The breakthrough of Philipp Lahm
On February 18th 2004, when Philipp Lahm made his debut for the German national team against Croatia, he did this as a left-back, indeed a position that he had only occupied for the first time five months previously.
This debut, in which he, naturally, filled the role to the highest level, at the same time marked the beginning of a dominance that was completely unforeseen, paralleled at best by Franz Beckenbauer in the libero position, in German football, which hasn’t exactly lacked outstanding players throughout its history. Due to the erstwhile gulf in quality between Lahm and the competing players, until the end of his career his dominance remained uncontested to such an extent that his biggest competition as a left-back was himself in his role as a right-back and vice versa. And it’s not too unrealistic to add that his retirement from football, first internationally and now domestically, might not automatically equate to the end of that dominance: after all, who would contest that Philipp Lahm, at least through the 2018 World Cup, would have remained Germany’s first choice both at left back and right back?
We’ve now, in principle, covered almost everything regarding Lahm’s high-profile position in football history, and for some it may seem redundant, what with the current songs of praise that are being granted to him upon his retirement, to write a further evaluation of this outstanding footballer. And yet I am convinced that Philipp Lahm, in spite of everything, has still not been appreciated enough, and there is a real fear that in the future this situation won’t change for the better. For example, Philipp Lahm has not once been selected by journalists as Germany’s Footballer of the Year (his best result was 2nd place in his first season in 2004, behind Ailton) and so doesn’t just stand in the shadows of greats like Beckenbauer (4x) and Ballack (3x), but also behind players like Marco Reus or Grafite, who both became Football of the Year during Lahm’s career. Of course, attacking players have an advantage in these awards, but at the same time the defender Berti Vogts won the award twice, and from Karl-Heinz Förster to Jerome Boateng there have always been defenders who have been recognized.
Motivated by the worry that in 20-30 years Philipp Lahm will only be remembered in YouTube clips as a goal-scorer against Costa Rica or as a one-man wall up against a Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick, and in a historically revisionist manner given less importance than dribble kings or goal-scoring wide forwards, this article shall contextualize and illustrate the first half of Philipp Lahm’s career. The fact that an analysis of Lahm will simultaneously offer an appraisal of him is inevitable.
The situation of Philipp Lahm having been Germany’s undisputed best full-back over the last decade and a half is, of course, not solely explained by his brilliance, but is the result of a combination of diverse factors. For one, German football experienced its most serious crisis to date at the turn of the millennium.
The selection of players of international quality was so negligible that it wasn’t only the outstanding talents like Philipp Lahm that were fast-tracked into the national team, as would probably have been the case in other countries, or in Germany in prior years; clearly less talented players like Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker managed to break through early on and were able to hold down a place in the team from a young age, setting the foundations for long international careers.
Two areas of German football were of particular concern: defending in the back-four and creativity, which was above all seen in a complete inability to win offensive battles – so-called one-on-one situations – or even to get into those positions in the first place. In both areas, Philipp Lahm at the beginning of his career represented a quantum leap forward in comparison to the established players at the time, even though they weren’t necessarily among his genuine strengths, as it transpired. But one thing at a time.
Since he was 11 years old, Lahm played for FC Bayern, and so profited from, contrary to nationwide reputation, a good and relatively advanced youth programme. In 1995 the youth system was restructured and in the form of the “Junior Team” a unified playing system for all academy teams was also established. This led to the back-four taking hold itself bit by bit, and indeed well before it began to take hold in the senior side. Indeed, Lahm played in midfield in the youth sides, preferentially as a ‘number eight’, or rather “a defensive midfielder with a little more licence to go forward” (as he put it himself), and so didn’t have any basic education as a member of a back line; it is, however, not insignificant to have become familiar with this system already as a child/teenager, even without having grown up in it.
It should not be forgotten that switching to a back-four in Germany required doing so with players who had grown up with man-marking and liberos. This situation could not be overlooked either. The 2004 European Championship was the first tournament in which the German national team consistently operated with a back-four; however, they did so with centre-backs like Nowotny and Wörns, who in their basic tactical disposition were worlds apart from modern centre-backs, and constantly attempted to rely on the familiar man-marking/libero model in pressure situations. So it wasn’t for nothing that Jürgen Klinsmann as the coach decided to turn to a new generation, above all in defence. Players who had internalised the system in their youth (Mertesacker under Slomka/Rangnik at Hannover 96; Huth at Chelsea). Right at the start of his career, Philipp Lahm had to play with both types of central defenders. Due to his very own game intelligence, he managed, apparently effortlessly, to adapt as and when necessary to these fundamentally different types of team-mates in the back line.
It is certainly unlikely that Lahm’s versatility could be traced entirely back to it, but the method of FC Bayern’s head of academy at the time, Udo Bassemir, not to limit a player too early to a single position, and instead to educate them in at least two positions, certainly did no harm to his development. Back in the U19 Euros in 2002, where he reached the final with Germany (0-1 against Spain, Fernando Torres scoring the goal) he operated as a midfielder. It was only under Hermann Gerland in the Bayern reserves that he was consistently played as a right-back. In this position, he managed for the first time to decisively rise above his peers.
Of course he was also already an integral component of Bayern’s teams that were champions of Germany’s premier youth division in 2001 and 2002. He was a youth international and seen as exceedingly talented; however, as a midfielder he still remained in the shadows of other players, which went for domestic level as well as international level. As such, Lahm was only brought on as a substitute in the U19 Euros final for example (alongside David Odonkor), and at club level players like Trochowski, Schweinsteiger or Feulner were instead trusted to break through into the senior side.
As a right-back, however, Lahm impressed in the reserves with the very same consistency that still marks him out today. And yet he wasn’t able to make a lasting case for himself as far as the senior side went. On the one hand, his position was already blocked for the foreseeable future by Willy Sagnol, still very young at the time, and on the other hand Lahm, with his size and stature, didn’t quite give the impression that he would be able to compete physically in the business of the Bundesliga. Hermann Gerland is the one to thank for saving Lahm from a third year wasted in the reserves, freeing him from that potential dead end. Gerland recommended him to Felix Magath, who at the time was causing havoc with so-called “wild youngsters” like Kuranyi, Hleb etc, as a back-up for Andreas Hinkel. And so Lahm was loaned to VfB Stuttgart for two years.
From the sixth matchday onwards, when he made his debut in the starting line-up against Borussia Dortmund, Philipp Lahm was a key player and it was unthinkable to remove him from the team. This was a scenario that would repeat itself just 5 months later with the national team. Having ousted Stuttgart’s left-back at the time, Heiko Gerber, in principle he only had to fill a temporary gap in the national team, since this position had previously been occupied by players like Tobias Rau or Christian Rahn, with performances less than pleasing. With the style of play he had shown in the lower divisions, he was able to effortlessly deliver the same quality in the Bundesliga as in the national side. In such a way that one wondered why this idea hadn’t occurred long before. To those who today struggle to imagine Philipp Lahm being just a back-up for Heiko Gerber, listen up: at the end of 2003, that was still thinkable.
The reason for his seamless transition from the lower divisions to the Bundesliga was that the qualities that Lahm’s performances in the academy and the reserves, showing him to be a class above the rest, were, in contrast to many of his peers, not based on attributes that would level out all too quickly when making the leap to the professional level: his game wasn’t about permanently having to outpace opponents on the wing; nor did he win particularly many tackles due to an outstanding physique. In excellent ball control, passing accuracy, quick perception and high game intelligence, he had at his disposal qualities which he – in spite of the clearly higher speed of football – was able to rely on at professional level just as he always had before. And so as a reserve player he may not have seemed to the observer like a player of immense talent clearly below his level in the lower leagues. Precisely because his superiority, due to his playing style, was not eye-catching or immediately visible for all to see, like for example when the 17-year-old Ronaldo was playing in the Eredivisie. But once he got there, Philipp Lahm made the jump to professional football with consummate ease, because he hardly had to change his style of play, and simply had to put into practice what had set him apart from the rest – in an unfamiliar position, let it be remembered. Because until his professional debut on the left side, he had previously never played there before. Neither in the academy nor as a reserve in the lower leagues. In just his third appearance at all as a left-back on the 1/1/2003 in the Champions League, in a 2-1 victory over Manchester United, he contested a direct battle against Cristiano Ronaldo, which he managed with courage.
When in interviews it was put to him that, as a right-footer, he was actually playing on the wrong side, he played down the significance of the situation, because “left is just like right, only on the other side”. He would go on to amend this when he looked to switch to right-back at FC Bayern, namely by arguing that as a right-footer on the left he was easier to beat, since defending the line was harder with his right foot.
But for now he was just over the moon to have made the leap to professional level, and a long way away from making such claims. To trust himself and simply get on with it, instead of pondering his own suitability, sums up Lahm’s first year as a professional. Due to his personality, in principle he’s not the kind of person to be aggressively making demands, but when opportunities present themselves, he doesn’t want to have to be reproached that he didn’t use them. That goes for the opportunity to move up to the first team in an unfamiliar position, just like years later for the chance to make a claim for the captain’s armband of the national team.
In general, the start of Lahm’s path as a professional was based on having relatively few instructions and simply being left alone to deal with it. Lahm was thrown into the deep end, with the time for reflection and tactical considerations yet to come. With Felix Magath he experienced little more than a general description of his tasks, which mostly consisted of “tight on this side” and, if possible, “mount pressure on the flanks”. This, Lahm describes in his book, was hardly different to Rudi Völler in the national team, rather somewhat less harmful tactically. It’s noticeable that he was used to more tactically-descriptive training from his education at Bayern Munich. It’s hardly imaginable what would have been possible for a player like Lahm, had he had a coach in his early professional years who could demonstrate clearly and precisely what the concrete requirements of him on the pitch were. Lahm was always a player willing to learn, but in his early years he lacked the relevant input to allow him to ‘acquire’ his unfamiliar position from scratch.