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BFW Film Room: Is David Alaba really an undisputed starter in defense?

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Bayern Munich’s match against Hoffenheim was possibly the worst defensive performance we’ve seen in the Flick era. Are changes in order? Is Alaba a mainstay in the starting 11?

FBL-EUR-SUPERCUP-BAYERN MUNICH-SEVILLA
Lucas Hernandez fights for the ball with Sevilla’s Suso.
Photo by BERNADETT SZABO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Alarm bells are ringing in Munich. Clubs all around Europe are probably watching and analyzing highlight reels of last weekend’s Bayern Munich game against Hoffenheim, and with good reason: It was Hansi Flick’s first ever loss with three or more goals conceded, and Bayern’s first loss of 2020.

Having just played Sevilla into extra time at the UEFA Super Cup a couple of days prior, fatigue could definitely have had a major role, with a lot of the players (including the incredible Joshua Kimmich) looking gassed out by halftime. However, it is safe to say that Bayern’s defense had one of the worst showings in recent memory, which did not help matters. Alaba was atrocious at times, and definitely had a day to forget. The Jerome Boateng-Alaba partnership looked nothing like the center-back pairing that fended off Chelsea and Barcelona in the Champions League last season.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Alaba is a superb ball-playing CB. He was fantastic for us last season, and integrated seamlessly into Flick’s high-octane press and the extremely high line that led to so many successes. However, teams are starting to catch up tactically, and the question arises — Are we willing to compromise defensive stability for better ball progression? The suicidal high line can come around to bite us, just as we saw against Hoffenheim.

Alaba, for all his superb passing and progression capabilities, is not a natural CB. He does not seem to possess the defensive instincts, the awareness and grit required to keep it leakproof at the back. Of course, we cannot expect everything from one CB, and that is why he can be paired with Niklas Sule, who helps with the ‘cleaning up.’ In the Hoffenheim game however, Alaba was started alongside Boateng, another ball playing CB, and his weaknesses became glaringly apparent.

Alaba vs Hoffenheim

In this sequence leading to Hoffenheim’s second goal, Alaba completely misses the plot. We all know that he isn’t the best in the air, and his mistimed header to Andrej Kramarić was what started the whole move. But what was even worse was his positioning and man-marking. Alaba seems to have missed Mu’nas Dabbur completely, who was lurking behind the defensive line, waiting to pounce on a through ball, and pounce he did. Finding himself in acres of space, he speeds into the box and scores with a nice finish.

Alaba heads the ball to Kramaric, then fails to mark Dabbur, who goes on to score.
Bundesliga.com

The events leading to Hoffenheim’s third goal also really tested Alaba, a test which he failed, unfortunately. Alaba was well on course to preventing a goal opportunity but suddenly had a bizarre change of mind, left his man Bebou with the left half-space and went after Dabbur. The latter sensed a good opportunity and headed the ball to Bebou, who fed Kramarić a sumptuous cross, which the hitman converted with aplomb.

A dangerous header into the attacking third finds Dabbur. Alaba loses his man, Bebou to go after Dabbur, who passes it to the (now) free Bebou, who crosses it to Kramaric.
Bundesliga.com

Finally, in what was Alaba’s (and possibly the team’s) worst moment all game, Ihlas Bebou receives a beautiful feed after some neat Kramarić footwork, and takes off towards goal. Kimmich fails to stop him, but Alaba is in place to clean the mess. Alaba sees Bebou continue with the ball, and instead of running with him or attempting a block, he tries an atrocious tackle that is way off the mark, and lies on the ground while Bebou zooms towards goal, only to be fouled by Neuer inside the penalty box.

Alaba attempts a terribly mistimed tackle on Bebou which does nothing to stop the winger, who sprints towards goal.
Bundesliga.com

No, I am not solely blaming Alaba for the loss. It was a lackluster team performance, but the best team in the world should look the part in defense. Alaba is not a natural center-back, and he was always going to struggle against teams that are not afraid to press. The high-line makes his job difficult, and as valuable as his offensive contributions may be, he lacks the defensive instincts and grit of a true-bred CB.

So, what is the tactical solution?

Lucaaaaaaaa here

Physicality? Check. Mental monster? Check. Defensive instincts and awareness? Check. Unafraid to make tackles and blocks? Check. Can slow down the game when Bayern have the lead? Check. Lucas Hernandez, Bayern’s record transfer is the solution; here’s a center-back in the truest sense of the phrase.

Injuries derailed his first season at Bayern, and by the time he became fit, the first team CB spot was Alaba’s to lose. Since Flick went with his most trusted formation, starting 11 appearances were hard to come by. This season however, with the ridiculous match schedule and teams more accustomed to Flick’s style of play, Lucas Hernandez should have plenty of time to show why we paid €80 million for him. And he’s already started doing just that.

So far, Hernandez has featured as both a left-back and a center-back for Bayern, and has really excelled in both roles. However, since we’re only looking at the LCB position, I will give you a glimpse of his only performance at CB this season: The DFL-Supercup game against Borussia Dortmund.

The action starts right from the get go, with Erling Haaland looking to pounce on a good through ball. What is important to note here, is that Hernandez starts his run even before the pass has been made; he anticipates through balls and rushes there in time to make a clearance or an interception.

Lucas Hernandez tracks down Haaland and makes a vital clearance in time.
Duck Highlights (Youtube)

In another attacking sequence, Marco Reus is through on goal, after being teed up by Haaland. Hernandez does superbly to track the run of the Dortmund captain and uses his pace and tenacity to execute a well-timed block, ensuring Reus’ vicious left footed effort only found the side netting.

Reus receives a nice feed-in, and runs towards goal. Hernandez uses his pace to get there in time and makes a superb block, ensuring the ball only hits the side netting.
Duck Highlights (Youtube)

In the next instance, Hernandez’s defensive instincts come in big time. Thomas Meunier drives down the flank before sending in a teasing cross with Haaland inside the box to get to the end of it, but Hernandez sticks out his leg in time to clear the ball to safety. It is not too hard to imagine that without that intervention, Haaland would’ve put that ball into the net.

Hernandez sticks out his leg to make a block, ensuring the ball doesn’t reach Haaland, who is lurking behind.
Duck Highlights (Youtube)

Finally, in what was Hernandez’s best moment of the game, Haaland charges with the ball into Bayern’s half, but again, Hernandez is there to make a stunning tackle that was 100% clean. He played a huge role in ensuring that the Norwegian striker only got to score once that game.

Lucas Hernandez makes a superb tackle on Haaland.
Duck Highlights (Youtube)

Many people shrugged off the appreciation given to Hernandez, stating that he had an “average” game and he didn’t do much to deserve the hype. If these highlight reels don’t convince you otherwise, perhaps you could re-watch the entire game. Hernandez was our best defender on the pitch, period. In my view, this was nothing short of an outstanding performance, and I think Bayern are starting to enjoy the fruits of that €80 million euros they spent for the French international.

It is welcoming to see Lucas grow into his CB role. He is definitely starting 11 material, and I’m sure that he has a lot more to offer; we are yet to see the best of him. Of course, this does not mean that Alaba will have to sit it out from now on. Since the fixture list seems to have no mercy, perhaps coach Flick can make best use of both CBs, for the various qualities they offer.

Alaba could be a great CB choice against teams that park the bus, since he can be so crucial to breaking down the opposition’s structure. He is also a great outlet for recycling balls and progressing them forward, so he can also be very valuable when Bayern are looking to score goals against other big sides in the early stages.

Hernandez, on the other hand, will come very handy against teams that like to press. Hoffenheim gave us such a hard time because of how compact and well-coordinated their press was, and a tenacious, no-nonsense CB like Hernandez can ensure that the defense is stable and well equipped to fend off forwards like Haaland and Kramarić. The Frenchman can also be subbed in at the hour mark in games where Bayern has the lead, to kill all hopes of a comeback.

It will certainly be interesting which combination Flick chooses this season, but given the two contrasting variations to the defensive game offered by his LCBs, it would be a safe bet to assume that both will have a very important part to play in Bayern’s game plans.