Alaba and his spot in Bayern’s pantheon
With 265 Bundesliga games and 409 competitive games for the German record champions, David Alaba is closing in on the club’s internal top 15 in both categories. The Austrian international has already played more games in the club’s red shirt than club legend Paul Breitner or current sporting director Hasan Salihamidžić. With two treble victories, nine league championships and a sum total of 20 titles, he has racked up staggering numbers even for a club of FC Bayern’s lofty competition. Franz Beckenbauer, for example, only won 13 titles with the club.
But where does this David Alaba, should he leave the club in the summer as seems almost a certainty at this point, rank in the order of legends at FC Bayern? The problem with David Alaba – after all, he was the last youth player from the club’s own academy to make a sustained breakthrough in the first team – is simply that he was often just one among many in an era full of signature players.
His career can perhaps be divided into five stages. It begins with the newcomer David Alaba in stage one, who was thrown on against Frankfurt by Louis van Gaal and then parked at Hoffenheim on loan. Upon his return, he developed into an accomplished left-back with a strong attacking drive, a suitable passing game, and solid defensive skills, largely thanks to the on-field stewardship of Franck Ribéry.
In stage two, the still-young Alaba under taskmasters Heynckes and Guardiola developed into the best left-back in the world for a short time. He reached his personal apogee when, egged on and challenged by Guardiola, he became a half-space libero whose game intelligence, dribbling skills and precise ball distribution made him a minor reincarnation of Franz Beckenbauer. But even at this absolute peak, he did not take center stage in a team peppered with world stars. Between Neuer, Lahm, Boateng, Ribéry, Robben, Müller, and Lewandowski, he was a first-class also ran. Other players than him formed the core of the team.
Alaba’s long cherished ambitions for a central position in Bayern’s midfield, something he had already achieved in the Austrian national team, also fall into this period. However, he was unable to assert himself in the engine room of Bayern’s build-up game against his numerous and renowned competitors. The limitations in his game became clear. Alaba is not a 360-degree player who can perceive what is happening in front of and behind him, as Lahm, Thiago or Alonso were able to do. Accordingly, he often made wrong decisions, held on to balls for too long and did not develop a feeling for pressure from all angles. After the unsuccessful Euro 2016 with Austria at the latest, he finally put his midfield aspirations to rest.
This European Championship also marked the start of the third stage, which can only be described as a massive step backwards. Deprived of personal guidance, Alaba became a shadow of his former self under Ancelotti and Kovač. At this point, even his regular place in the first team was in jeopardy at times, although fortunately for him, challenger Juan Bernat “played like crap” (Uli Hoeneß) during this period.
The renewed upswing and with it the fourth stage in Alaba’s Bayern career began only after Hansi Flick had been appointed. Flick had carefully studied Alaba’s mediocre performances under Guardiola and offered the Austrian the post of defensive leader at center-back alongside the ageing Boateng, newcomer Pavard and youngster Davies. The development of the latter had allowed Alaba – here opinions differ – to make the step up from wing to center or, alternatively, made him superfluous in his traditional position. In any case, Alaba flourished in his old role, played a fantastic Champions League tournament and became one of the team’s leaders for the first time – on and off the pitch. After the departure of the leaders in the first treble win in 2013 had left a power vacuum, Alaba and also Lewandowski were able to step up. The chances of the still only 28-year-old climbing the list of Bayern legends at this point seemed excellent.
But with his return from Lisbon, the fifth stage began, marked by a rift with the club. Driven by dubious advisors, Alaba fell out with the club’s superiors until they withdrew their offer of a new, long-term contract. At the same time, Alaba fell back into old habits on the pitch and regularly became a liability in defense. More and more fans wondered whether his magnificent treble year was the exception rather than the rule.
To be fair, it must be pointed out that the last two phases were much shorter than the previous ones and occurred within the last season and a half. A brisk ascent and a quick fall. Some recency bias may also play a role here. A final judgement on the final two stages can probably only be made with a few years’ distance.
So how should David Alaba be ranked? By way of historical comparison, I first had to think of Bernd Dürnberger. For those who do not know him, he, too, was an undisputed first team regular in the 70s in the team that won three European Cup titles in a row, and he ranks in the all-time top 10 of Bayern players with most appearances. Nevertheless, when asked about the great players of those 70s, Dürnberger is usually far outdistanced by the likes of Beckenbauer, Müller, Maier & Co. However, he was never a German international and would hardly have attracted the interest of Real Madrid.
Perhaps a comparison of Alaba with Paul Breitner is more apt as the two also play in the same position. Both were important cornerstones in the successes during their respective periods at the club, with the difference that Breitner went to Real between his two successful stints at Bayern, and not afterwards as Alaba is going to do now. Moreover, Breitner was one half of the acclaimed Breitnigge duo during his second spell at Bayern. Despite all the laurels for Alaba’s role in the second treble, you cannot rank his merits quite that high.
When I think of our top 15 players in club history ranking, which we compiled a few years ago, I struggle to find a candidate I would cross off the list for Alaba. Especially when you consider that Robert Lewandowski and, in the medium term, probably Joshua Kimmich, too, will find their ways onto that list. In the end, Alaba will probably end up somewhere between position 12 and 20 and be a hot contender for the top spot in the Honorable Mentions. At left-back, he will probably have to share his place in the all-time eleven with Breitner, depending on where the latter’s position is ultimately seen.