With David Alaba having recently been brought to Real Madrid on a free transfer, I thought it fitting to give a bit of background on his style of play and how he played with his former club Bayern Munich. To be perfectly candid, I hadn’t watched much of Alaba before he signed for Los Blancos, mostly watching Bayern Munich’s Champions League matches and little else. Now that I’ve had the time to go back and watch many of Alaba’s performances from the 2020/21 campaign, I thought I’d try and share some detail on Alaba for the Madridistas who, like me, don’t watch much of the Bundesliga.
As is common knowledge, David Alaba’s biggest strength (and by far his most well-known attribute) is his versatility. He’s played many different positions over his twelve year senior career, with his most-frequented being left back, central midfield (playing in both a box-to-box role and more defensively), and centre back. As he has experience in so many different positions and roles on the pitch, he’s grown to become a very well-rounded player.
While it’s not specifically known yet which role/position Alaba will play under Carlo Ancelotti, the current assumption is that he’ll slot into the back line as Sergio Ramos’ replacement, playing alongside either Raphael Varane or Eder Militao. However, his extensive experience playing all across the back line and midfield opens up a plethora of options for Real Madrid next season- one appetizing option being rumored is a back five with Alaba at left wing back, Ferland Mendy, Varane, and Militao as the centre backs, and one of Dani Carvajal or Lucas Vazquez operating as the right wing back (Mendy and Alaba are also be interchangeable in this lineup, with both being able to play centre back and left back). This is just one of the formations that Alaba’s positional fluidity would allow the squad to play next season.
As stated earlier though, Alaba will most likely spend the majority of next season playing centre back. Therefore, the remaining content of this article will discuss his possible contributions to the club next season from that role.
This season Alaba has come onto the statistical scene as a juggernaut for centre backs in possession. His ball progression numbers- for a centre back- are unprecedented. He averaged more progressive passes per match than any other centre back in Europe’s top five leagues, with 6.36 per 90. Approximately 39% of his passes move the ball forward, one of the highest rates in Europe (for reference, Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid’s most frequent ball-progressor from the back line also averaged about 39% of his passes moving the ball forward each match, albeit playing less total passes per match than Alaba).
Alaba also leads the ranking for passes into the final third from the centre back position, averaging 7.81 per 90. He’s incredibly good at getting the ball upfield quickly, and finding his teammates in pockets of space between his opponent’s defensive and midfield lines. He’s quite accurate with his passing (though there’s an obvious difference in quality when he’s passing with his dominant left foot compared to his right), and he completed his passes last season with an 85.1% efficiency. While that’s substantially lower than the 91.8% of Ramos, 91.1% of Varane, and even the 90.5% of Militao, the ball progression and chance creation that Alaba brings to the team is well worth it.
While Alaba’s progressive passing numbers are incredible, his progressive carrying numbers are quite good as well. He attempted an average of 6.67 progressive dribbles last season with Bayern Munich, for an average of 29.8 yards per carry. In comparison, Sergio Ramos attempted only 3.66 progressive dribbles per 90 minutes played last season, but his average carrying distance was much farther (48.1 yards). Both played roughly the same role for their respective clubs, with each being the designated player to do the majority of the ball-carrying when playing out of the back.
Expect Alaba to move into his opponent’s defensive half often next season when Real Madrid are in possession, and to bomb forward in attack, akin to the runs Sergio Ramos would make in the later seasons of his Real Madrid career. Alaba is an excellent crosser of the ball (a skill picked up from his extensive period at left back), and won’t hesitate to take advantage of space in wide areas deep in his opponent’s territory to get on the ball and try and find targets in the penalty area. This will be very helpful to Real Madrid as they try to break down low block defenses next season, Alaba can push forward to help put dangerous crosses into the penalty area and give the opposition another player to worry about (though this may restrict Casemiro’s role in the final third, something that I’m sure will disappoint all Madridistas).
Last season Alaba averaged 0.67 crosses per match from the centre back position (completing them with 35.7% consistency), as well as 2.39 attempted passes into the penalty area (competing about 1 on average each game). Alaba also averaged 0.5 passes that lead directly to a shot per match, a very high rate for a centre back.
Alaba is also a wizard from set pieces, something we’ve seen in his recent performances at the Euros. He takes corner kicks for his home country of Austria (and took a few for Bayern Munich last season), something that I don’t anticipate him doing for Real Madrid too often, as Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are both skilled corner kick takers as well. He can also take free kicks, both shooting and crossing, and he scored a goal for Bayern Munich from a free kick last season.
While I can’t see Alaba being on any set pieces next season as a designated taker, it’s good to have a number of players in the squad who can take corners and free kicks- the more different types of deliveries that can be provided, the better. Real Madrid have had quite the reliance on set pieces over the last few years (I wrote an article about that a few months ago; check it out here), and the addition of Alaba should help them continue this trend of dominance from dead ball situations for years to come.
When Alaba was first linked with Real Madrid, I’ll admit I had my reservations, but not about his abilities in possession. As explained throughout the previous portions of this article, you can’t do much better than him when asking for a ball-playing centre back. Not to mention his ability to play in so many different positions, which would have been an incredible asset to the team last season when the squad was ravaged by injuries. My only worries were about his defensive capabilities, as defending is the foremost duty of a centre back. This was only made worse with the loss of Sergio Ramos, the best centre back of his generation and a stalwart in Real Madrid’s back line for the past 16 seasons. However, my opinions on Alaba’s defensive abilities were formulated based on data and others’ opinions, not from my actual viewing experience. Since I’ve now had the chance to go back and actually watch some of Alaba’s 2020/21 campaign, my reservations have been somewhat quelled.
He’s quite a good defender, and his best attributes are his positional awareness and his ability to time challenges correctly. While he is sometimes caught out of position after his side loses possession (which opposition attackers often take advantage of), his recovery speed is quite good, allowing him to re-orient himself and regain positional dominance over his marker. He’ll surely give fans a few scares, as he can often be a step behind when tracking runners (and he often lets runners get into his bind spot), but he usually can catch up with players over longer distances.
Alaba was also often partnered at centre back with someone who didn’t possess much speed during the 2020/21 season, with his most frequent partners being Jerome Boateng and Niklas Sule. While both are incredibly talented defenders, this affected how high of a defensive line Bayern were forced to play, and how much Alaba had to cover for his partner when defending forwards with a lot of pace. With Real Madrid, Alaba will not have to worry about being partnered with a slower centre back, as he’ll be playing alongside Varane, Militao, and Nacho, who all possess very quick recovery speeds.
One key aspect of Sergio Ramos’ game was his aggression and willingness to dive into tackles, being the centre back in the partnership who would step out of the back line and pressure opponents that dribbled at Real Madrid’s defense. He’s a very physical player, and was always willing to put his body on the line to win the ball back. Alaba is much different, being a player that only puts in a tackle as the final option, as he’d much rather force his opponent to recycle possession, wanting them to play back to a deeper teammate. However, if he is forced to put in a tackle, it won’t be a crunching, full-body Sergio Ramos-esque tackle, it’ll be Alaba trying to get a foot into his opponent’s space, trying to use a toe to poke the ball free. He’s very quick with his instinctual reactions and body movements, and his challenges are usually well-timed.
Alaba is also a leader in the back line, and in his team as a whole. This is especially apparent when watching him play with Austria at the Euros; he’s the field general, the player on the pitch who controls his team and communicates where players need to be and who is marking who. While Raphael Varane is expected to step up and be the leader in Real Madrid’s back line next season, it’s good to know that there’s someone else there who’s comfortable shouldering that responsibility.
While Real Madrid have just lost a massive presence in their squad with Sergio Ramos’ departure, the future looks a bit less bleak with Alaba’s arrival. He will surely be an asset to the team next season given his positional versatility and progressive nature whilst in possession. Hopefully his presence will be positive in the squad, and he can help Los Blancos get back to their title-winning ways next season.