How David Alaba’s ability on the ball has fit Real Madrid perfectly

Real Madrid, David Alaba (Photo by JOHANN GRODER/EXPA/AFP via Getty Images)
Real Madrid, David Alaba (Photo by JOHANN GRODER/EXPA/AFP via Getty Images) /

When David Alaba arrived at Real Madrid, there were some doubts regarding the position in which he might play. Such questions are common while talking about a highly versatile player like Alaba. The fans did have their doubts, but the club and the manager were always clear with their thoughts. The club saw Alaba as a replacement for Sergio Ramos, and Carlo Ancelotti has always mentioned that he sees the Austrian as an able centre-back.

As one of the greatest centre-backs of all time, Sergio Ramos’ boots are huge ones to fill. But David Alaba has been firm that he isn’t here to replace Ramos, and he’s at Real Madrid to be himself. He did take Ramos’ number and has started to play in Ramos’ position of late, but he has provided the team with something new and different.

He has impressed everyone since his debut and has introduced himself as a ball-playing centre-back. A centre-back, who builds the attack from the back, and as a player who can bring the ball out of tight spaces and act as a ball carrier-if needed. And he’s proving himself to be a brilliant passer in a league where one can get to see a lot of technical quality. He has just fit in so well into Real Madrid and LaLiga.

Stats-wise, he has registered some great numbers, averaging 56.4 short passes and 1.8 accurate long balls per 90 mins in LaLiga, according to WhoScored. And when compared to other centre-backs across Europe, he has a percentile of 99 in progressive passes and 96 in progressive carries, as per FBREF. But these numbers aren’t enough to show his influence on the team’s possession game, and only an eye test can make one understand his brilliance.

Starting off as a left-back

With Ferland Mendy and Marcelo out injured, the versatile Austrian started the season as a left-back, a position in which he had played for nearly seven to eight seasons at Bayern. He played in that position against Deportivo Alaves and Levante, and those were enough for him to exhibit his supreme ball-playing abilities.

He assisted Vini’s header against Alaves with an inch perfect-cross, registering an assist to his name on his official Real Madrid debut. His crossing has always been his strength while playing as a left-back, and it is something that he has shown in the EURO as well. But the best is yet to come, and one pass against Levante was enough to win over everyone.

Bale was the one who inked his name onto the scoresheet and Benzema added to his assist tally, but the player who deserved credit for this goal was David Alaba. As you can observe in the video, he created this open with one well-timed and perfectly weighted ball over the top. After the one-two with Eden Hazard, he didn’t waste a second to release Benzema with his one-touch pass, which was very crucial for Benzema to beat the offside trap.

He was involved in the build-up of Vinicius’ second goal as well, which helped Los Blancos salvage a point. As a left-back, you could also see him acting as a third centre-back or the fourth midfielder at different instants, helping the team complete a passing triangle, and help the team get numerical superiority in specific zones while attacking, which rounded off a complete performance from the numero quatro.

Building from the back

From the next game against Real Betis, he has been deployed only as a centre-back, the position in which Ancelotti always wanted to use him. He couldn’t do much in the scrappy win against Betis and then missed the game against Celta Vigo due to a muscle overload. But from then he started as a centre-back in three consecutive fixtures against Inter Milan, Valencia and RCD Mallorca, and is slowly establishing himself as one of the best in the League. Nacho, who earlier started as a left centre-back alongside Eder Militao, was pushed to the wings to make way for a player who’s much more comfortable with the ball at his feet.

Alaba has a habit of attempting penetrative through balls and passing through narrow channels down the middle. Against a well-organized Inter Milan, Alaba didn’t find a lot of spaces to attempt such passes, but he did well enough to circulate the possession and evade the relentless pressure from Internazionale. But his best performance came against Mallorca, in which he got to claim an assist for Benzema’s second goal, as you can watch here.

As you can observe from the above viz made by one of our colleagues Yash (who’s quite good at making them), you can get an idea of how effective David Alaba’s passes were against Mallorca. We can also observe how he has made the left side of Real Madrid’s half his own.

Out of Alaba’s passes, most of his forward passes are directed towards Benzema and particularly Vinicius. He assisted Benzema’s second goal with an inch-perfect long ball from the deep and released Vinicius with another such accurate long ball in the build-up to Isco’s goal. Apart from the passes which resulted in goals, the other forward passes were a visual treat. He would find any forward with a well-weighted and accurate pass.

He often aims to release Vinicius through the space on the left flank, which often ends up as dangerous attacks. Since Alaba is a left-footer, the curve on the pass forces Vini to make an inward run. Alaba had a habit of releasing Alphonso Davies at Bayern Munich, and such vertical runs succeed in creating turbulence in wide areas most of the time.

Alaba being a left-footed player has brought a different style to the backline. Ramos and Varane had the ability to make such passes with their left foot, but they were natural right footers and the frequency of such passes weren’t as high as Alaba. But of course, they had their own ways and Ramos was one of the best long passers in the team. Marcelo also had a habit of making such passes and releasing pacy wingers behind the defensive line, but with regular injuries, his appearances decreased in number.

So Alaba’s entry into the team and his role as a central player is proving to be beneficial for the team, with Vinicius Jr and Miguel Gutierrez benefitting the most from the Austrian’s presence. And the latter has developed some great chemistry with Alaba which can be understood from their coordinated movement and passing while bringing the ball out of pressure.

Ball-carrying abilities

As you can observe from the above Viz, Alaba had 25 ball carries to his name, with five of them being progressive carries. These little bursts of speed from a centre-back can impart a sense of energy to the attack. Generally, we observe such carries from Vinicius, whose sudden acceleration brings some momentum to the attack from the left.

But when Alaba beats the first line of pressure on his own and advances deep into the opponent’s half, the danger bells start ringing for the opponents. Such runs spread a sense of urgency among the players in front of him. All of a sudden Real Madrid have an extra attacker and the opposition defence would find it difficult to predict the final pass. And the best part of this move is that Alaba is highly press-resistant and matured enough to not give away possession in dangerous areas, and recovers quickly to avoid being hit on the counter.

Next. Ranking Real Madrid's top five performers in September. dark

I have limited this article exclusively to Alaba’s passing and how effective has been with the ball at his feet, but Alaba has been excellent in few other aspects as well. His defensive anticipation has been great, which is evident from the way he positions himself perfectly to intercept passes and block crosses. His man-marking and positioning can improve with time, but so far he’s been an incredible signing for Real Madrid. And above all, he’s proving to be a leader in his own way, which is enough for the fans to love him.