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David Alaba: The New Leader

An analytical deep dive on what makes the Austrian such a special player

Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain: Round Of Sixteen Leg Two - UEFA Champions League Photo by Alvaro Medranda/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

Alaba has been a central figure for Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid this season. The Austrian center-back, who joined Madrid from Bayern Munich in the summer for free and has since made 38 starts this season — accumulating a total of 3412 minutes in the process (third most in the team). The former Bayern Munich man has formed a great partnership with Eder Militão this season, with both having pretty solid individual campaigns.

In this piece we will focus on certain aspects, like his ball playing ability, and how that helps the team and makes him an indispensable part of the squad.

Importance in buildup

Alaba’s main strengths lie in his incredible ball playing abilities. He is among the best ball playing CBs in the world. A versatile player who has played a large part of his career as a left back and has featured as a midfielder owing to his ball playing prowess, Alaba is extremely important for Real Madrid in the buildup phase and in bringing the ball out of their own third.

David Alaba’s ball carries this season

Alaba’s contribution in buildup and the progression phase comes in part thanks to his ball carrying ability. One of the best ball carriers in the side, Alaba helps bring the ball out from Madrid’s own third with it. He has carried the ball more times (746) this season than anyone else in the squad and has made the fourth most progressive carries in the side only behind Vinicius Jr, Benzema and Rodrygo.

In the viz above we can see how he helps the side carry the ball into the opposition’s half. As noted before Alaba ranks only behind Fede Valverde and Vinicius among the players who carry the ball forward for a longer distance on average. This makes sense as he often sees a lot of space ahead of him to carry the ball into. This is also reflected in those long carries that originate in Madrid’s own box and help bring possession out of their own third.

David Alaba’s progressive pass map this season

Alaba usually follows his ball carries from the defence with an incisive pass centrally or an exchange with the fullback. He is able to pick out forward options and break lines with his passing. The Austrian only ranks behind Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric for passes played into the final third for Real Madrid.

Looking at his progressive passing map, we can notice some of his preferences. A lot of his progressive passes end in central areas. His ability to delay his touch on reception and his left footed nature opens up lanes for him to play passes into. The range on his passes allows him to pick out targets from deep with a long ball over the top. His assist to Benzema against Mallorca was a perfect example of this.

He doesn’t prefer to play switch passes as often as his Brazilian partner, instead Alaba plays incisive line breaking passes picking out players in between opposition lines on the near side using his left foot.

Having a player with good passing range and composure under pressure like Alaba, who is adept at both carrying and passing allows Madrid to push forward, squeeze play and initiate attacks. His carries, as we have seen, help Madrid penetrate the opposition half with ease.

Alaba has previously played at left-back at a very high level, this versatility allows him to be influential from the fullback position as well. This year he hasn’t played at LB a lot, but we can see his ability to influence games in the attacking third by looking at his crosses.

David Alaba cross map this season

Having made a name for himself as a world class LB before a shift to CB as recently as two seasons ago, Alaba is very much capable of influencing games in attack with his crossing ability. He has attempted 53 crosses this season which has resulted in two assists while creating five shots. He ranks only behind Lucas Vazquez and Dani Carvajal for crosses into the box this season and ranks 5th among the squad for crosses attempted this season.

Looking at his cross map from the season, we can notice how he pushes up to support the fullback and can whip a ball in from deep wide areas into the heart of the box. His assist for Benzema vs Rayo Vallecano and his assist for Vinicius against Alaves from the left edge of the box are perfect examples of how dangerous and accurate his deliveries could be. He is able to bend the ball perfectly into the path of the attacker.

Defensive acumen

The Austrian’s defensive contribution relies a lot on his innate pace and game reading. Alaba is front footed in his defensive approach, often stepping out to quickly to close down and press the receiving opponent in the middle third of the pitch in order to win the ball back and initiate attack. This in turn can prove helpful for Madrid’s rest defense structure and counter-pressing scheme but that has been a coaching failure all season.

David Alaba’s defensive territory map

Alaba’s fullback instincts often see him push forward himself to support the attack. This approach, while having its benefits, does leave some space behind for the opposition to attack. This is usually compensated by his brilliant recovery pace. His recovery pace also comes in handy in covering the space behind the fullback as they push forward. All of these traits coupled with his excellent awareness of maintaining defensive lines make him a great option to play in the high defensive lines.

At 1.8m, Alaba isn’t the tallest of defenders out there and as a result isn’t an imposing figure in aerial battles. His 1.48 aerial duels per 90 is much less than Militão’s 4 per 90 and the success rate of just 48.6% is far less compared to 76.9% for his Brazilian partner. His aerial win percentage further drops to a mere 35.48% for defensive aerial duels and has often seen Real Madrid struggle defending crosses or corners in the box in part.

He isn’t a voluminous defender, i.e. he doesn’t engage into defensive duels as often. This is in part the reason why his average defensive line of engagement is so low and doesn’t paint the correct picture for his approach in defending.

Alaba’s defensive feel for the game is really good, he quickly identifies problem areas and takes up positions to minimize risk, as we saw against Sevilla when he made the goal line clearance quickly assuming the position on the line. He reads the game well and that allows him to position himself to block out opposition plays by being in the right areas to clear possession inside the box.

Beyond the numbers

When Alaba joined Real Madrid, he was tasked with replacing not just a central defender, but also the leader of the backline and the team. The role demanded more than just being a solid defender, and Alaba has filled in those shoes better than most would have expected.

Alaba is very much the captain without the armband in the team currently. He has taken up the leadership role and is constantly seen marshalling the backline, barking orders and celebrating every small detail with his teammates. He seems to be a commanding figure in the dressing room.

Alaba has been playing top flight football for over a decade now and has tasted success at the very highest level, this fits the billing to carry forward Madrid’s baton. He is no stranger to winning silverware either having enjoyed a successful trophy laden decade at Bayern Munich before making the switch to Madrid. His experience and vocal leadership is bound to help a young Militão who is making a mark in the team this season.