The converted fullback turned converted centre back turned converted midfielder is flourishing in his unique role as a box-to-box centre back.
A few weeks ago Bayern Munich where playing their opening Champions League game of the season against Manchester City. Bayern started simply enough in something of a 3-4-3/3-5-2, with a back three of Mehdi Benatia, Jerome Boateng and David Alaba. But around the 30 minute mark there seemed to be a seamless switch towards a 4-3-3, with the wing backs Bernat and Rafinha becoming genuine fullbacks and Alaba moving up into a midfield three with Xabi Alonso and Philip Lahm. Alaba, who had been coping fine at centre back, suddenly occupied the number 10 role, and before the half was over Alaba had already had two shots and created arguably Bayern’s best chance with an exquisite through ball to Robert Leandowksi from the inside left position. You wouldn’t have thought twice if it was David Silva at the other end.
It’s something of common practice among football circles to mention David Alaba, his age, and gush over how remarkable it is that the figure is so low for a player who has achieved so much. Indeed, his career has already been glittered with two Bundesliga wins, two DFB Pokal trophies, a Champions League win, German and European Supercup victories and the Club World Cup title before he turned 22 last June. But perhaps most remarkable is that his career progression and development is already one that would be expected of a player in his early thirties, not twenties. For Alaba has not been a bit part player in a Champion team, his role has constantly changed and developed in order for both his club team Bayern Munich and his country of birth Austria to fully utilise his remarkable range of skills.
Right now Alaba can be considered a midfielder turned converted fullback, turned converted centre back, turned something merging all three. In Bayern’s trip to CSKA Moscow last week, Alaba showed that he can not only perform both the duties of a central defender in a three man defence and the role of an attacking or central midfielder; but that he can actually do both at the same time. Bayern spent the game constantly changing between a back three and a back four (more like a back two with Bayern’s dominance on the ball) and Alaba was the man equipped with transitioning the in game shifts in formation. For a man who a year ago was perceived by many as the best left back in the world, it’s remarkable.
As shown in the image below in the early stages of possession Bayern would tend to occupy something resembling a regular 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, with the back line marked out and the wing backs circled.
But unlike the other two centre backs, Alaba was clearly inclined to push up in possession and contribute in attacks.
This formation in attack doesn’t differ too much from a 4-3-3, even if the fullbacks are particularly high, even for modern day European football. It does, remarkably, however, lead to something resembling a 2-3-5 formation. Jonathan Wilson has talked about the inversion of the formation pyramid but it seems Pep has taken it a step further by re-inverting it!
Where it does differ from most modern day football formations is that instead of the standard back four becoming a back three in possession, with the defensive midfielder dropping alongside the centre backs, it goes from a back three in defence to a back four/two in attack, with the 3rd centre back coming up into the midfield instead. In defence Alaba is forced to go back into the back three, as shown below.
This role is not something Alaba has performed exclusively in that game, it’s something he has done regularly in the Bundesliga. Last Saturday against Hannover was another example, where Alaba played as the third centre back and contributed as an extra midfielder. The average positions from the game shows Alaba’s position (27) bridged between the rest of the defence and midfield, showcasing the shifts in the formation from a clear 3-4-3, to a 2-5-3 (or 2-3-5 again if the wing backs were to really advance up the pitch), and his player dashboard shows contributions the whole length of the pitch.
It is not uncommon for modern day centre backs to be good on the ball, and all of Pep Guardiola’s options in his back three are capable of building up play from the back. But Alaba notably gets more advanced than any of his other centre backs and plays a much more significant role in the sides attacking play. His role is seemingly unique and must be extremely difficult to pull off. Having to chose when to push up in attacking play but still make sure you’re not potentially exposing a two man defence requires immense tactical knowhow when it comes to reading the game. Add the wide range of technical and physical skills needed to pull off the multiple functions needed in the role and it highlights how hard a role it is to perform.
That Alaba has been chosen for the role underlines both his mental qualities and his vast range of technical abilities. Sterner tests than CSKA Moscow and Hannover 96 await, and it will be interesting to see Pep’s approach against sides with more notable attacking prowess; but at the age of 22 it shows that not only is Alaba one of the world’s leading young footballers, but also on course to be perhaps the most versatile player in the world.
* Player dashboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Statszone, average position graphics courtesy of Whoscored and screenshots courtesy of football origin.