It takes immense quality and football intelligence to master two positions, let alone three, which is what David Alaba has achieved during the last 10 years as a Bayern Munich player.
While in charge in Bavaria, Pep Guardiola once said Alaba ‘can play absolutely everywhere’.
Obviously, he isn’t wrong.
The Austrian began as a midfielder, before being transformed into a left-back by Louis van Gaal. He soon became one of the world’s best, but it was then Guardiola who first saw the potential for Alaba to also play at the heart of the defence instead.
Alaba himself honestly revealed in a 2016 interview he didn’t know he had it in him.
“[Guardiola] pushes everybody, every day, in a good way. I’ve been getting better with every year he’s been here, because of him. But I didn’t know myself that I could play as central defender,” the player explained to The Guardian.
It seems as though it wasn’t even the first time that he didn’t realise his own potential.
“He's a left-back, even though he doesn't think so himself,” were Van Gaal’s comments after the veteran coach insisted on switching a teenage Alaba from his original midfield role.
Although Alaba still played in midfield from time to time, the move to left-back proved to be a stroke of genius. He became a starter for the 2011/12 season when Bayern reached the Champions League final and was again key the following year as they made amends and won a treble.
Guardiola began the experiment at centre-back from 2014 onwards. Initially, it was as part of a back-three and predominantly in the Champions League. During the 2014/15 season, Alaba continued also playing at left-back and midfield, developing his understanding of all three.
He certainly wasn’t the first Bayern player to be interchangeable between a full-back and central midfield, with Guardiola almost immediately utilising Philipp Lahm as a defensive shield upon his arrival in 2013. He also wasn’t the last, because current star Joshua Kimmich is highly skilled in both.
Alaba’s move to centre-back became more permanent in 2015/16, with Guardiola placing enough faith in someone fast becoming the ultimate all-rounder to cut it down to a two centre-back system.
Yet Guardiola’s departure in 2016 brought with it a return for Alaba to his former position on the left and it wasn’t until November 2019, a decision undoubtedly influenced by Niklas Sule's ACL injury, that he was put back into the middle. This time to stay.
His first game in back that role ended in a shock 5-1 drubbing by Eintracht Frankfurt, resulting in coach Niko Kovac getting sacked a day later, but replacement Hansi Flick kept Alaba there and it was he who became the constant in the Bayern back-line for the rest of the season.
He was predominantly partnered by close friend Jerome Boateng, but Javi Martinez, Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez all lined up next to him at centre-back over the course of the campaign.
Alaba does not look like your typical world class centre-back. He stands under six feet tall and is not exactly known for physical prowess or aerial ability. But what he brings to the role are skills and attributes that he has developed by already mastering two other positions.
In effect, he is a hybrid, bringing the best bits from different areas of the pitch. His ability on the ball and range of passing, a prerequisite for a midfielder, is an increasingly important trait among modern centre-backs in today’s possession-based game.
Similarly, his natural energy speed from his days as a full-back gives him the ability to snuff out danger before it comes to a physical battle. The chances of him being exposed if dragged out of position by an attacking run are also slim because of his versatility and experience, which isn’t something that can be said for every centre-back, even world class ones.
Alaba himself has said that he thinks that experience and differing perspective is exactly why he is now making such an impact at the centre of defence.
“Maybe I'm playing there because I interpret the position differently than a natural centre-back would,” he told German magazine Kicker soon after the move back inside from the left.
Awareness and anticipation are enormous assets for any elite centre-back and Alaba is not short on either, again likely because he has seen the game from different angles and has a more all-round view. Indeed, Flick has remarked that he is a ‘very intelligent player’ and ‘ticks all the boxes’.
Kimmich, meanwhile is impressed by his teammate’s demeanour and coolness. “I think he's one of the best in the world at centre-back,” the Bayern star has said. “I've told David that. His body language is amazing, he has great build-up play and keeps calm under pressure.”
Now, at the peak of his career and weighing up what he immediate future holds, it is clearer than ever that centre-back is Alaba’s true position and the role he was born to play.