19 world, they may look back on this upcoming window as the summer of free agent signings. That is how it’s started, anyway. Barcelona are closing on free agent Sergio Aguero, and possibly Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum — both on the back of expiring contracts. Real Madrid just signed David Alaba whose contract with Bayern Munich ran its course. Real Madrid will also ‘welcome’ back seven players whose loan contracts expire on June 30th. Of course, what happens to them next season is still up in the air, but at the very least, there will be a pit stop at Valdebebas until their futures are sorted out. Given the difficult financial gymnastics involved in signing stars this summer, the club will have to consider at least some of those seven as possible reinforcements for the 2021 - 2022 season.

Of course, nothing is actually ‘free’ about free agents. Players ‘big’ enough — and Alaba falls into this category — will receive a signing fee, and in many cases, their agents will too. That may all accumulate to less than actually sending in a successful transfer bid for a star already under contract; but both in the cases of Alaba and Toni Kroos, Real Madrid got the player for cheap up front, but also had a long term price to pay. Kroos had one of the highest salaries on the entire team upon signing. Reports in BILD claim Alaba, his agent Pini Zahavi, and father will receive €20m as part of the signing fee. Alaba will be paid almost €12m annually for the next five years. That is an obscene amount of money that Bayern Munich weren’t ready to match. David Alaba is, if he gets to his best, one of the best and most versatile center-back / wing-back hybrids on earth. If he doesn’t pan out, his contract is an immovable albatross. Real Madrid already have two of those in Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale. They are not fun.

(To be clear on the above point about Kroos, even with his salary, he’s been a bargain.)

Still, there are reasons Real Madrid felt they had to do this — ironically in the same week they announced salary reductions within the organization. They face question marks over their two iconic defensive pillars, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, who guided them through a dynasty. They now have leverage — even more of if than they already did thanks to the reliable performances of Nacho Fernandez and Eder Militao this season — to give Ramos a ‘take it or leave it’ contract. Varane has yet to commit long term. On the left, Marcelo has faded into a brutal decline. Alaba gives you security across multiple positions.

Had Real Madrid not acted quickly — and by all accounts they started discourse with Alaba’s camp months ago — they risked losing Alaba to another bidder, potentially compromising their post-Ramos (and possibly Varane) outlook.

Still, one has to wonder: Who were they bidding against? Like Hazard, Real Madrid were squeezed of all its juice — and Hazard wanted Real Madrid while his contract was running down.

Bayern were not going to match Alaba’s salary demands. Few teams on the open market would, and even if they could, even fewer have the open spot for him. There is also another scenario still on the table: Both Ramos and Varane stay. Ramos may see a better deal, but he’ll also weigh the end of his Real Madrid legacy. Varane still has time on his contract. If everyone stays, Real Madrid’s wage structure gets squeezed to its core. Remember: Gareth Bale is still a Real Madrid player.

Real Madrid v Bayern Munchen - UEFA Champions League Photo by Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images

Alaba’s timeline does fit, though. He is 28, in his theoretical peak. One can assess the risk of his contract while also acknowledging how useful of a player he can still be. Alaba is ready — not a prospect and not ‘one for the future’ that may or may not pan out like the plethora of youngsters Real Madrid have signed in the past few years. But Real Madrid fans still have scars from the Hazard deal, who was also in his supposed peak. By the time Alaba will be on the last year of his monstrous contract, he’ll be 33. This is a long, expensive commitment.

Like Hazard, Alaba does not have a huge track record with injuries before joining Real. Hazard had some hip problems at the end of the 2015 - 2016 season, but pretty clean other than that. Alaba only missed two games due to injury this season, and he has not had a major injury since the 2014 - 2015 season, where he missed 14 games due to a medial collateral ligament knee injury.

But Hazard also had a track record for enjoying off-season a little too much. He took summers off, and would round into shape later than most professional footballers are expected to. That stuff catches up to you when you hit your late 20s. Alaba’s fitness is where it needs to be. He has taken care of his body differently.

I do worry about Real Madrid handcuffing themselves more than they should. The best-managed clubs give themselves flexibility, and can steer their way through rocky streams just like water would — free and unchained. You don’t want another Hazard and Bale situation three-to-four years from now. Too many of these contracts are hard to juggle at the same time. There is also an untold vibe that feels strange when David Alaba walks into Real Madrid on a fresh contract, already earning more than one of the greatest defenders in club history, Raphael Varane, who is the same age as Alaba. Varane will weigh those numbers when deciding how much he feels valued by the club. If he does end up staying, it’s likely on a matched salary — meaning you have another expensive contract on the books. If he leaves due to wages, then the club has essentially chosen Alaba over Varane. Though, that’s assuming if Varane’s decision comes down to money alone.

The club could pitch Varane a different way: Ride this out with us, and in 2022, we’ll have both Marcelo and Bale off the books. You’ll get an improved contract then, and if you bite the bullet now, it allows us to bring in Alaba to help the defensive line alongside you in the post-Ramos era. Maybe that hits, maybe it doesn’t. Varane may want something new anyway, especially with Zidane gone.

One could argue that the club wouldn’t have pursued Alaba had they not known they’d lose at least one defensive player. But the club’s guess is as good as yours. No decision has been made yet from either Ramos or Varane, per source, and Alaba was probably going to come anyway. Real Madrid have not been deterred in the past from being too deep in certain positions, while being paper thin in others. The roster construction needs some polishing. Going too deep means players can’t get into rhythm and form. Going too thin means you’re riding a starter into the ground.

But, again, Alaba screams security, across multiple positions, in a period where Real Madrid is getting eviscerated with injuries. Ignoring the money and baggage that comes with it, Alaba is a stud.

I’m willing to wager, at the very minimum, he’ll raise Real Madrid’s floor in almost every game he plays. But I do wonder: If Ramos and Varane stay, is Alaba a starter? Ferland Mendy is the better defensively player. Right off the bat, that’s three positions occupied. Casemiro has held down his spot for years, as has Dani Carvajal on the right. I don’t think Alaba should get regular minutes in too many positions, just because he’s known as a jack-of-all-trades. He’s at his best at center-back and left-back.

Of course, as we’ve witnessed in horror this season, it’s not about who’s a starter and who’s not — it’s about whoever is bloody alive and able to walk. Alaba would’ve been a Godsend to have in the 2020-2021 season. Carvajal is not readily available due to his injuries, and there is an unwritten rule that has existed at Real Madrid for over five years now: If one fullback is injured, they’re somehow all injured. Now if that happens, you can put Nacho on one side, and Alaba on the other. And if Antonio Conte is Real Madrid’s coach next season, he’ll burn through center-backs and wing-backs in his three-at-the-back formation.

Come what may this season, the Alaba signing is also a seed planted for years ahead. He will almost certainly outlive Nacho, Marcelo, Odriozola, and Ramos. Possibly others too. If Varane leaves (and if he does, the club will want to sell him this summer before letting his contract run down), Real Madrid can use the cleared room and money to pursue either Pau Torres or Jules Koundé to help lead the backline. I do think it would be worth pursuing one of those two.

It remains to be seen what the next coach will do with the backline, but if Alaba starts, he’ll be at his best as a left-sided center-back or left-back. The Austrian has a tactical-nous when it comes to ball progression. He is an expert at helping his team escape high presses, and can work synergistically with the left-winger ahead of him — covering his runs, and working interchangeably to drag defenders around on both the overlap and underlap. Real Madrid fans should remember that part of it well. He and Frank Ribery torched Lucas Vazquez (playing makeshift right-back that night) at the Santiago Bernabeu in the 2018 Champions League semi-final bloodbath which Zidane’s men squeaked out. There were no answers for Alaba’s runs.

Of course, Alaba was part of a wave, mid-decade, where inverted full-backs became a thing. Pep Guardiola used Alaba to tuck in centrally from left-back to midfield in the build-up phase — something that Zidane did with both Marcelo and Mendy this season to help escape presses. Alaba is cerebral in that role, and is accustomed to playing it. He will lend a hand to the midfielders too. Toni Kroos, his former teammate at Bayern, will enjoy having someone reliable to combine with on that side. Kroos said earlier this season that “Alaba has the quality to play for Real Madrid, but the quality isn’t enough. Here, you also need to have a physical presence and you need your head to be in order when things don’t work out. You need more than sporting quality.” I would bet, that despite Alaba not being a traditional bruiser, Kroos will appreciate his bite, intelligence, and technical ability.

FC Bayern Muenchen v 1. FSV Mainz 05 - Bundesliga Photo by Lennart Preiss/Bongarts/Getty Images

When you reflect on how good Alaba is, it’s easy to dial up the excitement of his signing. Alaba was important in Bayern’s build-up phase from both the middle and the wing, but also has a good grasp reading runs from attackers. He and Jerome Boateng did it well as a center-back partnership. Alaba knows when to hedge on the ball-carrier, and is generally good at calculating gambles. His step-up interventions at Bayern were reliable.

Even this season, Alaba was devastating in the Bundesliga getting the ball into dangerous positions. No player in the league had more passes into the final third this season than the Austrian. That rang true the season prior as well. He is also one of the better ball-carriers in the world, and had the highest progressive carrying distance in the Bundesliga in the 2019 - 2020 season. He will also help you suffocate opponents, and is not far from removed from the 2018 - 2019 season, where he had the most successful pressure percentage in the entire league.

Bayern fans understand that paying Alaba the salary that Real Madrid were willing to dish out was absolutely crazy. But they also understand they’ve lost a really, really good player. This signing doesn’t make Real Madrid an instant European contender, but it does improve them.

Real Madrid still have work to do with this squad, but they did bring in someone that fits their culture, and, with a tear, I’d say that Zidane would’ve loved someone as versatile as Alaba.

“I’m very happy because David’s a player who leads the back four and always gives instructions to his colleagues,” Hansi Flick said while he was coaching Alaba at Bayern last season. “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.”

“He’s outstanding for me as a left-back, but I think he’s one of the best in the world at centre-back,” former teammate at Bayern Joshua Kimmich said. “I’ve told David that. His body language is amazing, he has great build-up play and keeps calm under pressure.”

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