Philipp Lahm has never seemed like the kind of player to let occasion get the better of him, yet when Bayern Munich faced FC Nurnberg in last weekend's Bavarian derby, something was slightly different about the player. He scored a goal. Yet it wasn't just the rare sight of Lahm scoring that made the headlines, for it was none other than the 250th Bundesliga game for the Bayern right-back.
Yes, like the Bayerischer Wald, the hilly woodland along the German border with the Czech Republic, Lahm seems to have confirmed himself as an evergreen feature of the city of Munich. He may only be 30 years old, yet the player is nothing if not synonymous with the Bavarian town and its famous football club.
Yet the German international who captains both club and country hasn't always been a Ballon d'Or candidate or regular member of FIFA and UEFA's teams of the year. He was once nothing more than a boy and from there he has evolved in to the right-back that we can now call among the best in the world.
Captain to be
Lahm began life at Bayern as much as we would expect, in full control, and went on to win multiple awards and titles with the youth team. It was his youth coach, Hermann Gerland, who now assists Pep Guardiola in first-team matters, who once famously stated that the young player was the most talented he had ever coached, even at such a young age, as reported here by Sueddeutsche (German).
Yet it was upon moving on loan to Stuttgart as a backup full-back that Lahm earned his wings as a truly ambidextrous performer, when coach at the time Felix Magath opted to start him on the left-hand side, a position initially alien to the then 20-year-old, yet one that he eventually learned to thrive in.
As such it was this jack-of-all-trades reputation that saw Lahm welcomed back in to the Bayern squad but not before a call-up to the German national team for Euro 2004, where the young captain-to-be played in his new favoured position: left-back.
Germany bombed out of the competition that year, but the young Bavarian full-back found himself as something of a silver lining to the storm that had just passed over the nation's favourite past-time. Germany now knew who it could rely on for its future.
Unfortunately, left-back was Lahm's future for Bayern and Germany for the time being, as the full-back went through the World Cup in 2006 and Euros in 2008 playing near enough every game for his nation. Then came the World Cup in 2010 and Michael Ballack's withdrawal from the captaincy. Lahm was now captain in the first competition for his country in which he was able to play on his natural right side. That year Germany went all the way to the semi-finals, losing only to a late goal from Spain's Carlos Puyol.
Lahm was of course a well-established right-back long before coach Jupp Heynckes took over the reigns at the Munich side in the summer of 2011, yet it wasn't until the new coach was able to utilise the young full-back to his utmost potential that we finally saw just how useful he could truly be in an attacking sense.
Bayern underwent something of a face-lift under the Gladbach legend and became, primarily, a counter-attacking side that put most of the emphasis on ensuring goals weren't leaked, while the front-line hit sides across Europe with tremendous ferocity.
In Heynckes' Bayern side, Lahm played his usual right-back role in a back-line that broke all sorts of defensive records across Germany, yet what he did on and off the ball was a completely different story. The German captain had often been regarded as a strong, confident defender but what we were seeing from Lahm by the time the 2012-13 season rolled around was a player who could single-handedly turn defence from attack all by himself.
As we can see from the graphic above, which shows Lahm's goalscoring and assist-making records over the past seven years, it's clear to see from when Heynckes arrived at the club in 2011 that his notion of creating goals for the side went through the roof. Under the old German coach, Lahm went from a one-dimensional, world-class defender to a multi-purpose full-back that could confidently create goals just as well as he prevented them.
New direction under Guardiola
Yet under new coach Guardiola, the German captain now looks as though he's destined for an entirely new chapter to his career with a refurbished role as Bayern's new defensive midfielder in the Catalonian's hybrid 4-1-4-1 formation.
Yet this role isn't a simple case of lumping an accomplished full-back into a defensive position in midfield—that much has been done a number of times, across the continent and throughout the ages—no, the role that Lahm now plays for Bayern is one that takes full advantage of his reading of the game.
If we were to take a look at the players positioning throughout a game, as provided by Squawka in this heat map of the recent 5-0 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt, we see that his positioning isn't actually too different from what he was doing at right back—with the majority of his time spent just right of central midfield and any darting runs forward primarily focused down the right wing.
What Lahm offers the side from this role isn't too distinct from his usual role as a right-back for Bayern. His primary goal is to link up with the forward players and essentially try and score goals, yet from the central position he can effectively control the flow of passing from midfield—like he did at right-back—from a predominant position as well as protect the vulnerable gap that is usually left unguarded in front of his two centre-backs.
What Lahm now represents is an intelligent passer of the ball who can also defend in the middle of the park, unlike even the most accomplished full-backs. Imagine a player with the passing ability of Xavi and the defensive qualities of Sergio Ramos and you're on your way to understanding what Guardiola undoubtedly sees in this complete player.