In the modern game, versatility is an increasingly important quality. Players are asked to play in different positions, different roles and different systems. Of course, this has been the case previously too, but we’re really seeing the way player development is going and that is towards the “universal” player, as it has been labelled by some, a player who could do almost everything on the pitch in order to make his team better and flourish individually. No player personifies this better than David Alaba.
In Pep Confidential, the inside story of Pep Guardiola’s first season at Bayern München, the Catalan’s preference for how his squad should be built is outlined. He says he ideally wants a squad of no more than 20 players, but that the players should be able to play in two or three positions. It’s therefore easy to imagine Guardiola’s joy at finding a squad of ‘universal’ players like Phillipp Lahm, Mario Götze, Javi Martinez and, more than anyone else, David Alaba. While the other three are among the most versatile players in the world, all capable of filling at least three or four positions, the Austrian 22-year-old is unique.
When Alaba really established himself as a regular in the Bayern team, in the 2011-12 season under Jupp Heynckes, it was at left-back. During the second leg of Bayerns semi-final clash in the Champions League against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, Alaba displayed his incredible calmness. The 19-year-old stepped up to take Bayern’s first penalty, and scored. Unfortunately, he picked up a booking which ruled him out of the final in Bayern’s Allianz Arena against Chelsea, a final which Bayern lost.
After the breakthrough, the following season would see Alaba move into the very top of the game. His development continued and Bayern won the treble, this year with Alaba able to play in the victoriuos final against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley. After a hugely successful season, David Alaba was now talked about as one of the best left-backs in the world.
At the same time as he made headlines for his consistent performances at left-back, he starred for Austria in midfield. Used both in centre-midfield in a double pivot and as a number 10 for his country, Alaba showcased his quality in both attacking and defensive aspects of the game. For example, he ended up as Austria’s top goalscorer in their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.
During Guardiola’s first season in charge of Bayern, Alaba mainly appeared at left-back in Pep’s 4-3-3 system. In the second half of the season, Pep changed 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 but as Bayern moved up the pitch they would drift inside to play alongside the pivote. This helped Pep keep a lot of players centrally and allowed him to push his two attacking midfielders higher up the pitch to create. Defensively it meant the inverted full-backs could help cut off and stop opposition counter-attacks early. This role suited Alaba perfectly, as he both played wide and centrally. However, Pep would have more ideas on how to use the Austrian in the future.
This season has seen Alaba’s role at Bayern change dramatically. The signing of Juan Bernat, and his excellent form, has meant that there is a possibility for Alaba to play centrally on a regular basis also for his club. Guardiola has mainly used two systems this season, either a 3-4-3/3-3-4 system or his classic 4-3-3. Either way, Bernat has played left wing-back in the first one and as a left full-back in the other.
When using the 3-4-3, Alaba has played in the left-sided centre-back position, often with Jerome Boateng in the middle and Mehdi Benatia, another new signing, to the right. While centre-back isn’t perhaps the position where most managers put their most creative players, Guardiola isn’t like most other managers. In his back-three, Alaba gets a somewhat free-role. While obviously being very disciplined in the defensive parts of the game, when Bayern are in possession of the ball it isn’t unusual to see Alaba roam around, mostly around the left half-spaces, looking for spaces where he tries to have an impact on the game in attacking positions very high up the pitch. A good example is the game against Roma when he won a penalty after leaving his starting position at centre-back to wander away on an attacking adventure which led to one of Bayern’s goals in the 7-1 win.
In the 4-3-3 system he has mostly played in centre-midfield alongside Philipp Lahm with Xabi Alonso behind them as the pivote. In this role he really thrives as he is constantly involved in the game, one minute creating a chance with a brilliant through ball for Robert Lewandowski, and the next sprinting 40-metres to press the opposition right-back.
His attributes really are tremendous as there really is nothing he can’t do very well. He is an excellent defender in one-v-one situations, he reads the game well, he’s a solid tackler, he’s very energetic and is a very good presser. At the same time he’s an excellent passer of the ball, he’s got an incredible shooting ability, takes great set-pieces, beats players seamlessly and is very clever with his positioning both when attacking and when defending.
In terms of positions he’s excellent at left-back, left wing-back, centre-back, in centre-midfield, as a winger both on the left and on the right and as a number 10. I’m sure he would also do a very good job in defensive midfield and as a full-back and wing-back on the right. In all honesty, you could probably stick him up front too if you need a goal.
In fact, when the nominations for the Ballon d’Or was revealed I thought they had one glaring omission, and that was the absence of David Alaba. He can basically play in every position on the pitch, in any system, and still give you an excellent performance. That for me is the most modern footballer in the world. So the next time you watch Bayern or Austria, just enjoy watching a truly unique talent in David Alaba – in what ever position he might be playing.