Bayern Munich's David Alaba Is so Much More Than the World's Best Left-BackNovember 22, 2016
The Alaba family has a habit of coming first; dad George was the first black gardesoldat in the Austrian army, mother Gina is a former Miss Philippines, and then there's David.
He was in the Austria Vienna squad at 15 and was Austria's youngest international at 17 years and 112 days. Just over 100 days later, he became the youngest player to make a competitive appearance for Bayern Munich. A month after that, he added the same honour for the German giants in the UEFA Champions League.
Alaba also became the youngest Bayern player to reach 50 competitive appearances, and he then claimed the record for getting to a century of Bundesliga wins last season. If he wasn't such a great guy…
Add to that another honour, that of the world's best left-back as decreed by ESPN FC last week. Honorific it may be, but when you look at the talent he left in his wake—Jordi Alba, Marcelo and Raphael Guerreiro were second to fourth respectively—it is quite an accolade. Particularly when you consider it may not even be Alaba's best position.
Borussia Dortmund partisans will—justifiably—make the same case for Guerreiro, but even the most subjective yellow-and-black devotee would have to admit that Alaba is a step or three ahead of their summer arrival, Euro 2016 winner's medal around his neck or not.
While Bayern knew they had a gem on their hands early on, bringing Alaba from the Austrian capital to Bavaria when he was just 15, their backs must be sore with all the self-congratulatory slapping that must go on at the Allianz Arena at having stumbled upon possibly the most versatile footballer of all time.
We have all heard the "I'm just happy to play anywhere" line, but in Alaba's case, it is almost true.
"David Alaba is our God," former Bayern boss Pep Guardiola said, per Les-transferts.com (in French). "He has already played in almost every position."
Omnipresent then, rather than omnipotent, but there is no doubt that wherever he has played, Alaba's displays have been nothing short of heavenly. As Louis van Gaal put it, per Der Sechzehner (in German), simply but quite correctly: "Alaba isn't good. He's very good."
But where is he best?
"He is a left-back, even if he doesn't know it himself," said Van Gaal with his usual certitude, per Der Sechzehner (in German). And while Bayern fans may not always have seen eye-to-eye with the outspoken Dutchman, they surely agree with him on this point, at least to a certain extent.
Anyone who witnessed his Champions League debut—playing at left-back—would have been as impressed as Bayern chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, per Der Sechzehner (in German). "He played very well," the two-time Ballon d'Or winner said following the last-16 tie against Fiorentina in 2010. "You absolutely didn't notice it was his first start for us."
Alaba's displays this season have been impressive, and the three assists he has already registered in the Bundesliga bode well for a fruitful season going forward.
Bayern manager Carlo Ancelotti's 4-3-3 system will give him an opportunity to showcase his talents in the attacking third, with Alaba and counterparts on the right—Philipp Lahm and Rafinha—charged with providing the width to what would otherwise be a rather narrow setup.
The return to fitness of Franck Ribery will help, too, as the pair have an off-the-pitch bond that clearly translates to their play.
"When he was 16, I met him at youth academy. He has worked very hard and he made it. David is very experienced although he is so young," Ribery told Christoph Koeckeis of Goal earlier this year.
"For me, he is a great player and the best left-back in the world. I prefer playing with him, and he is glad when I am on the pitch as well. There is an understanding between us."
Things are not all rosy, however, with Alaba in the back four.
He was exposed in the game against Borussia Dortmund. Caught out of position twice in the first half, he watched as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored from a Mario Gotze cross before the former teed up Andre Schurrle for a shot that might have given BVB a second.
Alaba's poor positioning was probably more likely due to the formation—which requires a massive amount of work at both ends of the pitch for full-backs—rather than an inherent fragility in the player's game. But there is a legitimate question over whether the Austrian is playing in his best position.
During a formative, fruitful loan spell at Hoffenheim in the second half of the 2010/11 season, Alaba featured effectively as a No. 6 in front of the back four, replacing the Bayern-bound Luiz Gustavo.
"I'm really happy to be at Hoffenheim, and I see the ideal conditions in which to develop," Alaba said, per Der Sechzehner (in German), and it certainly added an extra string to his bow as well as his debut Bundesliga goal in a 2-2 draw against St. Pauli.
Ancelotti is hardly struggling for options in the defensive-midfield position, but Alaba could provide his manager with another. He also almost went unnoticed as Joshua Kimmich stole all the headlines as the pair played effectively in central defence during Bayern's injury crisis under Guardiola last season.
Kimmich is similar to Alaba in many ways, a midfielder by trade excelling as a defender and, more particularly, as a right-back for Germany. Ancelotti appears to prefer the youngster further up the pitch while awaiting Lahm's retirement and Kimmich's investiture as Bayern and Germany right-back.
But it surely should be Alaba, rather than Kimmich—despite this season's goal rush—who should be further up the pitch.
"He is a purely instinctive footballer," said Ralf Muhr, youth academy director at Alaba's former club, Austria Vienna, per Spox (in German). "Central, behind the striker, is where he is most effective. In my opinion, that is his best position. He is such a goal threat, he can have most impact in the centre."
While the history of football is littered with stories of goalkeepers who started their careers as strikers, there is little to suggest Alaba would not make a success of a more creative role.
The fact he gets to take direct free-kicks on occasion when there is a wealth of attacking talent around him says it all.
While he perhaps does not quite have the silken skills of a classic Zinedine Zidane-style playmaker, he would surely offer more creativity and goal threat from open play with his powerful left foot and finely tuned game intelligence than Kimmich or Arturo Vidal, both of whom are more combat than cultured.
You only need look at the club and footballer that Alaba admires most to understand what kind of player he wants to be.
"I enjoy the philosophy. The way they play football is wonderful," a youthful Alaba said, per Spox (in German), of Arsenal. "Fabregas is my role model. Technically, he can do everything, and he exudes calm."
All of us had posters of our footballing heroes on our bedroom walls, but Alaba has the talent to emulate his.
He has already done so for his country, for whom he regularly features further up and more centrally, notably at Euro 2016. "At this tournament, I would like to show and prove I can play well in this position," Alaba said, per Der Tagesspiegel (in German), before last summer's showpiece.
Though his Euro experience was not what he would have hoped for, Alaba has better players around him at club level, players who would be on the same wavelength as him and would enable him to best express himself as a more creative force.
The problem is Bayern do not have a viable alternative at left-back, though, quite frankly, few clubs do. Juan Bernat is clearly nothing more than a short-term, makeshift answer. Ironically, Alaba's emergence is the only reason Lahm was able to switch from the left to his own preferred position on the right.
Sadly, Alaba is likely to find himself at left-back in the immediate and mid-term future; playing there almost certainly against his nature, but perhaps not his will.