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Just how good is David Alaba? Bayern Munich’s star compared to Sergio Ramos, van Dijk, Pique, and more

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Alaba has been nothing short of outstanding for Bayern this season. His shift to CB has been a blessing, and we will look at how his playing style compares to his European counterparts.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen v FC Bayern Muenchen - DFB Cup Final
Alaba celebrates after scoring an ALABOOM™ against Leverkusen.
Photo by Annegret Hilse/Pool via Getty Images

Recently, the BFW collective picked David Alaba as Bayern Munich’s ‘most valuable player’ this season, and for good reason. We’ve always known he’s great at left-back, but his move to center back this season, which happened out of necessity, has been a blessing in disguise.

The Austrian has always been superb with his positioning and reading of the game, but his use of those skills at the center of the defense has elevated Bayern’s game. His pace and athleticism has been very handy in snuffing out attacks even before they’ve begun, and to ensure that Bayern are seldom caught on the counter.

Where Alaba differs from a conventional defender however, is in his passing and attacking movements. Being a supremely intelligent footballer, his reading of the game is exceptional. Be it recycling possession, creating attacking opportunities, or supplying players running into the box, Alaba has the vision and the technique to find the perfect ball.

We will now compare Alaba’s style of play to that of other CBs, namely — Virgil van Dijk, Sergio Ramos, Dayot Upamecano, Gerard Piqué, Kalidou Koulibaly and Matthijs de Ligt.

Defensive attributes

Below are radar charts (FBref and Statsbomb via Footballslices) displaying the defensive attributes of the aforementioned CBs. These metrics focus on the main qualities a center-back is expected to possess. Let us see how Alaba’s radar compares to the others. The metrics have been adjusted to per 90 minutes values.

On first glance, one would conclude that Alaba leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to the core defending stats. His aerials won is a paltry 0.86, and is lower than all the other defenders. The same can be said for his clearances (3.81) and aerial win % (49.1%). For comparison, Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk’s averages a massive 11(!) clearances per 90, and he also wins 79.6% of his aerial duels and 4.57 aerial duels per 90.

Gerard Piqué is next in line, with his 8.65 clearances, 3.63 aerials and an aerial win % of 76.9. Clearly, both these CBs have been busy, and their numbers have been phenomenal. De Ligt is not too far behind, followed by some decent numbers from Upamecano and Koulibaly. Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos comes closest to Alaba, but even then he’s made 5.02 clearances per 90 and won 62% of his aerials.

With respect to tackles and interceptions, Alaba’s numbers are better, but still not good enough to throw off the other CBs. Yes, his tackles won (1.01) and interceptions (1.64) are better than Van Dijk’s 0.96 and 1.52 respectively, but Upamecano (2.45, 1.91), Koulibaly (2.36, 1.89) and Ramos (1.78, 2.16) make his numbers pale in comparison.

When it comes to passing however, Alaba is the CB to beat. His passes into the final third per 90 is a whopping 10.21, and for comparison, the player who comes closest is Upamecano, at 6.79. Utopian. His progressive pass distance is a Europe-high 817m. He boasts a pass completion % of 90.6, and his long pass completion is at 85%. Considering all of these attributes, the player who comes closest to Alaba’s all round proficiency as a distributor is Piqué, followed closely by Koulibaly and Ramos.

Buildup and attacking attributes

The following radar charts from understat compare his effectiveness in passing, buildup and attacking phases (per 90 metrics) with Europe’s top CBs:

Alaba soundly beats van Dijk on every metric other than goals/90 and expected goals. His xGBuildup (a metric that shows how involved a player is in buildup phases leading to goals, but excluding the goals and/or assists themselves) is splendid and so his xGChain (Total xG of all possessions a player is involved in), which shows Alaba is very active in buildup and ball circulation from the back.

His KP (Key passes — passes that lead to a shot) show that he is very active in the attacking third, and his xA (expected assists) numbers are also higher, meaning that one of his passes is more likely to be an assist than van Dijk’s. If you go through the charts, you will notice that he has better numbers in these metrics than his counterparts.

Sergio Ramos, and to a lesser extent De Ligt, have some superb numbers in G90 and xG90 as they have scored many goals this season. Ramos in particular has had an astounding season in front of goal as a CB, scoring 11(!) in the La Liga and 2 in the UCL. Of course, defenders are not generally expected to score goals, and apart from Karim Benzema (25), only Ramos has scored in double figures for Real Madrid. He is not the norm, but an anomaly in this regard. Good for Madrid.

However, both Ramos and De Ligt have been convincingly beaten when it comes to passing stats. The radars of Upamecano, Koulibaly and Piqué have been quite literally engulfed by Alaba’s. He has been far superior to these 3 in terms of his involvement in buildups and passing sequences.

FC Bayern Muenchen v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images

So why is it that Alaba’s defensive aspects involve unimpressive stats, whereas his buildup, passing and offensive stats are off the charts for a CB? We have an explanation, and that is - these numbers are representative of his playing style, and by extension, Bayern’s.

Alaba, unlike Van Dijk and Ramos, doesn’t have to focus on the gritty defending, the tackles, duels, etc. A lot of that work has been shared amongst the team, with the midfielders, fullbacks and attackers pitching in to help with the defending. This is a result of the intense pressing style at play, which allows Alaba to play to his strengths, i.e. distribute the ball, build play from the back and generate chances through long balls and diagonals.

Using statistics from Fbref and plotting data points on a scatter plot (scatterplot.online) to compare Bayern’s tackling and tackle success rate as a team to the clubs of the other CBs in the comparison, these are the graphs obtained:

The Bayern vs Liverpool plot for the 2019/20 season will be the hardest one to explain because both teams follow very similar pressing and recovery tactics. The high-octane press by the attack and midfield means that many a time players are tackled and/or balls recovered before the opposition players even get to Bayern’s defense, meaning Alaba doesn’t have as much of a defensive burden as other CBs, so he can play to his strengths, i.e. ball distribution and progression.

Bayern players have a higher average tackle success percentage (around 78%) compared to Liverpool’s 70%, with both groups of players posing similar tackle numbers. Another thing to note is that midfielders like Joshua Kimmich and Thiago Alcantara, and attackers like Thomas Muller and Gnabry have higher tackles (50+) with a higher tackle success (80%+) than Bayern’s CBs, showing that the more advanced Bayern players go into challenges as a result of Bayern’s tactics, meaning Alaba has duties different to other CBs.

FC Bavaria - RB Leipzig
Kimmich and Thiago apply pressure on Werner.
Photo by Matthias Balk/picture alliance via Getty Images

Of course, looking at the plot, you could argue the same for Van Dijk, but another reason why his defensive numbers are so high is because he is essentially Liverpool’s main gladiator. His partners are quite sporadic: solid at best, highly inconsistent and potential liabilities at worst. Alaba however, has had a rejuvenated Jerome Boateng partner him at CB this season; they split defensive duties well, Boateng covering for Alaba when he goes up the pitch, and vice versa.

Going through the other graphs, it becomes more obvious. Bayern has been superb under Flick this season, and their average press and defense stats are better than any other team in Europe.

The average tackle success% figures of Barcelona (72), Real Madrid( 74), Napoli (68), Leipzig(65), and Juventus (70) have been eclipsed by Bayern’s (78), and taking a look at the Bayern-Barca plot will explain why Piqué’s defensive numbers were far superior to Alaba’s.

Not everything is explained by tackles alone, and there are other metrics like ball recoveries, interceptions and pressures applied that could be analysed to paint a better picture of the teams’ playing styles. However, this tackle vs tackle success% plot’s aim is to portray the distribution and success rate of defensive duties spread out amongst the Bayern squad, seldom needing Alaba to make tackles as often as his counterparts in other teams need to.

It is to be seen whether Alaba would or would not thrive as a CB in another system, but taking into view the way Bayern are playing, Alaba is irreplaceable. A significant portion of the buildup to Bayern’s goals goes through him. He essentially doubles down as a deep lying playmaker and a distributor, almost like a CB-regista hybrid, which elevates Bayern’s overall game.

Alaba has added a different dimension to Bayern’s defense and if he extends, the rest of Europe will have a tough time facing Bayern.