Der komplette Fußballspieler. The complete footballer, for those that aren’t fluent in German (Google translate) like me. It’s not often you can refer to a footballer as 'complete’ due to the word being simply defined as doing or being something to the greatest extent or degree. Total. But when you look at Bayern München’s David Alaba, exceptions can be made.
In the ever-changing climate of modern football, versatility is an increasingly important quality. Players are often asked to play in different positions, different roles and different systems on a weekly basis. Whilst in the past we have seen players ‘fill in’ elsewhere, we are now witnesses to the proper development of what some describe as ‘the universal player’, a player who has the ability to do most things required on a football pitch in a fashion that would be beneficial to both his team and himself.
In Pep Confidential (the inside story of Pep Guardiola’s first season at Bayern München) the former Barcelona manager gave us his insight on how he personally loves to build his squads. The Spaniard, in an ideal world, states a preference for not wanting any more than twenty players, but for each of those selected twenty players to have the ability to play in at least two or even three different positions. And after joining the German champions, it isn’t difficult to imagine Guardiola’s delight at having the likes of Phillipp Lahm, Mario Gotze, Javi Martinez, Thomas Muller more aptly, David Alaba providing the much desired versatility Guardiola craves as a coach.
But whilst the others are well known for their obvious quality, it’s the 23-year old Austrian that catches the eye.
During Guardiola’s first season in charge at Bayern, Alaba primarily featured at left-back in the 4-3-3 system. The second half of that season saw Pep change the role and positioning of his full-backs. Alaba on the left and Rafinha or Lahm on the right would start wide in the build-up. As Bayern moved further up the pitch, they would drift inside to play alongside the pivot. This helped Guardiola keep a lot of players central, thus allowing him to push his two attacking midfielders higher up the pitch to be more of a threat. Defensively, it meant the inverted full-backs could help cut off and stop opposition counters early. This role evidently suited Alaba perfectly, exploiting his comfort as a central player as well as a wide player.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, Guardiola’s fixation on the Austrian didn’t end there. His second season in charge saw Alaba’s role at Bayern change dramatically. The signing of promising young defender Juan Bernat from Spanish outfit Valencia the previous summer saw a rise in the possibility of him playing centrally on a regular basis for the club. Guardiola predominantly used two systems that season: either a 3-4-3/3-3-4 system or his classic 4-3-3. Either way, Bernat was chosen to play left wing-back in both systems.
When using the 3-3-4/3-4-3, Alaba was used in the left sided centre-back position, with Jerome Boateng in the middle and Mehdi Benatia on the right. While centre-back perhaps isn’t where most managers put their creative players, Guardiola isn’t like most other managers, and Bayern aren’t like most teams. In the back three, Alaba was given permission to roam forward with somewhat of a free role. Still remaining disciplined in his defensive work, it wasn’t unusual to see him advance when Bayern were in possession of the ball, looking for areas where he could have an impact on the game high up the pitch. This role brought out the best in Alaba as he was constantly involved in the game. One minute creating chances with through balls for the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Muller, and the next, sprinting 40 metres forward to press the opposition right-back.
Now halfway through Guardiola’s third season at Bayern, their monopoly over the Bundesliga, in addition to their strength in Europe is frightening. The former Barcelona boss looks to have finally perfected his favourite system, with his players as drilled and diverse as those on a chess board yet still acting in unison. Their all action pressing style, combined with their flair and clinical finishing up front has proven too much to handle for any opponent, losing only two games this season in all competitions. You cannot pin them down to one formation, as they are constantly changing between a 4-1-4-1, a 3-4-3 and a more traditional 4-3-3. But what you can be certain of, is that Alaba has been a key component of their success yet again.
Situated next to the excellent Jerome Boateng, Alaba again is given a licence to roam. Again, whilst primarily sticking to his defensive duties, without the ball, Bayern look to squeeze the opposition as high up the pitch as possible which almost allows Alaba to become another central midfielder. He will often pick up the ball on the halfway line to recycle possession, or drive towards the opposition penalty box looking to cross or cut the ball back. Not your traditional centre back.
He has the ability to read the game very well, is excellent in one-on-one situations and a reliable tackler. Alaba also knows when to make the tackle and when to just press, a quality that is rare. He has excellent passing capabilities, an incredible shot on him and it only takes a quick search on YouTube to realise how great he is at set pieces.
Versatility courses through his veins. Born in Vienna, his mother emigrated from the Philippines to work as a nurse, while his Nigerian father is a prince from Ogere - who is also a rapper and works as a DJ. Taking these factors into account, it’s no surprise that Alaba as a footballer epitomises his family and his upbringing. A key component to the best club side in Europe, in addition to his captaincy of Austria who are potential dark horses for the European Championships this summer, Alaba has developed into and is a complete footballer. At still only 23 years of age, he is an extremely unique talent and we should be excited to see what the future holds for him, and for this elusive 'universal player'.