The hope is that, at some point this season, Carlo Ancelotti can name David Alaba in his starting line-up at a packed Bernabéu for a big Champions League game. This, though, is something the coach has done before. It was in 2016/17, the one full season the Italian was at Bayern Munich, when he played Alaba against Real Madrid in what turned out to be an epic extra time quarter-final victory for Los Blancos.
Spool forward four years and Ancelotti and Alaba are together again, this time at Real Madrid. So far, they are the first team’s two major arrivals and will look to rekindle what was a strong relationship from their time together in Bavaria.
Over the course of Ancelotti’s 60 matches in charge at Bayern Munich, from the start of the 2016/17 season to his sacking two months into the 2017/18 campaign, only Robert Lewandowski played more minutes than the Austrian. Ancelotti used Alaba in 51 of his 60 games for a total of 4,096 minutes. Of the nine matches where Ancelotti didn’t put Alaba into the fray for Bayern, seven were because of injury and two were for rest. In other words, Ancelotti used Alaba as much as he could at Bayern Munich.
But, where did Ancelotti use Alaba? Well, mostly at left-back. Let’s rewind…
Will Alaba play left-back under Ancelotti at Real Madrid?
One of the first comments most pundits will make about Alaba usually concerns his versatility, with the Austrian able to perform at centre-back, central midfield or left-back. He can play in other positions too, but these are the three where he has been used most frequently.
When he was breaking through in Bavaria in 2010, Louis van Gaal famously said “Alaba is a left-back, but he just doesn’t know it yet”. Later, though, when Pep Guardiola was in charge at the Allianz Arena, it was more common for Alaba to be used centrally. Then, under Ancelotti, left-back became Alaba’s primary position.
Here, in the below tables, comes a breakdown of the positions played by Alaba in each season over the past 10 years and under each coach.
Looking at these tables, especially the season-by-season table, we can see that Alaba has gone through five eras in his Bayern career. Firstly, as he was breaking through, he was given minutes wherever there was a space for him and played in each of the highlighted position except centre-back. Secondly, in Jupp Heynckes’ last year of 2012/13 and Pep Guardiola’s first of 2013/14, he mostly played at left-back. Thirdly, in Guardiola’s final two seasons, Alaba was deployed more centrally. Fourthly, under Ancelotti, he was reconverted to left-back and kept there during the next Heynckes stint and under Niko Kovac. Then, lastly, he was moved central again when Hansi Flick came in.
So, what does this mean for Real Madrid? Well, it means that Alaba will arrive having played mostly at centre-back over the past two years but that he’ll work with a former coach who mostly deployed him at left-back.
Ancelotti, though, realised that Alaba could be a great central defender during his time in Munich. It’s just that the Italian had prime Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng for those central roles and only an inexperienced Juan Bernat for left-back.
“For me, David Alaba is an exceptional central defender,” Ancelotti said in an interview with ESPN at the time, thrilled to finally work with a player he’d actually wanted to sign for Real Madrid in the summer of 2014, during his previous stint at the Bernabéu. “Though he doesn’t play at centre-back much, he has all the qualities to do it. He excels at both passive defending, where the defence holds its position and makes the opponent play around them, and he can do active defending, where you advance, retreat and adjust based on the situation. Most players are better one way or another. Not him. He’s equally excellent.”
This is why it seems much more likely that Ancelotti will use Alaba as a centre-back at Real Madrid. The main reason he didn’t use the Austrian as a centre-back when they worked together at Bayern Munich was because that position was well covered, whereas left-back was not. At Real Madrid in 2021/22, the opposite is true. Sergio Ramos has just left and Raphaël Varane could depart as well, whereas Ferland Mendy has nailed down the left-back spot and has Marcelo and Miguel Gutiérrez as two backups. That’s why Alaba is set to predominantly play at centre-back for Ancelotti.
Beyond the positional question, these are two professionals who respect each other immensely and who should be able to hit the ground running upon arrival at Valdebebas. Alaba has spoken in the past about how much he admires his former and current coach’s man-management style, telling Goal.com that: “Ancelotti is a really cool guy and I think he can get along really well with every single player, with young players but also with big players who have been in the team for a long time. Ancelotti is a coach who speaks to the players a lot, not only as a team but also with the individual player. He tries to talk to you and wants to make sure to explain to you what he wants you to do on the pitch. That’s important and, if you listen to it, you’re going to learn a lot.”
Alaba agreed to join Real Madrid well before he knew Ancelotti would be his coach there. But, while the Austrian might have been excited to work with Zinedine Zidane, he is surely delighted to have the chance to work with Carletto once more.