Matt’s Monday Musings: A series with no rhyme or reason — just consistent thoughts on all things Real Madrid released every Monday. Some weeks may be long form, others just short anecdotal thoughts. Either way, I’ll be posting reflective content on the current, past, and future on-goings of the club:
Instead of starting this piece raving about David Alaba, let me preface with some words on Ferland Mendy. The Frenchman is one of the best fullbacks in the world and ranks in the 94th percentile for the number of times a player has dribbled past him. In other words, it is virtually impossible to dribble past Mendy. Whether it was Salah, Mahrez, or Pulisic — there was no other defender in the squad I would rather have defending in a 1 v 1 situation with the Champions League on the line. But of course, not every match is a UCL knock out game. Where Mendy has struggled in the past has been against teams that sit deep and concede possession to Real Madrid. In those matches, where the classic control ousts the rock-n-roll of a back and forth transition game, David Alaba may be the better option at left back.
It seems Carlo Ancelotti is willing to test out this theory. Given the quality of Antonio Rudiger, the Italian manager will always be looking for an opportunity to fit the center back into the team. Alaba’s versatility, skillset, and understanding of the game, means he can occupy, and feel comfortable, in nearly any position across the pitch. Ancelotti likely expected Espanyol to bunker in defensively and for Madrid to retain the ball for large stretches of the match. Couple that expectation with Joselu’s aerial threat and the idea of starting both Rudiger, the German at center back, and Alaba, the Austrian at left back, made a lot of sense.
For the first 40 minutes of the match against Espanyol, Real Madrid were in control with both Kroos and Modric dropping deep to pull the strings. Though freeze the match at any moment and you would question the reported positions of each player. Oftentimes it was Kroos in a left back spot, Vinicius wide, and Alaba drifting centrally creating a passing angle:
It’s easy to get bogged down by the idea of a position, but in reality Madrid’s players occupy spaces on the pitch that best help them progress towards goal. The caliber of a player like Alaba, means he is comfortable in nearly any space of the pitch. Some players can only perform at their best within certain confines of the pitch. A player like Vinicius Junior needs the touchline to orient himself and dictate his next move. Alaba has comfort in any space — on the touchline, back to goal, building out from the back facing the whole of the pitch, or receiving in clogged central channels.
The two images above are less than 4 seconds apart. Alaba’s showcases his comfort and tactical intelligence by drifting centrally to form a triangle and help Tchouameni and Kroos create numerical superiority in midfield. After releasing the ball to Kroos, Alaba immediately sprints into the vacant space down the left channel and earns the attention of both Oscar Gil and Fernando Calero.
This was not a one-off. The Austrian ventured all across the pitch, especially during those first 40 “control” minutes. For the unfamiliar eye, it would be easy to mistake Toni Kroos as the left back and Alaba as the center midfielder.
Again, less than 5 seconds later and Alaba has turned into open space, ran at a retreating defense, and progressed his team another 20 yards up the pitch:
Alaba at “left back”, or whatever term you want to call the position or spaces that he occupies, gives Real Madrid a totally different dimension. Players like Kroos, Modric, Tchouameni, Benzema, and Vinicius have more outlets to work with in the final third and as they build up through their own defensive third. For all his world class defensive attributes, Ferland Mendy does not posses the same quality in the offensive phase of the game, both on and off the ball, that David Alaba does. It’s not hyperbole to say that the Austrian is one of the most complete players to ever sign for the club.
The concern comes when the game state changes, much like it did for the final five minutes of the first half and continued for the entirety of the second half vs Espanyol. The team’s “rest defense” — their positions on the pitch immediately prior to and immediately after losing the ball — makes them susceptible to mis-matches. Say Toni Kroos being run at by a pacey right winger. For Alaba to thrive as a left back, the game-state or context of the match matters. The same is true for Ferland Mendy.
As Carlo Ancelotti noted in his post-match quotes, he has two styles to choose from for every game and it’s up to the coach to get it right. Many felt he was referring to strictly the midfield, but when player profiles can occupy multiple spaces on the pitch and bring different qualities to a match, Ancelotti was referring to the variety personnel and profiles he has available, including Alaba at left back or center back.