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It takes immense football quality and intelligence to dominate two positions, let alone three, which is what David Alaba has achieved over the past 10 years as a Bayern Munich player.
While in charge in Bavaria, Pep Guardiola once said that Alaba “can play absolutely everywhere.”
Obviously, you are not wrong.
The Austrian started out as a midfielder, before being transformed into a left-back by Louis van Gaal. He soon became one of the best in the world, but it was then Guardiola who first saw Alaba’s potential to also play at the heart of defense.
Alaba himself honestly revealed in a 2016 interview that he didn’t know he had it in him.
“[Guardiola] pushes everyone, every day, in a good way. I have improved with each year that he has been here, thanks to him. But I myself did not know that I could play as a central defender ”, explained the player to The Guardian.
It seems like it wasn’t even the first time that she didn’t realize her own potential.
“He’s a left back, although he doesn’t think so himself,” were Van Gaal’s comments after the veteran coach insisted on switching a teenage Alaba from his original midfield role.
Although Alaba still played midfield from time to time, the move to left back turned out to be a stroke of genius. He became the starter for the 2011/12 season when Bayern reached the Champions League final and was key again the following year as they made amends and won a treble.
Guardiola started the experiment as a center back from 2014. Initially, he was part of a back-three and predominantly in the Champions League. During the 2014/15 season, Alaba also continued to play as a left back and midfield, developing his understanding of all three.
He certainly wasn’t the first Bayern player to be interchangeable between a winger and a central midfield, and Guardiola almost immediately used Philipp Lahm as a defensive shield upon his arrival in 2013. He wasn’t the last, either, because current star Joshua Kimmich is very skilled in both.
Alaba’s move to center-back became more permanent in 2015/16, and Guardiola put enough faith that someone would quickly become the latest all terrain to reduce it to a system of two plants.
However, Guardiola’s departure in 2016 brought Alaba’s return to his previous position on the left and it was not until November 2019, a decision undoubtedly influenced by Niklas Sule’s anterior cruciate ligament injury that he was put back in the middle. This time to stay.
His first game from behind ended with a 5-1 beating by Eintracht Frankfurt, prompting coach Niko Kovac to be fired a day later, but replacement Hansi Flick kept Alaba there and it was he who became the constant behind Bayern. line for the rest of the season.
He was predominantly accompanied by his close friend Jerome Boateng, but Javi Martínez, Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernández lined up alongside him in the center of defense throughout the course of the campaign.
Alaba doesn’t look like your typical world-class powerhouse. He stands less than six feet tall and is not exactly known for his physical prowess or aerial prowess. But what he brings to the role are skills and attributes he has developed by mastering two other positions.
In fact, it is a hybrid that brings the best of different areas of the field. His skill on the ball and his passing range, a prerequisite for a midfielder, is an increasingly important trait among modern center-backs in today’s possession-based game.
Similarly, his natural energy speed from his days as a winger gives him the ability to eliminate danger before a physical battle breaks out. The chances of him being exposed if he is dragged out of position for an attacking run are also slim due to his versatility and experience, which is not something that can be said for all center-backs, even world-class ones.
Alaba himself has said that he believes that the different experience and perspective is exactly why he is now having such an impact on center defense.
“Maybe I’m playing there because I interpret the position differently than a natural center back,” he told German Kicker magazine shortly after the move back inside from the left.
Awareness and anticipation are huge assets for any elite central defender and Alaba doesn’t fall short either, probably because he’s seen the game from different angles and has a more complete picture. In fact, Flick has commented that he is a “very smart gamer” and “ticks all the boxes”.
Meanwhile, Kimmich is impressed by the demeanor and coolness of his teammate. “I think he is one of the best in the world as a center back,” said the Bayern star. “I told David that. His body language is amazing, he has a great set-up game, and he stays calm under pressure. “
Now, at the peak of his career and weighing what the immediate future holds, it is clearer than ever that the center-back is Alaba’s true position and the role for which he was born.