David Alaba 21 Defender Bayern Munich Austria
2013 has been…
When David Alaba was assessed as part of this list in 2012 there was no doubt that the burgeoning Austrian international had found a rich vein of form. Having been converted from a central midfielder to a left back by Luis van Gaal, and excelling under Jupp Heynckes, Alaba took to his new role like a duck to water, even if his own reluctance to make it a permanent berth appeared to open the door to an unfathomable summer move to Arsenal.
There’s one glaringly obvious reason for Alaba to embrace life on the flank: he’s going to be the best in the business. FC Bayern sporting director Mattias Sammer is aware that there is “quite a market” for his 21-year-old star, described by one TV pundit in the spring as being “on his way to becoming the best left back in the world”.
Alaba, still operating in the centre of midfield for the national team, couldn’t be developing into a nominal defender in a better side. Bayern don’t concede many goals and endure less defensive strain than almost any team on the planet. As such, it’s slightly disingenuous to describe Alaba merely as a full back. In essence, he’s a forward with defensive duties when called upon. Whatever he is, he’s becoming exceptional at it.
Alaba works hard, gets forward relentlessly and offers a consistent threat. He dribbles well, passes competently and has good enough movement to make himself a prominent component of Bayern’s intricate, often boggling play around the edge of the opposition penalty area. He has strength and keeps a trick or two up his sleeve, but what makes Alaba the player he is are his interaction with other players and his incredible engine.
That interaction takes the form of the Alaba trademark triangles. In combination with centre back Dante and deep-lying midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger (or, this season, Philipp Lahm), Alaba is the fulcrum on Bayern’s left side. But it’s the way Alaba plays in partnership with his friend, Franck Ribery, that really marks him out as a bit special. Ribery’s form in 2013 has been sensational and Alaba is a fully credited influence and contributor to that, according to the Frenchman.
Alaba plays with the best and matches up to them with ease. It could be argued that playing in the best team in the world is easy but it comes with its own pressures and challenges, and Alaba gobbles them up with relish, throwing in a few goals for good measure. He is a trusted charge of new coach Guardiola, the third to deploy him in his adopted role, and even takes free kicks and penalties in this sensational side – with varying levels of success, as evidenced by a missed opportunity to score the penalty that won the title earlier this year.
These are details. What really matters is that Alaba is fully established as a first choice player in the team that won the Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and Champions League last season. He plays with Ribery, Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Arjen Robben and so many more genuinely world class players, and never looks out of place.
“The only way is up.” Not just a Yazz lyric, but a commonly used assessment of the prospects of excellent young football players. In truth, there’s not a great deal of ‘up’ available for a treble-winning full international yet to reach his 22nd birthday. Austria, who again missed out on World Cup qualification, may prove to be the long-term blot on Alaba’s copybook, though he’s doing his level best to improve the fortunes of the team for which he became the youngest ever player after being shunned by Nigeria.
Instead, the challenge for Alaba is to maintain his exceptional levels to date, to keep winning titles and continue having a regular direct effect on results in the Champions League. He’s made as good a start on that front as any player could hope for.
He could arguably also add to his game a little more penetration, some more goals and a bit more swagger to really show that he’s able not just to play with the best in the world, but stand above them once in a while. Nobody expects him to be Bayern’s best player every week, but if he can achieve it occasionally then his potential will have been thoroughly fulfilled.
"The first footballer to win Austrian Sportsman of the Year since 1997, Alaba is arguably the best left back in world football. The kick is, it's not even his preferred position, central midfield. That he plays for the Austrian national team who he nearly carried to the World Cup playoff." - Cristian Nyari - Bundesliga Fanatic
"David Alaba was Austria's top scorer during the 2014 World Cup qualification campaign (6 goals)." - Opta
A On his way to the very top, and nearly there