Philipp Lahm: If you want to win the league, Bayern are the team you have to beat
It's been quite a 12 months for Philipp Lahm. Bayern Munich's captain has had the pleasure of lifting almost every trophy going, as the Bundesliga giants won leagues, cups, the Champions League and, most recently, were crowned world champions at the Club World Cup in Morocco.
The 30-year-old has been his impeccably cool, composed, classy self throughout; the only issue, seemingly, has been doing the necessary gym work to bulk up those biceps for all that pot-lifting.
Pep Guardiola's arrival at Bayern, taking over from Jupp Heynckes as head coach last summer, heralded big changes for Munich's stalwart full-back. Guardiola has since raved about his captain, describing him as "the most intelligent player I have ever coached", and a switch to central midfield has provided Lahm with a completely new set of challenges.
Naturally, the German international responded to these with typically understated excellence. Here, the player we ranked the world's 7th best in our recent Top 100 sits down with FourFourTwo, as part of our feature on Bayern Munich in this month's mag, to discuss success, the season so far, switching to central midfield and life under Pep.
FFT: What has changed at Bayern since Pep Guardiola arrived?
Lahm: When a new coach comes into a club, there are always changes. Every coach has his own idea of football and his own personality. So you always have to adapt. Plus, our new coach had been away from the game for one year and before that he had won everything you can win on the club level, so there was a tremendous amount of interest in his person.
Would you say there's a lot more media interest in the club because of him?
It's hard to say, because we lifted the treble last season. So whether it's down to the coach or to the fact that the team is perceived differently because of winning the Champions League, I don't know.
You said each coach has his own idea of the game. What is Guardiola's idea?
Well, I'm not going to disclose all the tactical details we have been working on here. Our coach has won a lot of titles, he is a meticulous worker. He looks into every detail and tries to improve it. That's how he works.
You must have had a picture of him before you met him. Was there anything about him that has surprised you?
No, nothing surprised me. That's because you have to have an open mind when a new coach comes in. Since I didn't know him personally but only through the media, I had no specific expectations and so I wasn't surprised by anything that happened.
But you must have been surprised when, after only a few weeks on the job, he called you the most intelligent player he's ever worked with.
What do you mean by "surprised"? There's no question that it's great to hear something like that. It's an amazing compliment, coming from someone who's certainly coached great players, great personalities. So I was of course happy to hear that. But I wasn't "surprised", because I don't open the newspaper and expect to read certain things.
What he probably meant was the ability to read the game, understand tactics and adapt quickly to new situations…
…yes, I guess it was something along these lines.
You probably needed these qualities, because quite a few things have changed for you, as a player, under the new coach, especially the position. When did you learn that you were expected to play in front of the defence, in midfield?
I played there a few times during the pre-season preparations. Then I had a talk with the coach during which he told me that he liked the way I interpreted the role. So then he played me in front of the defence, also because we had a few injuries in that position.
Hermann Gerland, Bayern's assistant coach and the man who more or less discovered you, has always said that you could play in midfield.
It didn't come as too much of a surprise for me that I could fill this position, because I played there in youth football and had already helped out in midfield on occasion. And don't forget that I played at right-back in the first competitive games of the new season. It was only later, when the injuries happened, that I moved into midfield. It wasn't as if I had been certain to play there only because I had played there during the pre-season. However, I was aware that playing me in midfield had become another option for the coach and that he would take it into consideration.
It's not just that you were moved from right-back into midfield, now the team also plays a different system, with only one holding midfielder. Was there enough time to practice all that during the pre-season preparations? Because you can't do it during the season, can you?
You always learn. From training sessions, but also from games. So that means you can change things during a season. Also, outwardly it appears as if we've changed our system, but if you look more closely we still have three central midfielders on the pitch.
Whether there's one No.6 [a primarily defensive holding midfielder] and two No.10s [offensive midfielders], or one No.6 and two No.8s [more creative holding midfielders] or maybe one No.8, one No.6 and one No.10 - there are three players in central midfield.
To give you an example, last season Toni Kroos [a typical No.10] sometimes played in the No.6 position alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger. It's open to debate whether or not you could have spoken of two No.6 players in those moments. So each of the three players fills the position with his own identity and his characteristics. That is what counts.
The results appear to underline that the changes haven't been that dramatic, because the team wins game after game.
Well, it was a change. And at the beginning of the season you could see that we needed a bit of time to understand everything and to improve things such as our positioning in space and our counter-pressing. That takes time, of course, but we understand better and better what it is the coach wants us to do.
We had some outstanding games in the early stages of the season, away at Manchester City and Leverkusen, where many things worked very well. But we're not yet where we want to be. As concerns the points, yes, but not as concerns the way we play.
You've been at this club longer than most, so you'll know that it used to be the case in Germany that there was only Bayern — plus one rival that managed to compete for a few years before being replaced by another temporary rival. Do you think the emergence of Dortmund as a potentially durable rival is good for German football in general?
Of course it's good for German football if there's another strong team and if two German teams reach the Champions League final. But as you've just said, in the past it was often the case that we had a certain rival for only a few years. At the moment, Dortmund haven't yet gone beyond that point. Having said that, I think they are capable of becoming a lasting rival. They have gained stability over a number of seasons, play consistently well and are currently our strongest competitor.
We'll have to see what the future brings, though. In the more recent past, there has been only one constant factor — Bayern. The club has been competing for the title for decades now. There may have been the odd season where it wasn't the case, but by and large Bayern are always at or near the top.
Is that the image Bayern have of themselves — "forever number one", as an old club song put it?
That's what we want and, if you have a look at the recent past, that how it's been. It would be nonsense to deny it. Over the last years, only Bayern have always been competing at the very top in Germany. If you want to win the league, Bayern are the team you have to beat.
If this is the best club in Germany and now also the best club in Europe, if it has more money than most other clubs and now also the best or at least most coveted coach in the world… could you, personally, think of a reason to leave this club one day?
I'm 30 years old now and my contract runs for two more seasons. I can't really imagine playing professionally elsewhere.
And what about the younger players? Once they've played for Bayern, where can they go?
Not to too many places, but of course there is always the allure of playing abroad, getting to know a different culture, a different style of football, and learning a new language. But I think what you have here at Bayern you don't have anywhere else in the whole world. From how professionally the club is run to all the things that go beyond football, for instance how excellent the club's economic situation is. Munich, the city, is also a dream. There are not many reasons to leave this place.
Portraits by Shamil Tanna.
The February 2014 issue of FourFourTwo includes an 18-page Inside Bayern feature. Read all about it...