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Thursday, June 1, 2023

How will David Alaba change the shape and approach of Real Madrid?

David Alaba Real Madrid position
Alaba departed Bayern Munich for Real Madrid this summer. Ian Langsdon/EPA.

Given what was reported about David Alaba’s interest in playing for Real Madrid, there was very little that could have turned the head of the the Austrian this summer. Indeed, the 29-year-old is believed to have harboured the ambition to play for the Spanish giants for years, and this summer he achieved that goal by signing as a free agent.

However, one wonders if Alaba was fully briefed on the team he would be joining this summer when he put pen to paper on his five-year contract in May. Did he know that Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane would be leaving Real Madrid in the same window? That Alaba himself would be thrown in to marshal the defence from the moment he arrived?

Real Madrid find themselves in the midst of a transition with the club saving money to fund the $1 billion redevelopment of the Santiago Bernabeu and the expected signing of Kylian Mbappe, who will be a free agent next summer. Alaba was only able to make the move after running down his contract at Bayern Munich.

Nonetheless, Alaba is the most interesting, and potentially the most significant, signing Real Madrid have made in years. He will change the character of Los Blancos as a team. Alaba is a very different sort of centre back to either Ramos or Varane and will give Carlo Ancelotti a much greater degree of tactical flexibility.

Alaba is most likely to slot in at centre back, where he played the majority of the last two seasons for Bayern Munich. Originally seen as a left back, the Austrian’s technical ability on the ball prompted Hansi Flick to deploy him more centrally where he could get on the ball more frequently and dictate play further forward.

It’s possible Alaba could play at left back, but Ancelotti already has Ferland Mendy and Marcelo as good options. The signing of Alaba also opens up the possibility of shifting to a back three, with the Austrian as the left centre back, but Real Madrid’s lack of central defensive options right now could restrict that.

Ancelotti knows Alaba well having worked with him during his time at Bayern Munich, and while the Italian never used him in central midfield, the 29-year-old’s performances in that role for Austria opens this up as another positional possibility. There are few, if any, players in European soccer right now with this level of versatility,

If Real Madrid are looking for more control at the base of their midfield, Alaba could offer that. Ancelotti will almost certainly look to evolve his central unit this season, with Martin Odegaard back at the Santiago Bernabeu after impressing on loan at Arsenal last term, and Alaba could help conduct a more dynamic, possession-orientated approach.

“Alaba is a complete player, with a lot of quality and tactically intelligent in defence,” Ancelotti recently explained when asked about Alaba’s qualities. “I put him at centre-back in the last games [at Bayern Munich], [but] sometimes he plays in midfield for Austria [and] he can also play on the left [side of defence]. He is a complete player who is going to do very well this season.”

As a free transfer, expectations of Alaba in his first season at Real Madrid won’t be as high as they were for Eden Hazard, who cost around $100m two summers ago, but the Austrian could have the biggest impact of any signing made by the Spanish club in years. For years, Real Madrid have primarily focused on physical attributes as a hard-running side, but Alaba’s signing doesn’t fit that mould.

In fact, it could be argued that Alaba would have been a more natural signing for Barcelona than Real Madrid. At the Camp Nou, the Austrian would have joined a team already in his own image. Real Madrid, on the other hand, are going to need to adapt their approach to get the best out of their new signing.

This season could be a difficult one for Real Madrid. Their squad hasn’t been this depleted and light on world class stars in over a decade and they still can’t return to their spiritual home, Santiago Bernabeu, amid construction work. It might be that Alaba doesn’t see the true Real Madrid until next season at the earliest, but by that point the Austrian may have already secured his place in their future.

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