att’s Monday Musings: A series with no rhyme or reason — just constant thoughts on all things Real Madrid released every Monday. Some weeks may be long-form, others just short fictional ideas. Either way, I’ll be posting reflective content about the club’s present, past, and future:
Rather than start this piece about David Alba, let me preface it with a few words on Ferland Mendy. The Frenchman is one of the best full-backs in the world and ranks in the 94th percentile for the number of times a player has outrun him. In other words, Mindy is virtually impossible to outrun. Whether it was Salah, Mahrez, or Pulisic — there was no other defender in the squad I would rather defend in a 1 v 1 situation with the Champions League on the line. But of course, not every match is a UCL knockout game. Where Mendy has struggled in the past has been against teams that sit deep and concede possession to Real Madrid. In these matches, where classic control back and forth ousts the rock-n-roll transition game, David Alaba may be a better option on the left.
It seems Carlo Ancelotti is ready to test that theory. Given the quality of Antonio Rudiger, the Italian manager will always be looking for an opportunity to fit the center back into the team. Alba’s versatility, skill, and understanding of the game mean he can occupy almost any position on the pitch and feel comfortable. Ancelotti predicted Espanyol would bunker down defensively and keep the ball for large parts of the match for Madrid. The prospect of Joselu pairing up with the aerial threat and the idea of starting both Rudiger, the German at center-back, and Alaba on the Austrian left, made a lot of sense.
For the first 40 minutes of the match against Espanyol, Real Madrid was in control with both Cruz and Modric dropping deep to pull the strings. At any point though the match will be frozen and you will question each player’s reported position. Often the crux was in the left posterior space, the Venusians wide, and the alba forming a central flowing transverse angle:
It’s easy to get confused by the idea of the position, but in reality, Madrid’s players occupy positions on the pitch that best help them move towards the goal. The ability of a player like Alba means he is comfortable almost anywhere on the pitch. Some players can only perform at their best in certain areas of the pitch. A player like Vinicius Jr. needs the touchline to orient himself and dictate his next move. Alaba is comfortable in any position — on the touchline, back towards goal, facing the entire pitch at the back, or receiving in crowded central channels.
The two images above are less than 4 seconds apart. Alaba displays his comfort and tactical acumen by flowing centrally to form a triangle and helping Tchouameni and Kroos create numerical superiority in midfield. After releasing the ball to Kroos, Alba quickly runs into space down the left channel and catches the attention of both Oscar Gil and Fernando Calero.
It was not alone. Austria had adventures all over the pitch, especially during those first 40 “control” minutes. To the uninitiated eye, it would be easy to think of Toni Kroos as a left winger and Alaba as a center midfielder.
Again, less than 5 seconds later and Alaba turns into open space, races past the retreating defence, and drives his team another 20 yards up the pitch:
Alaba at “left back”, or whatever term you want to call the position or space he occupies, gives Real Madrid a completely different dimension. Players like Kroos, Modric, Tchouameni, Benzema, and Vinicius have more outlets to work within the final third and when they develop their defensive third. For all his world-class defensive attributes, Ferland Mendy does not have the same quality in the offensive phase of the game, both on and off the ball, that David Alaba does. It is no stretch to say that the Austrian is one of the most complete signings for the club.
The concern is when the state of the game changes, as it did for the last five minutes of the first half and continued throughout the second half vs. Espanyol. A team’s “rest defense” – their positions on the pitch before and immediately after losing the ball – makes them prone to mismatches. Say Toni Kroos is a fast right-winger. For Alba to thrive as a left winger, the game state or match context is important. The same is true of Ferland Mandy.
As Carlo Ancelotti noted in his post-match quotes, he has two styles for every game and it’s up to the coach to get it right. Many felt he was referring strictly to the midfield, but while player profiles can occupy multiple positions on the pitch and bring different characteristics to a match, Ancelotti has a variety of personnel and profiles. Referring to the ones they have, including Alba on the left or center back.