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David Alaba: The most versatile football player in history?

Article written by: @riowade_

Austria’s youngest player to play for the national team at the age of seventeen years of age, multiple time Austrian footballer of the year and with eleven major trophies to his name at the mere age of twenty-two, David Alaba is quite simply, a remarkable young talent. And in an age where footballers are often asked to alter, modify and more often than not, perfect multiple facets of their game, I’d like to tell you why I believe the Bayern Munich jack of all trades, is the most modern footballer to ever have graced world football.

In the modern game amid an ever-changing climate of European Football, versatility is an increasingly important quality. Players are asked to play in different positions, different roles and different systems. Whilst times of the past have often called for this too, we are witness to the proper development of what some call ‘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 FC Barcelona manager outlined his preference on how he personally would build a squad. 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 really isn’t hard to imagine Guardiola’s joy at finding multiple ‘universal’ players with the likes of Phillipp Lahm, Mario Gotze, Javi Martinez and more aptly, David Alaba providing the much desired versatility Guardiola can only have craved for whilst at Barcelona. But whilst the other three are well known for their adaptability, I believe the 22-year old Austrian is still clearly the most unique.

Alaba first established himself as a regular in the Bayern Starting XI as a left-back during the 2011-12 season under Jupp Heynckes’ tenure as manager. His performances quickly gained immense plaudits, especially in the Champions League semi-final face-off against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. The young nineteen year old at the time displayed an incredible sense of calm and composure on the ball, putting forth an A grade performance as well as having the nerve to set up to take and eventually score Bayern’s first penalty that night. Sadly an unfortunate booking vitally ruled him out of the finals against Chelsea at the Allianz Arena and it seems a little co-incidental that without Alaba, the Germans failed to clinch the title.

The following season saw Austrian make his way to the very top of his game. Steadily, his development continued and his hard work was rewarded with the chance to play against Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Champions League final at Wembley. After a massively successful season for the Germans (winning the treble), Alaba was now talked of as one of the world’s best left-backs, competing with the likes of Jordi Alba, Marcelo and even England left-back Leighton Baines for the title of the best left back not just in Europe but perhaps the world. Whilst he earned laurels for his club for his consistency at left-back, Alaba also starred for Austria in midfield. Used both in centre-midfield in a double pivot and as a number ten for his country, Alaba showcased quality in both attacking and defensive aspects of the game. Evidence of this would be the fact that he ended up as Austria’s top goal-scorer in their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.

During Guardiola’s first season in charge at Bayern Munchen, 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 centrally, thus allowing him to push his two attaching 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. A fond memory of mine to best exemplify everything good about Alaba has to be the Champions League quarter-final against Manchester United. The first half was a tight affair with no real clear cut chances. Yet in the second half Pep Guardiola opted to change things with both Lahm and Alaba playing as false full backs in order to flood the midfield and subsequently, Bayern went on to win the game 3-1. Was this how Guardiola now could and continue to improve the perfect treble winning side?

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Guardiola’s ideas on how to use the Austrian didn’t end there! This season has seen David Alaba’s role at Bayern change dramatically. With the signing of promising young left back Juan Bernat from Spanish side Valencia in the previous Summer transfer window and the excellent form that he is in has given rise to the possibility for Alaba to play centrally on a regular basis for the club. Guardiola has predominantly used two systems this 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 the first system and as left full-back in the other.

When using the 3-3-4/3-4-3, Alaba plays 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. In the back three, Alaba is given permission and licensed with somewhat of a free role. Obviously being very disciplined in the defensive parts of the game, it isn’t unusual to see Alaba roam when Bayern are in possession of the ball, mostly on the left half-spaces, looking for areas where he can have an impact on the game high up the pitch. A good example of this would be during the game against AS Roma when Alaba won a penalty after leaving his original centre-back position to make his way up the pitch on an attacking venture. In the 4-3-3 system, he has mostly played in centre-midfield alongside Lahm with Xabi Alonso behind them as the pivot. This role brings out the best of Alaba as he is constantly involved in the game using his dynamic energy, one minute creating chances with through balls for Robert Lewandowski and the next, sprinting 40 meters to press the opposition right-back.

Quite frankly, Alaba has grown into this universal modern footballer, unlike any other in the current circuit that doesn’t seem to be at at anything. He clealry has the ability to read the game very well, excellent in one-on-one situations and is a solid tackler. Alaba 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. And despite the glamorous names of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger on the Bayern Munchen team-sheet, Alaba remains on free-kick duty and scores plenty. His energy and pace often sees him beat players seamlessly. In both attaching and defending domains of the game, his intelligence is often displayed if one closely watches his positional sense.

In terms of positions he is more than capable of playing in, the Austrian can excel at left-back, left-wing back, centre-back, centre-midfield, winger on either flank and as a number 10 – you name it. I mean given the chance of playing in a defensive midfield or left/right full back or wing back positions, I am sure he would do well. I’m also pretty sure you could stick him up front if you fancy that – he can do no wrong!

Therefore having the ability to play in every position on the field, in any system and still give you stellar performances probably defines Alaba as the most modern footballer in the world. Next time, be it Bayern or Austria, enjoy watching the truly unique talent that is David Alaba- in whatever position he might play in.

Article written by: @riowade_

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