After shifting from left back to center back, following the departure of Mats Hummels and injuries to Niklas Sule and Lucas Hernandez, David Alaba has established himself as a crucial member of head coach Hansi Flick’s Bayern, delivering consistent performances throughout the season. While it is always good to have players who can play multiple positions, it is generally suggested that they are played in their true positions so as to bring the best out of them. But Alaba has shown that he can deliver outstanding performances in multiple positions. He went from one of the best left-backs in previous seasons to one of the best ball playing center-backs in the world this season. Through this analysis, we take a look at the qualities Alaba brings to his role as center back, which have made him so important in Flick’s system:
Coach Hansi Flick’s preferred defensive setup consists of Alaba at left center-back (LCB) alongside Jerome Boateng at right center-back (RCB). Alaba in this system plays as ball playing center-back who uses his playmaking skills to carry or distribute the ball upfield and pace to mark forwards making runs around the defense. As left center-back, Alaba links well with his partner Alphonso Davies and can cover the left area of the pitch when Davies moves upfield. He also gets the opportunity to operate with his stronger left foot as much as possible from that position.
Alaba is an expert of placing himself in a convenient position for his teammates. When the play starts from the back, Alaba positions himself in empty space to progress the ball, offering a numerical advantage in the team’s buildup phase. He also quickly repositions himself after passing the ball to an immediate option so that he is accessible in case his teammate wants to pass the ball back.
Facilitating ball progression in buildup phase
While receiving a pass, Alaba can delay his first touch if he is under pressure. This helps him switch to his stronger left foot and gives him ample time to make his next move.
Stalling his first touch helps Alaba execute vertical pass to Perisic
Due to his familiarity with left back position, Alaba usually drifts left when Davies moves upfield to press or attack and a member of midfield pivot drops between the center-backs to cover the gap.
Davies moves ahead to press, Alaba covers his position with Thiago dropping between center-backs
While Jerome Boateng provides a stable presence to the team's backline, it is usually Alaba in Hansi’s system who keeps a track on the movement of opposition forward. When a striker is about to receive the ball, Alaba can move out of position and press him. This either forces a bad touch from the striker which prevents ball progression for opposition or it simply allows Alaba to win the ball if the striker manages to turn with it. Moreover, if he doesn’t win the ball, he has the speed to come back to his position quickly.
Alaba moves out of position to press Timo, wins the ball.
Due to his superior anticipation skills, Alaba is always in the position to intercept a pass intended for the forward. When the forward is about to make a run, he can cut off the pass if he has a clear view or he can just run along and win the ball as he has the pace to keep up with the forward.
Alaba anticipates the run Rashica is going to make, wins the ball
Distribution and ball playing skills
Alaba’s ball playing skills and game intelligence in central defense is what makes him a player as crucial as Joshua Kimmich in centre midfield in Hansi Flick’s setup.
During the buildup phase, Alaba acts as an extra midfielder. As an extra playmaker, Alaba can distribute the ball or he can break opposition’s line(s) of play and carry the ball upfield by himself. If the opposition pushes back and retains shape, Alaba can move further up the pitch. If the opponents come out to charge, he creates space for his teammates, which can be really helpful against teams that have a compact defense and/or park the bus.
Alaba wins the ball from Tammy Abraham, dribbles upfield, attracts three Chelsea players which in turn creates space for Coutinho
Verticality is an important aspect of "FlickBall" and in Alaba, Kimmich and Muller, Hansi Flick has the perfect set of players to implement his vision. They like to play vertical passes and often look for progressive plays. With players like Lewandowski and Muller in the middle, Alaba plays a vertical pass through the middle where Lewandowski or Muller can control the ball and redistribute it to attackers making runs off the ball.
Alaba's vertical pass through middle to Lewandowski
There are only a handful of players in the world who have Alaba’s passing range and can execute the kinds of passes Alaba can. With his passing technique and vision, Alaba can unlock any rigid defensive systems for the attackers.
When the team’s play shifts towards one side, Alaba can execute a diagonal long ball to change the flank.
Diagonal long ball to Gnabry at right wing
For someone like Serge Gnabry who often makes dangerous runs in-behind defense, Alaba can execute an accurately timed defense splitting pass that rips the opposition's defensive layers and creates a clear chance for the attacker.
Alaba's defense splitting pass, Gnabry hits the post!
Over the top ball is another weapon Alaba can execute to perfection. Lewandowski and Muller can not only make runs in behind defense, they are also great at controlling the ball and winning aerial duels which helps them capitalize on those "Alabombs."
Muller heads Alaba's over the top ball towards Coman
Chemistry with teammates
Alaba shares excellent chemistry with his teammates as he always seems to have an idea of his teammates’ next move. From a central role, Alaba is able to utilize his tremendous vision to the fullest as he thoroughly recognizes his teammates’ off the ball movement and the space that is created on the field as a consequence of that, a quality that can be truly valuable at a club like Bayern and under a coach like Hansi Flick.
Alaba and Davies have formed a formidable duo on the left side of the pitch. Their pacey combination blocks opposition attackers from penetrating Bayern defense, lets them take risks in the team's buildup and their excellent ball playing skills helps them escape opponents applying pressure on them. Alaba’s positioning allows Davies to move freely into the final third, with Alaba often unleashing Davies to wreak havoc on opposition defenses.
Alaba recognizing Davies' inward run
Bayern academy graduates Alaba and Muller have shared almost 11 years together on the pitch. Their chemistry has become an X-factor in breaking opposition defenses at this point. Alaba remains well aware of Muller’s movement up the field and fully recognizes the space he creates for his teammates.
Muller attracts Hoffenheim full back creating space on right flank, Alaba looks up and executes a long ball for Gnabry
When Muller makes his typical in behind defense run, Alaba can execute well timed over the top balls for him.
Long Live Alaba-Muller Connection!
David Alaba’s development as center-back has been phenomenal for the club this season and he will only improve in his new permanent position. While Jerome Boateng’s presence has brought positional discipline and stability to the defense, having Niklas Sule as another quick and a robust center-back next season will make Bayern’s central defense impenetrable. Together with Davies and Pavard, Alaba has given this Bayern backline flexibility and mobility that suits well with the modern game. A product of Bayern academy, Alaba is a leader on and off the pitch and a role model for youngsters like Davies and Zirkzee. He is up there with Thomas Muller, Manuel Neuer and Robert Lewandowski as the representative of the club and Mia San Mia motto. Hope this legend signs a contract extension soon!
Thanks for reading! Mia San Mia!