Philipp Lahm is widely regarded as one of the best full backs AND midfielders in the world, but what position suits the German best? Kevin Real discusses.
Rolling the clock back twelve months; Philipp Lahm had just captained Bayern Munich to a historic treble and he was widely regarded as the best full-back in world football. Bayern, under Heynckes had swept all before them in every competition and had asserted themselves as the strongest force in European football.
The defining moment of their season was undoubtedly their 7-0 two-legged demolition of the once untouchable Barcelona. Their pace, power and clinical counter attack decimated Barca’s patient possession. After that performance they were heralded as the future of European football. The king was dead, long live the king. Lahm was an integral part of that team operating on the right flank.
Twelve months later Lahm has retired from the German national team as a World Cup winning captain and a legend at the age of 30. He played the majority of the tournament in centre midfield and received criticism in some quarters for his performances. However from the quarter-finals onwards, Joachim Low deployed him in his usual right-back role and it vastly improved the German performances.
There were a number of contributing factors that lead to Lahm playing as a centre midfielder in the German team with the two most influential being his performances there for Bayern and of course injury. Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger were both recovering from injuries coming in to the tournament and Ilkay Gundogan has been out all year with a chronic back condition.
Philipp Lahm is the type of player you could ask to play in any outfield position and he would look impressive as he is an exceptional all round footballer. He’s a leader and a captain, he’s quick and has tremendous stamina and he’s a rare breed of defender who is as comfortable going forward as he is defending. Also considering his deficiency in height, it is remarkable how capable he is in aerial duels.
Guardiola has referred to him as the “most intelligent player” he has ever coached. That is no mean feat considering Pep has managed players of the calibre of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. An often overlooked quality of Lahm is his almost flawless passing skill and technical ability. Against Hertha Berlin last March Lahm attempted 134 passes and completed 134 passes. That statistic spread throughout social media and is phenomenally impressive on its own.
However he also had only 140 touches of the ball throughout the entire game. Not only did he execute every single one of those passes perfectly, the majority of them were one touch. So in summary, during that game he never gave the ball away and he kept the ball moving as quickly as possible with as few touches as possible.
That is essentially the definition of Guardiola’s philosophy. It is this strong adherence to Guardiola’s ideals that earned him a place at the heart of his team despite the fact it was not his usual position.
For Bayern, Lahm rarely made penetrating runs into the box and got himself ahead of the ball, however he was still a vital cog in their attacking play. He fulfilled all the duties of a traditional defensive midfielder in terms of being a shield for the defence, disrupting counter attacks, reading the play and preventing danger.
In addition to this though, he was also the ever reliable source of most of their build up play. He would consistently drop between the centre-backs and pick up the ball to start an attack. His role came with Guardiola’s requirements to perpetually keep the ball moving and always make yourself available to receive the ball. It was here where Lahm’s passing accuracy and efficiency came to the fore.
In contrast, throughout the World Cup the German national team did not have one defined holding midfielder. Lahm and Schweinsteiger or Khedira shared equal defensive and attacking duties with Toni Kroos playing slightly in front of them. Germany operated an old fashioned system of if one goes forward the other drops back in and covers.
Lahm had a lot more licence to move forward in this role and he occasionally burst into the box but he was not as effective and received a lot of criticism early on in the tournament. Considering it was not solely his responsibility, he got rather unfairly blamed for not always being in a covering position for a lot of the chances they offered up in the group games in particular.
By moving him to midfield it also meant that Joachim Low had to play a non-natural full back in Jerome Boateng. When the quarter-finals started, Low moved Lahm back to his usual position and played Schweinsteiger and Khedira in the middle. It could have been due to the pressure from the media, it might have been strictly tactical for the teams he was playing against or it may have been that he only then felt that Schweinsteiger and Khedira were fully fit to play.
Regardless, the team improved noticeably after that switch and went on to reap the ultimate reward. Lahm gave Germany an additional attacking threat on the right hand side for the latter stages, whilst maintaining their defensive stability. He will more than likely be deployed in defensive midfield again for Guardiola next season, but it was Lahm, the world’s best full back who led his team to the World Cup and Germany will undoubtedly miss him.
Kevin Real, Pundit Arena.