Few football players make 400 senior appearances for Bayern Munich without doing something right.
True footballing powerhouses, the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, are among the fifteen men in history who can lay claim to reaching such a landmark in Bavaria, with Phillip Lahm and Thomas Müller joining them in more recent years.
In short, it really is the very best players ever to emerge from German football who tend to achieve this special feat. Franck Ribéry is the only foreign import to have ever-before attained the figure and the one-time Ballon d’Or bronze medalist does not seem out of place in such company.
The only foreign import until now, that is.
Perhaps quietly, David Alaba has worked himself up to 396 career games for the Champions League and Bundesliga holders. Since the Austrian’s arrival in Germany as a 16-year-old in 2008, he has won nine ‘BuLi’ medals, registered six German Cup wins, and has featured in two sides to have conquered Europe: he was the youngest starter when Bayern defeated Borussia Dortmund at Wembley in 2013, and by 2020 he was the Bavarians’ most-senior defender after Jérôme Boateng limped off midway through the first half of the 1-0 victory over Paris Saint-Germain.
Only three outfield members of Die Roten featured in both finals. Boateng has regressed somewhat in recent years, with an injury-laden career taking its toll. By contrast, Thomas Müller is widely regarded as the shining example of German football’s brilliance in its intensity and intelligence of the last decade, and has enjoyed a widely-celebrated renaissance over the last twelve months.
And then there sits Alaba.
Less heralded than the famously under-appreciated Müller, so often mentioned among the best left-backs in the sport, but so rarely ordained a star of the European game. Alaba has been regularly overlooked for large parts of the last ten years, despite never really losing first-choice status among such a high quality squad.
The attribute that has most frequently brought the Austrian into more public discussion – in England, at least – is his incredible versatility. Since becoming a regular starter at the Allianz Arena, Alaba has had individual seasons in which he has most often featured at left-back, in central midfield and in the centre of defence. And this, as well as the expiring of his contract next summer, is a key reason that Liverpool have been recently linked with a move for the six-time Austrian Footballer of the Year.
Versatility and change has been commonplace throughout Alaba’s career, but the last eighteen months have seen him shift to a more regular central defensive role. With Virgil van Dijk out for the season, Joe Gomez recently sidelined while on international duty, and Joel Matip’s injury record being quite horrendous, the English champions are in dire need of some reinforcement in that area. The club is a Matip knock away from a situation where Jürgen Klopp has no senior centre-back available to him.
The above graphic suggests that before last season’s return to a central defensive role, Alaba already had plenty of experience in the position. In actual fact, when deployed in a Pep Guardiola back-three, he was very much a ‘centre back’ in name only.
In 2014/15, the Catalan coach used Alaba as a marauding defender, not unlike those we see playing at Bramall Lane for Chris Wilder. The graphic to the left shows his touches against Guardiola’s current team, Manchester City, in a Champions League group stage victory from that campaign. Bayern’s No.27 was also regularly deployed as a supposed central midfielder that season, in what was an incredibly fluid Pep team.
By 2015/16, this system had shifted again, now the Austrian playing as a ‘central’ defender saw him function as a left-wing back, as in the 5-1 Der Klassiker crushing of Thomas Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund.
Guardiola’s exit, however, saw a return to relative structure and normality, and for Alaba this meant a return to a more traditional left-back role under both Carlo Ancelotti and Jupp Heynckes, and then again for Niko Kovac. In fact, during Kovac’s 2018/19 season, Alaba played exclusively as a left-back in a back four – the only full season of his career to-date in which he has only played in one position.Embed from Getty Images
However, Kovac’s tenure was cut short last autumn, with Hansi Flick being initially named his short-term replacement. Formerly Joachim Löw’s national team assistant, Flick has been nothing short of a revelation at Bayern, with 45 victories from 49 games in all competitions, and a treble win, all while playing as entertaining a brand of football as can be found in Europe right now.
It is in some ways due to Flick’s commitment to attacking play, but equally thanks to the injury crisis Bayern found themselves in last year, and the emergence of their Canadian starlet, Alphonso Davies, that Alaba once again finds himself lining up most regularly as a central defender.
This time, however, there is no mistaking his position. Alaba is unquestionably a central defender in this Flick 4-2-3-1, and with the attacking freedom granted to Davies down the left flank, Alaba takes on more defensive responsibility than ever before… And he has excelled in his new role.
With groundings as a central midfielder and attacking full-back, it is no surprise that Alaba’s passing ability stands out. The reality goes further than ‘standing out’, though – he might well be the best ball-playing defender in Europe at this moment in time, certainly from a progressive standpoint.
Only Virgil van Dijk and Aymeric Laporte come close to the Viennese export in this regard, when he is compared with the most regular starters among the Premier League’s top six. 9.5 passes completed into the final third per 90 minutes is an absurd statistic – Alaba manages to channel play into the Bayern frontline with such regularity that opposing defences just cannot escape the assault.
Less so recently, but in years gone by, an argument levelled against Klopp’s Liverpool has been an overly-patient approach in build-up play. Alaba’s directness – here meaning positivity, rather than a tendency to hit aimless long balls (78pc long pass completion is better than average) – is a key component of the intensity of Flick’s system.
All this is not to say that Alaba is the perfect central defender – he does, of course, need to defend, as well as progress the play.
His aerial win rate of 48.6pc is quite frankly not good enough for any player in that position (by comparison, Matip can boast 85.7pc success), and at 5”11, the honorary Bavarian is less tall than ideal, but the footballing aspect that statistics most struggle to convey is defensive intelligence, which Alaba has in abundance.
Proof of this can be shown by team results.
Flick’s gung-ho approach has led to some suggestions that Bayern are weak defensively. I would personally disagree, and suggest that the reality is more that Bayern’s attacking play is so good that they have an understandable confidence in their ability to outscore opponents – 45 wins in 49 games clearly shows they have reason. Nevertheless, when Bayern need to defend, as we saw against PSG in Lisbon, they can do so expertly.
Across four crucial games in 2020 – their Champions League semi-final and final, and key clashes against closest challengers, RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga run-in – the German giants kept four clean sheets.
At times they were fortunate. Timo Werner missed a huge opportunity for Leipzig and Lyon wasted some great chances early in their semi-final clash, but that run is not possible without quality at centre-back. Werner, Erling Braut Håland, Memphis Depay and Kylian Mbappé do pose some quite difficult challenges, after all.
While maybe not as rapid as some of the great attacking full-backs of more modern times, Alaba certainly has enough speed to play in the high defensive line that Liverpool have adopted in the early weeks of the new season. This is again evident from Bayern’s success, and Alaba has tended to play as the quicker defensive partner, ready to cover spaces in behind alongside the slightly less mobile, more aerially dominant, Boateng and Niklas Süle.
It is obvious, but worth pointing out, that Alaba’s left-footedness could be of advantage to Liverpool, too. It is part of van Dijk’s brilliance that he is so comfortable playing on the left side of a central defensive pairing, despite his left being his supposedly weaker foot. But with the Dutchman out for the season, and Joe Gomez possibly facing a similar spell on the sidelines, Liverpool must shoehorn one of Joël Matip or Fabinho – or even Rhys WIlliams or Nat Phillips – into that left-sided role, where passing lanes are more cramped and less natural for the right-footed majority.
Clearly a Liverpool devoid of defensive numbers would benefit in the short-term from the arrival of Alaba. In fact, we could see a very well-balanced partnership if Matip were able to stay fit, as the Cameroonian’s aerial dominance would supplement the current-Bundesliga man’s one glaring weakness.
But, with Alaba’s significant wage demands he would not be brought in solely as a short-term solution. Liverpool’s current central defensive situation may be desperate, but it is very unlike the Reds to panic in terms of transfer dealings since, well… Steven Caulker.
If Michael Edwards were to raid the Allianz Arena for a second time in six months, there would be a long-term vision of Alaba’s usage. Of course, the Austrian’s versatility presents options, but with Kostas Tsimikas being brought in this summer as £13m cover for a 2019 UEFA Team of the Year representative in Andrew Robertson, the need for a big earner to provide further competition for just one left-back spot is minimal.Embed from Getty Images
Liverpool’s central midfield depth finds itself in its greatest situation in recent years right now. Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Thiago, Naby Keita, Gini Wijnaldum, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Curtis Jones, Xherdan Shaqiri, James Milner… that really is quite some list.
However, with Wijnaldum’s contract expiring next year and James Milner’s role seemingly further reduced this campaign, both could be considered potential departures in 2021, while Xherdan Shaqiri may decide he wants a more gametime-assured role elsewhere. This is all before taking note of the frequency with which some of the Anfield side’s midfield players pick up knocks. If Alaba were brought in as another midfield option departed, you do feel he would find a fair share of minutes in the centre of the park.
As discussed, though, Alaba’s recent football has been played at centre-back, and that is the primary role that must be discussed when considering any potential move.
He would undoubtedly play there (assuming fitness) for the rest of the campaign, but Alaba would not be joining Liverpool on anything less than a three-year contract, and more likely would demand four- the length that Liverpool gave Thiago Alcântara, who is a year to his former teammate’s senior.
I have long disputed the suggestion that Liverpool would spend big on a centre-half while Virgil van Dijk remains at the level that he has been since joining the club and Joe Gomez shows the promise and talent that he has. Gomez is only 23, and I reckon the most favoured option would be to breed an even younger talent under van Dijk’s tutelage who can progressively take on more and more of the Dutchman’s minutes once he reaches the twilight of his career.
Like Joël Matip, Gomez is, unfortunately, injury-prone, and with both he and van Dijk set to return from long lay-offs, it could be that the club have fears about either or both of the two struggling to recapture their best form or physical capabilities. If that is the case, the argument for signing Alaba becomes a more compelling one. If, as we hope, both are able to regain peak fitness, you suddenly have to consider the long term plan for a prospective Liverpool defence strengthened by another Bundesliga import – say hello to the dream back three.
When utilised best, a back three should look to offer a team more numbers in attack and more numbers in defence. This is because the existence of three central defenders should encourage midfielders to commit further forward, and offers the wing-backs greater license to roam.
Obviously, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have never struggled to push themselves forward in recent years – both have contributed to Premier League records on defensive creativity – but allowing them to adopt a higher position from defensive situations could make Liverpool yet more lethal on the counter-attack. The fabled front three becomes a front five before you even begin to account for midfield runners.
For that to work, it is imperative that the central defenders are intelligent and mobile. A back three comprising Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk and David Alaba would be as mobile a set-up as the formation has ever seen. Gomez set the Reds’ top speed in Champions League games last season, while van Dijk had held that record in 18/19. As mentioned, Alaba is himself no slouch, and that works to his advantage over Matip in this system, as does his left-footedness.
The other prerequisite for a back three, if it is to be as successful going forward as a more standard back four, is for the central defenders to be comfortable on the ball. As shown earlier, Gomez and van Dijk are among the very best in the Premier League in that department, while Alaba may, in fact, be the best ball-playing defender in the world, right now.
This mock-up tries to show the benefit of the 3-4-3. If successful it would create greater space across the pitch for Liverpool and increase the number of players on each flank from two to three, rendering it easier to play around compact low blocks. Consequently, one of the disadvantages of the system is the increase in workload placed on the midfield two. And while both Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson flourished in those roles at the Etihad last weekend, it was clear that the pressure the 4-2-4 placed on them was immense. That said, Liverpool do not play Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City every week, and the 3-4-3 may pose more of an attractive proposition against lower teams, while the 4-3-3 would continue to be solid against the bigger sides.
There is no reason to assume that Klopp would want to move to a three at the back system- it is a set-up that he has very rarely used in his time at Liverpool, after all. Nevertheless, the deployment of both the 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-4 in recent weeks suggests that the Anfield side are looking for more tactical flexibility than they have shown in seasons past, where the 4-3-3 was very much dominant.
So, having identified Alaba’s strengths and weaknesses and how he could be used by Liverpool both long and short-term, we must ask how likely it is that a move is actually made for the Austrian.Embed from Getty Images
Reports have suggested that Alaba’s wage demands may reach about £300,000/week, which would rule out any move to Merseyside. However, like Thiago before him, Alaba may accept a lower salary on Merseyside, due to a desire to experience the Premier League and to play under Jürgen Klopp. If so, the financial aspects of the deal become very feasible, especially as with only six months left on Alaba’s contract, Bayern would most likely be forced to accept a bid of £20m or less.
The Austrian is sometimes described as injury-prone, but has made 35+ appearances every season for the European Champions since 2015 – a reassuring figure.
Nevertheless, the financial package only makes sense for Liverpool if they are certain of sufficient minutes for Alaba to warrant such pay. Considering James Milner is one of the Reds’ top earners, and, like Alaba, held in especial esteem for his versatility, it would seem safe to assume that Alaba would be considered Milner’s replacement. The Reds’ vice-captain has long been linked with a return to Leeds United, where he broke through as a 16-year-old.
Alaba’s experience and medal count allow him to command the respect in the dressing room that Milner’s departure would vacate, and he speaks perfect English which would further aid his integration. Equally, Gini Wijnaldum – another big and popular character – may well run down his Anfield contract and say his good-byes, expanding the potential leadership void that would need filling.
A January move for the all-time Bayern great makes sense then if, and only if, Liverpool expect one or both of James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum (or possibly another regular midfield option – Oxlade Chamberlain, Keїta…) to be leaving come summer 2021. Otherwise, having very recently purchased more left-back cover, it is difficult to support an expensive wage for a 28-year-old whose move to the centre of defence is a more recent one.
Any swoop would suggest that the club has at least considered the possibility of adopting a three at the back system in the years to come, or, more worryingly, that there are fears over Virgil van Dijk’s and/or Joe Gomez’s recovery.
But, there is no doubt that if he were to sign, the Austrian would be the second world-class player to swap the Allianz for Anfield in a matter of months, and his arrival would serve as a statement, reinforcing Liverpool’s status at the very top of world football, once again.
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