Defenders aren’t often as covered in glory as midfielders or forwards from a statistical standpoint, but their importance cannot be understated in the slightest. For Bayern Munich’s case, David Alaba has been one of the most important players this season, and per Bavarian Football Works’s end of season polling, the Austrian was voted as the club’s most valuable player this season. He’s been dubbed the “defensive chief” by Hansi Flick, and has been a stalwart in a Bayern back line that showed significant improvement as the season progressed.
Since Flick took charge of the club in November, Bayern only conceded 16 goals in the Bundesliga from a total of 24 matches and Bayern boasted the best defensive record in the league, having only conceded 32 goals all season. The next fewest tally was recorded by RB Leipzig, who conceded 37 goals and finished in 3rd place. Case in point, Alaba’s presence in the back line provided the necessary stability and leadership that Bayern needed to maintain a solid, consistent defensive unit.
Switching from left back to center back is incredibly easier said than done. Such a switch takes maturity, discipline, vision, and acute spatial awareness. Technically, it was Niko Kovac who first switched Alaba to center back for the infamous 5-1 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt, but that proved to be the proverbial final nail in the coffin for the Croatian's tenure at Bayern. That was the first time we saw the back four of Alphonso Davies (LB), Alaba (CB), Jerome Boateng (CB), and Benjamin Pavard (RB), and it was in no way, shape, or form a barometer of what was to come once Flick was put in charge.
Of course, Alaba had played center back before in his career as well as midfield, but it was still a big ask to have him switch from left back to center back. Flick’s continued faith in that setup was buoyed largely by the rapid growth of Davies at the left back spot. Davies’s incredible pace on the flank makes him such a useful asset on both sides of the ball, and with Alaba alongside him filling the spaces left in behind, you have a veteran player that knows what spaces to occupy when the wide defenders are committed forward. Considering how a lot of Bayern’s opponents tend to keep most of their players behind the ball in defensive bunkers, it’s vitally important to have center backs that have spatial awareness and anticipate where they need to be and when; especially when counter attacks are sprung.
Alaba’s spatial awareness is part of what’s made his transition from left back to center back so seamless. He’s able to see open spaces to cover that other defenders aren’t able to and since he often starts next to Davies, this gives him so much more freedom in the attack down the left channel.
The first part of this video highlights this pretty well:
Building from the back
Bayern is a possession-based football club. So much of the way they play is based on possession of the ball and maintaining it. Often times, said possession starts from the defensive line, which is why it’s important to have center backs that know how to distribute wisely and not wastefully. Alaba is a player whose lesser known statistics (FBRef.com) highlight how well he’s able to create from the back.
For starters, the Austrian international boasted a 90.8% pass completion rate in the Bundesliga this season, which was the 6th best in the league and the best in the Bayern squad. He was closely followed by Boateng, who recorded a 90% completion rate. It’s telling that Alaba had the best rate on Bayern’ squad, because it means his passes rarely missed the intended target.
Additionally, Alaba recorded 15,534 total yards of progressive pass distance (completed pass), which is a statistic recorded based on the amount of the distance passes travel toward’s the opponent’s goal. Alaba recorded the highest tally of any outfield player in the league with the 8th best mark overall - 1 through 7 were all goalkeepers. This stat only adds more significance to the pass completion rate of 90.8% because it implies that even Alaba’s longer passes out of the back were finding the intended targets; a testament to his accuracy and precision.
Whether it’s a a short pass, a long diagonal, or a lobbed pass over the top, you can safely bet that 9 out of 10 of Alaba’s passes are going to find their intended target and create opportunities for Bayern.
The added bonus: The attacking threat
It’s such an added bonus to have a center back that’s productive in the attacking third as well. Alaba is dangerous from set pieces, whether he’s the one taking them or in the mix in the box to try and win a header. Some of his free kicks have gained the nickname “Alaboom” for the way he’s able to strike hit dead ball situations and when he scores free kicks, they’re almost always “worldys.” You could easily find yourself binge-watching Alaba free kick goals videos on YouTube or Twitter from his career at Bayern thus far.
This season, Alaba scored twice and assisted as many across all competitions. His 2nd goal came just recently in Bayern’s 4-2 DFB-Pokal win over Bayer Leverkusen and pretty much showcases what he’s capable of. Phil Bonney’s reaction to the hit also makes it so wholesome.
David Alaba puts Bayern Munich up with this beautiful free kick in the DFB Pokal final pic.twitter.com/tFf659Z0Rf— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 4, 2020
Please get this contract extension sorted!