It is looking ever more likely that Bayern Munich will end their 13-year association with their Austrian legend, David Alaba. The destination is tipped to be Real Madrid, who are themselves looking to fill the gap that Sergio Ramos will be leaving in the summer as well. That is if the Spaniard does not sign a contract before that point.
Replacing Alaba though is a slightly more complicated task. We will be searching for a centre-back to replace the 28-year-old since this is his primary position these days, but he still provides cover at left-back, left-midfield, defensive-midfield, and even as an attacking midfielder, where he largely operates for the Austrian national team. In this analysis, we will aim to find the most suitable replacement, using data insights.
This data analysis will use statistics to find world-class centre-backs from across Europe’s premier divisions. Our dataset consists of players who have mainly played as a centre-back, are aged 18-26, with at least ten 90s of league action within Europe’s top five leagues. At the end of our analysis, we will highlight three options, ranging in price values, with all of them ideally having room to grow.
All data correct as of 29/01/21.
Ball progression acumen
We shall begin our data analysis by looking at Alaba’s best attribute, his ball progression. He is crucial to Bayern’s build-up play, both in terms of passing and ball carrying, as he looks to break the lines whenever he collects the ball. He will regularly find attacking midfielders with a whizzed pass into feet in between the lines.
As a result, let us first take a look at the ball progression acumen of those centre-backs across Europe.
Leading the way for progressive runs per 90 is Adam Webster of Brighton & Hove Albion with 3.8. As we can see, there is a considerable gap between the first and second place in this metric, and this is an indication of his style of play. The 25-year-old also completes a high number of progressive passes per 90, sitting at 11.85.
Pau Torres of Villareal is a player who ranks highly in both statistics, with 10.12 progressive passes and 2.67 progressive runs per 90. Using our very own xGold tool – which analyses player similarity – the 24-year-old ranked within the top 10 when compared to Alaba himself, so it is no surprise to see him here.
A player who ranks remarkably similarly to Torres is Flavius Daniliuc at Nice with 10.25 progressive passes and 2.61 progressive runs per 90. As the only teenager covered in this section, Daniliuc stands out as a name not many would recognise, yet he has accumulated over 1000 minutes of league football for a subpar Nice side.
Another Nice defender, Stanley Nsoki also had high numbers, comparatively, in both metrics here. The 21-year-old himself is a player who has had history playing as a left-back, so his 11.36 progressive passes and 2.13 progressive runs per 90 make sense for that reason to a certain extent.
Finally, Omar Alderete leads the way for progressive passes with 14.57 per 90. Although not a regular starter for Hertha Berlin, the 24-year-old is ambitious with his passing, looking to break the lines where possible, and couple this with an average 1.06 progressive runs per 90, we have an intriguing talent coming out of Germany.
Impact on the final third
Now, another thing that Alaba excels at is encroaching the halfway line in possession, and actively participating in chance creation for his side. He has one of the highest number of passes into the penalty area per 90 of any centre-back in the Bundesliga for that reason.
As such, let us look at which centre-backs across Europe’s top-five leagues are forward-thinking.
Surprisingly, Ola Aina does register for this dataset given his usage as a centre-back in Scott Parker’s back three systems. Owing to this, the 24-year-old has 2.25 passes into the penalty area per 90 but remains below average for forward passes with 16.61 per 90.
Waldemar Anton at Stuttgart has to down as another successful piece of recruitment by Sven Mislintat, given some of his statistics this season. The 24-year-old has 1.67 passes into the penalty area per 90 as well as 23.47 forward passes per 90, which is fairly remarkable given Stuttgart’s amount of possession on average.
Mario Hermoso, now 25 years old, at Atletico Madrid has continued his versatile nature this season, featuring at both left-back and centre-back for Los Rojiblancos. In the process, he has produced 26.19 forward passes and 1.14 passes to penalty area per 90, contributing to a very successful Atleti season so far.
At Borussia Dortmund, Manuel Akanji has continued to exert his excellence on the ball, despite some of Dortmund’s defence issues. The 25-year-old has completed a very high 30.64 forward passes combined with 0.92 passes into the penalty area per 90, perhaps aided by his ambidextrous nature.
One of the surprise performers this season at Stade Rennais, Nayef Aguerd, leads the way in our dataset for forward passes per 90, with 31.25. Moving from Dijon in the summer transfer window, the 24-year-old has transitioned seamlessly into Rennes’ tactics, but his passes to the penalty area remains low at 0.25 per 90.
Solidity in ground duels
Now, although Alaba is not the most efficient in the tackle, he is a fairly proactive defender for a team who tend to dominate possession. Out of him and Jérôme Boateng, the Austrian is the player to step out of the defensive line and press the opposition ball carrier or runner.
For that reason, we will now analyse which centre-backs across the top five leagues are proactive in their defensive duels.
Christian Romero, far and away, contests for the most defensive duels in our dataset, with 13.84 per 90. On loan from Juventus at Atalanta, the 22-year-old occupies the central centre-back role in their back three, where is the most proactive defender of the three, whilst retaining a mightily solid 70.81% defensive duels won %.
Boubakar Kouyaté often referred to as ‘Kiki’ has racked up some impressive defensive figures while playing for Metz out in Ligue 1. The 23-year-old 9.66 defensive duels per 90 and 75.51% defensive duels won % are both really high, but since he has ranked rather until now, he seems to be more of a no-nonsense centre-back type.
Swiss national Nico Elvedi seems to pop up on these sorts of lists every year, owing to his consistent performances at Borussia Mönchengladbach over the years. Now 24 years old, Elvedi has an above-average figure of 6.55 defensive duels per 90, but his 76.85% defensive duels won % is excellent on its own.
Another relative unknown appearing on this list, Brendan Chardonnet, has also displayed strong defensive skills. The 26-year-old’s 78.02% defensive duel won % is second amongst our dataset, and he does contest for an above-average 6.46 defensive duels per 90, so he is not entirely unvilified.
Another Ligue 1 defender ranks highly here, but one who has gained many more plaudits for his impressive debut campaign at Lille. Sven Botman, 21 years old, has stunned the masses with his dataset-leading 78.63% defensive duels won %, but this is via a below-average 5.22 defensive duels per 90.
For once, in this recruitment analysis, we are not restricted by budgetary constraints, nor do we have to worry about selling the ‘project’ to a player. This is Bayern Munich, winners of eight consecutive Bundesliga titles as of 2020, and in the most recent season, won the treble. There are no reputation concerns here.
Still, Bayern do not typically like to blow all their transfer budget on one player in a window – they have only spent above £50m on one player in their 121-year history – but still, it is worth listing the best options they can acquire. We will now list the ‘ideal’ replacements, the ‘bargain’ options, and finally, ‘one for the future’.
The Ideal Replacements
Dayot Upamencano, RB Leipzig, 22 years old, 6’1”, market value: £54m
First up the bat, Dayot Upamencano of RB Leipzig, who has been strongly linked with Bayern for some time now, but recent rumours seem truer than ever. Although the Frenchman is not naturally left-footed, when Leipzig operate with a back four, he will play as the left-sided centre-back, next to Willi Orbán. First and foremost, he is a really strong defender; his 76.77% defensive duel success rate is excellent, and his aerial duel success rate is much higher than Alaba’s at 72.4%, though it has been as high as 81.1% in the past.
Upamecano has a domineering presence on the ball, just like Alaba himself. Using xGold, Upamecano ranked fourth in our dataset to Alaba, and there are parallels here. He is extremely effective at starting attacks, just like Alaba. He possesses exceedingly quick feet, along with a unique ability (for a centre-back) to drop a shoulder and create a yard of space to run into. From here, he usually finds an attacker in between the lines or plays the through pass towards a wing-back (typically Angeliño) who can exploit the space created.
Edmond Tapsoba, Bayer Leverkusen, 22 years old, 6’4”, market value: £27m
Edmond Tapsoba’s rise to the upper echelon of Bundesliga defenders has been nothing less than awe-inspiring. He joined Bayer Leverkusen in the 2020 January transfer window and immediately made a huge impression. He has made this impression through his composed defending, excellence on the ball, and his massive impact on Leverkusen’s tactical approach. He stands as the nucleus of Leverkusen’s ball progression, completing 575 yards worth of progressive distance per 90 minutes, second in the squad only behind goalie Lukáš Hrádecký.
He, like Upamecano before him, is a right-footed centre-back who is utilised as the left-sided central defender. Tapsoba covers lateral spaces well, he is a mobile defender who can shuttle across and block off attackers sooner than they might expect. Tapsoba’s ease in possession, ability to find teammates up the channel, or to receive the ball under pressure and keep it circulating, is paramount to Leverkusen’s approach. He completes 9.55 passes under pressure, a remarkable figure which goes some way to demonstrate his brilliance on the ball.
Honourable mentions: Alessandro Bastoni, Adam Webster, Clément Lenglet, Jules Koundé, Manuel Akanji, Pau Torres, Sven Botman.
The Bargain Options
Nayef Aguerd, Stade Rennais, 24 years old, 6’2”, market value: £7.2m
Beginning our bargain options with a bang, Nayef Aguerd joined Stade Rennais last year and has impressed right away. Given his performances this term, he was close to making the ‘ideal replacements’ list. Being left-footed is a benefit of Aguerd since he can open up his body and distribute swifter than a right-footed defender. He is comfortable receiving under pressure and has the vision plus passing range to allow him to access all areas of the pitch. He is just as accomplished playing vertical passes as he is carrying the ball forward as well.
Notwithstanding this, Aguerd is a gifted defender in his own right. He can hold the line with superb precision and defend his penalty area, and he is just as secure when pulled out into wide spaces, defending against quick attacking players. His 61.1% tackle success rate vs dribblers far exceeds Alaba’s success rate of just 11.1% and compares favourably to the other players in our shortlist. He displays a strength which is hard to quantify, but he manipulates his body well to shadow over tricky wingers and forces them into a footballing cul-de-sac.
Facundo Medina, RC Lens, 21 years old, 6’0”, market value: £7.2m
Facundo Medina is one player on this list who shares a likeness to Alaba in terms of his positions, as he started his career in Argentina as a left-back. However, in RC Lens back three, he operates as the left-sided centre-back, where he is central to Lens build up out of defence. He can be found up and down that left channel, and since he reads the game so well, mixed with his strong passing ability, he can pick out passing lanes and runs made by his teammates down the left flank. This is evidenced by his 12.99 progressive passes per 90.
Now, his career inception as a left-back makes sense, given his height is just over 6’0”, and this is a weakness of his game, his aerial ability. He only wins 53.8% of his aerial duels, but this is not far away from Alaba himself, who only wins 56.3% of his aerial duels. In terms of a player profile then, Medina is very similar to Alaba, a quick player who has good recovery pace, capable of playing at left-back, and excels when the ball is at his feet but is an adept defender in his own right, either in front of his box or out in wide areas as well.
Honourable mentions: Amos Pieper, Jean-Kévin Duverne, Jeremiah St Juste, Marvin Freidrich, Marc-Oliver Kempf, Moussa Niakhaté, Omar Alderete, Pascal Stenzel, Stanley Nsoki, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Waldemar Anton.
One for the Future
Benoît Badiashile, AS Monaco, 19 years old, 6’4”, market value: £22.5m
After a breakthrough season in 2018/19, Benoît Badiashile is now a firm part of the first-team setup at Monaco at just 19 years old. Another left-footer here, this will keep him in very good stead when looking to break into the extraordinarily strong France national squad (for centre-backs). Physically, he is everything you could want from a central defender, standing at 6’4” with a strong build, to match his dominant aerial presence, as well as possessing a speedy turn of pace. A 75% aerial duel success rate is pretty remarkable for someone so young.
Badiashile possesses not only one, but a plethora of exclusive attributes for a player of his age. He has displayed unprecedented levels of composure for a centre-back who is still a teenager, which aids his competency in possession. His vision and passing ability to step out of defence and either carry the ball into midfield or play a vertical pass into someone in the forward line. On occasion, he has almost acted like a deep-lying midfielder, in the way he can switch the play, or dictated the tempo effortlessly.
Honourable mentions: Flavius Daniliuc, Loïc Badé, Maxence Lacroix, Mohamed Simakan.
There we have it, five players who could potentially replace Alaba at Bayern Munich. Two ideal replacements, who would cost a significant, but a worthwhile fee. Two bargain options, available for under £10m (based off their market values) who could come in for squad depth if Bayern do not look for a one-to-one replacement. One player for the future, who is no older than 20 years old, with plenty of room for growth.
All five of these candidates can play as the left-sided centre-back, and every player, most importantly, are particularly skilled when in possession of the ball. We have done as much as we can, given the data we have, to find suitable candidates to replace the hole that Alaba would leave in this Bayern squad. All of these players, over time, would improve, and potentially become world-class players in their own right too.