Despite the fact that he is only 21 years of age, David Alaba’s list of career honours extends far beyond that of most professional footballers. Not only does he have two Bundesliga titles to his name, but also two German Cups and a highly coveted Champions League crown. In a more individual sense, he has also twice been awarded Austrian footballer of the year.
It’s hard to believe that as recently as 2011, Alaba was out on loan at Hoffenheim in order to refine his game. During this period, he spent most of his time as a central midfielder, and although he has since developed into arguably the best left back in the world, his time playing in the midfield has clearly shaped the way he interprets the position. Following Bayern’s season opener against Borussia Monchengladbach, LTR discussed the central positioning of the club’s fullbacks during that match, and wondered whether it would continue throughout the course of the season.
Based upon Alaba’s performance against Bayer Leverkusen last weekend, it appears as if this will most certainly be the case. While the young Austrian, being a left back, obviously had to spend much of his time out wide, he also showed a desire to move infield when the opportunity presented itself, and given the way Bayern dominated possession, it was not unusual to see Alaba in the central midfield zone. This is illustrated by the graphic below, which highlights the positions in which Alaba received the ball from his teammates.
This strategy helped his team in a couple of ways. Firstly, with the 21-year-old being comfortable in midfield, it assisted Bayern in retaining possession as they searched for an opening. More importantly, however, when Alaba drifted infield, his direct opponent, Sidney Sam, usually felt the need to go with him. This meant that Franck Ribery was often left in space on the flank, and although Lars Bender did a reasonable job of leaving his central post to help right back Donati, the Frenchman took full advantage of the room afforded to him. Not only did he create multiple goalscoring opportunities and have six successful take-ons, but he also provided the assist for Bayern’s only goal of the contest.
Alaba, himself, also looked to get forward on occasion, but in contrast to most fullbacks, who tend to provide width, his central positioning meant that he usually made “underlapping” runs. In doing so, he showed a brilliant understanding with Ribery, and a good example of this came in the 23rd minute. In this instance, Alaba firstly combined with Toni Kroos in an inside left position, before the German shifted the ball out wide to Ribery. Alaba then used his pace to dart beyond the back four, and once the winger had spotted his run, he played the ball infield to the Austrian, whose cross found Shaqiri on the far side of the box.
It was in this way – with his powerful running and crossing – that Alaba created the most problems for Leverkusen. Besides Bayern’s attackers, he and Bastian Schweinsteiger jointly played more key passes than any other player on the pitch, with three apiece. Alaba also had three successful take-ons, and it was probably due to this attacking prowess that Sidney Sam opted to track his movement, rather than move out wide in order to assist Donati in dealing with Ribery.
While it is Alaba’s aptitude in attack that makes him one of the best left backs in the world, it is his positioning that makes him one of the most unique. In an era where wingers like to drift infield and fullbacks, as a result, tend to provide width, David Alaba’s approach stands out. More importantly, it also benefits his team, in that it not only allows the young fullback to make use of his ability to play through the middle, but also gives Ribery the chance to receive the ball out wide in space, before dribbling at the opposition.
It should also be noted that this tactic is at least partially instructional, as Bayern’s right back, Rafinha, also moved into the central midfield zone during the match, although perhaps not to the same extent as Alaba. In this sense, Pep Guardiola has clearly found an interesting way to get the most out of his players, and while it may not be applicable to every team, there are certainly other managers out there who could benefit from this strategy, given the personnel at their disposal. With this in mind, perhaps we may see more of the “inside fullback” in the future, and who knows, this may even become the next tactical trend to proliferate throughout the modern game.