He has led his country to win the World Cup for the first time since 1990, he has won pretty much everything at club level with Bayern Munich and is arguably the world’s best right back, left back and can play in midfield. So how come Philipp Lahm is not being talked about in the same echelons of Messi, Ronaldo, and even less advanced players like Iniesta or Schweinsteiger?
There are some fairly blatant reasons why the German captain doesn’t get mentioned as much as Messi et al. Football is an entertainment business. Fans watch The Beautiful Game in the hope that their side scores as many goals as possible. Defending is stereotypically ugly, the behind the scenes work, only done so the superstars who grab the headlines don’t have to bother with the dirty work. Only 2 defenders have ever won the Ballon d’Or, Franz Beckenbauer and Fabio Cannavaro.
Lahm also primarily plays at full back. Up until the 1990’s, fullbacks didn’t really maraud forward as they do today. They were less attacking and nowhere near as exciting as bombing fullbacks like Dani Alves and Patrice Evra. It can be a slightly forgotten position on a football pitch. If you are big, you end up in goal or central defence. Fast players play in more advanced roles. If you start at fullback, it used to be because you were alright, but not quick enough or big enough to play in a ‘key’ position. However, a change in tactics has lead to fullbacks being instrumental positions on the football pitch, allowing them to have more influences on what happens in the final third.
Most people probably became aware of Lahm eight years ago during the 2006 World Cup, where the opened the scoring for the host nation Germany against Costa Rica. As well as it being a beautiful arching shot of justifying class to open a World Cup (not like stumbling on the ball and kicking it into your own goal, I’m looking at you here Marcelo), it was scored by a defender who wasn’t even playing in his most favoured position. The Bayern Munich skipper claims that he prefers to play right back, but he started the World Cup opener at left back as Arne Freidrich was preferred on the right side of defence.
Lahm played on the left mainly for his club side up until 2009, when Louis van Gaal enabled him to play in his favoured role. With Arjen Robben cutting inside from the right, it leaves plenty of space in front of him to run into and stretch defences, making it an ideal system for him to operate in.
Four years on from the 2006 World Cup, he largely played on the right for Germany after a strong season there for Bayern. Unfortunately for him, under his captaincy he could only lead them to a successive 3rd place finish.
And until last season the right back position was his at the Allianz Arena. When Pep Guardiola arrived he decided to play Lahm in a defensive midfield role. At first this seemed a bit out of the left field but after initial bewilderment, it does make perfect sense. If you’re going to have fullbacks attack more than they defend, you’d want someone you can come across to whichever side and put an end to any counter attack.
As well as offering a wonderful blend of defensive sturdiness and an abundance of energy to charge up and down the flank for 90 minutes, Lahm is above anything else a very gifted and technical footballer. All of which allowed him to keep the game moving in the middle of the park and provide cover for his fullbacks and midfielders when they pushed on. You could argue how influential he was in this role (Bayern Munich completed a domestic double but crashed out of the Champions League semi-finals), but the Bavarian giants aren’t short of either money or midfielders and Guardiola could have easily have played someone else if he thought they could perform the role better.
During the group stages of the 2014 World Cup, Lahm started in midfield for Germany, a clear show of faith from Joachim Low. And it isn’t like Germany are lacking in quality midfielders either. During the knock out games, he moved Lahm back out to his more natural right back position, which gave them a more secure backline with their captain in it and gave them a different attacking edge now they had a fullback who was comfortable going forward.
Against Brazil in the semi-final of the World Cup, he showed why he’s the best fullback in the world. He executed inch perfect tackles in his own box, linked attacks down the right and made clever runs to stretch a woeful Brazil backline.
Okay, Messi dragged Argentina through the World Cup along with Javier Mascherano, and Ronaldo set a record number of goals during last season’s Champions League campaign. Even more conservative players like Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger have shown why they are up in the top 20 players in the world, but Philipp Lahm is different to these players. He’s more complete and rounded as a player. He’s shown in the last 8 years that he’s the best in 2 positions and can offer even more. He leads by example and doesn’t let the occasion get to him. Sure, there are better footballers than him. But for me, Lahm is the world’s best player at the moment.