Philipp Lahm's midfield shift shows his understated quality

Alex Grimm

Why on earth would Pep Guardiola want to shift the world's best right-back out of position? Because he's one of the world's best players.

There are many unglamorous things in football, but perhaps nothing more so than the full-back position. Whereas strikers get to score goals, and goalkeepers can make amazing saves, the two defenders situated close to the touchline rarely get any of the headlines.

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There is certainly an argument to say that, tactically, the full-back is one of the most important players on the pitch given the way space has been crowded out in attacking areas thanks to well-drilled defences. When Jamie Carragher says "no one wants to grow up to be a full-back, no one wants to grow up and be Gary Neville" -- cue uproarious laughter from Neville himself -- he hits the nail on the head. Perhaps with a touch of irony considering the Liverpool legend was once a defender himself, Carragher says that the position is only ever made up of wingers who have been forced into defence or centre-backs who have been shifted wide.

It is this that makes Bayern Munich's captain Phillip Lahm such an interesting player in his own right. Throughout his professional career, he's featured almost exclusively as a full-back, aside from a few early experiments as a midfielder. A loan spell at Stuttgart and a twelve-year association with Bayern have seen him emerge as one of the finest players in the world, even if the awards that supposedly corroborate this claim - such as the Ballon D'Or and European Footballer of the Year titles - are yet to acknowledge Lahm's class.

Perhaps Lahm's greatest attribute is his consistency, whether he's playing on the right or the left. He has frequently been asked to switch flanks by the numerous coaches he has worked under (although now is predominantly a right-sided player), but with little detriment to his form. Despite his relatively short stature - at under six foot, he is smaller than the size that has become expected of defenders - he is a fine defender, rarely exploited aerially or dragged out of position.

Lahm is immense, and the width he provides on the overlap has been a key, understated feature of Bayern's roaring success in 2012-13. Both Arjen Robben and Thomas Muller, who both played right-wing throughout the season, have a tendency to drift inside towards the penalty box. Lahm compensates for this narrowness with selfless, driving runs from deep. He recorded eleven assists last season, ranking second in the Bundesliga behind teammate Franck Ribery. A number of those were intelligent, driven cutbacks from the by-line -- the very nature of which, given it means Lahm is covering the entire length of the pitch, illustrates his impressive desire to get forward.

Lahm's importance extends beyond the field, though, and as captain he is clearly one of the most influential players in the dressing room. It's difficult to forget his now-famous whistle-blowing interview from 2009, an attack that personally berated club management and faintly criticised teammates. It also lead to some Bayern introspection, however, and is widely considered as a key factor in the Bavarian's improvement both domestically and continentally in the years that followed.

Joachim Löw certainly appreciates him.

"For almost ten years, Philipp Lahm has provided consistency, reliability and the highest standard in the national side," said the national team coach. "He has a natural authority, takes on responsibility, is communicative and is an absolute leader."

"Philipp Lahm is perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career"

It might seem incredulous to think that a player that has won the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal five times, the Champions League and Super Cup, finished third in two consecutive World Cup finals and been the captain for the majority of those triumphs is underrated, but perhaps that is the case.

Lahm's habit of winning things has certainly gone under the radar, despite being a prominent feature of his game from an early age -- "you get told at a very young age that only winning is acceptable," he once said -- as has his sheer versatility, which belies the notion that full-backs are the weakest players shoved into a position no one else wants to play.

The latter attribute of adaptability has certainly been a key factor in Pep Guardiola's surprise decision to deploy him in midfield. The former Barcelona coach has been gushing in his praise of the twenty-nine year old, going on record last month as saying "Philipp Lahm is perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career. He is at another level."

Intelligence is a supremely undervalued attribute in football and it has been key in allowing Guardiola to tinker with Lahm's positioning. After a summer where fans were in uproar over the signing of Thiago Alcantara and how it overloaded their depth in midfield, it has been ironic to see Bayern struggle to find enough midfielders to fit into Guardiola's 4-3-3.

Lahm's redeployment has been out of necessity rather than design, and has certainly been an intriguing one. He was used there in Bayern's Champions League clash against CSKA Moscow and took up the ‘normal' defensive midfield position close to the centre circle, often moving towards the centre-backs and allowing Bayern's full-backs to get forward.

Bayern predictably dominated possession, but Lahm ensured they kept the ball in dangerous areas, constantly working neat passes forward and combining well with midfield partner Toni Kroos, who also dropped deep -- sometimes making Bayern's formation look more like last season's 4-2-3-1 -- to help set the tempo of Bayern's passing.

It represents a marked improvement in the Lahm-as-central-midfielder experiment after a less than inspiring outing against Chelsea, where he was woefully exposed in front of the defence by a rapid Chelsea counter-attack. Granted, the dip in quality cannot be ignored but this was a more confident, assured performance and evidence of an ongoing process to learn the new position.

It is difficult to ascertain whether it is a long-term plan or rather just the result of a midfield injury crisis -- and for all the promise of the CSKA Moscow performance, he remains the world's best right-back -- but in an age where the position is traditionally filled by converted wingers or central defenders, it's almost refreshing to see a natural full-back being used out of position and doing well in the process.

It shows what a varied, consistent and brilliant player Lahm really is.

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