All week Planet Futbol will delve into the SuperClub that is Bayern Munich, covering the German franchise's celebrated past and present while profiling some of its legendary players and biggest names. This is the fourth part of the series.
Last year, when Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola called Philipp Lahm the most intelligent player he had ever coached, more than a few eyebrows were raised in the soccer world. Really? Lahm was a terrific player, surely, and probably the world’s best right back, but Guardiola had coached a legendary outfit at Barcelona that included Xavi (the guy I would have suspected as his most intelligent player), Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi.
But no, Guardiola was adamant: Lahm was his man.
Even Lahm was surprised. “It’s great to hear this compliment from such a man like Pep Guardiola, who has coached so many great players in his time as a manager,” Lahm said through an interpreter. “But then I have to try and confirm that not in one game or 10 games but continuously over time.”
Then again, the transformation Lahm executed on the field last season was the kind that you might expect from a truly transcendent player. When Bayern was dealing with some injuries, Guardiola moved Lahm to central midfield. Few at the club could believe it. But Lahm handled the switch with the utmost poise, thriving at the new position and enjoying a mid-career kick-start at age 29.
And here’s the amazing thing: One year later, even though he played both right back and central midfield during Germany’s victorious World Cup run, Lahm says he now views himself as more of a midfielder than a fullback.
“I had played as a fullback for 10 years, and this was something new and exciting that made me more alert and awake again in a simply new experience,” Lahm, who will miss the next three months with a fractured ankle, says. “So currently I do feel more like a midfielder because I played more games in the midfield recently. It’s more fun in midfield. That’s not to say that playing right back is not fun. I think the World Cup proved that I can still play right back, and I enjoy it.”
Lahm’s longtime running mate, Bastian Schweinsteiger, had perhaps the most succinct description to explain Lahm’s intelligence.
“He always has a solution on the field,” says Schweinsteiger, who started with Bayern’s youth academy at age 14, compared to Lahm’s 11. “When I play with him in the midfield it’s no problem because we have known each other for 10 years now. But when you saw the World Cup, Philipp was playing in the right defender position. Our game changed a little. He was brilliant.”
Schweinsteiger laughed. “I think he is the best right defender, but he wants to play in the midfield.”
More than just about any other top club, Bayern has a history of former star players becoming club directors after their playing careers are done. For Bayern that has meant Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Since Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Thomas Müller have been with Bayern since they were children in the youth academy, Rummenigge predicts that they could stay with the club in the long term. But he puts Lahm ahead of the rest.
“We have some intelligent players who could follow us,” says Rummenigge, Bayern’s chairman. “Players like Lahm, the captain of our team and before that our national team. He’d be able to, but I don’t know what he wants to do. Maybe he coaches. Guardiola did say he’s the most intelligent player he has coached.”
There are worse things to have on your tombstone someday. But if you ask Lahm himself what he’ll do after his playing career, he smiles and shakes his head.
“It’s a little early to say,” he explains. “I’m 30 years old, but I still have four years on my contract. One way or another, I will stay in football, in whatever capacity, simply because it’s the love of the game. It’s my passion.”