February 22, 2017

Philipp Lahm Takes a Walk

Bayern Munich’s honorable captain and golden retriever, Philipp Lahm, has taken a walk this season from his customary alley along the right flank to the middle of the pitch. Lahm along the right flank had become one of German fußball’s current sacrosanct principles. Mixing some metaphors, Lahm’s walk has stirred up yellow jacket nest for some segments of the Bavarian faithful, who are offended by the icon-smashing.

Regardless, we can’t help ourselves – us German fußball fanatics – Bayern’s starting XI is our Sun, our People magazine, our Bild:

Mind you, Lahm hasn’t taken this walk every match, but he’s taken it often enough (in the preseason and now more recently) that it’s news. And naturally, given Bayern’s treble-winning status from a year ago coupled with the hiring of Pep Guardiola, Die Roten have the most scrutinized and media-frenzied starting formation in the wide world of football. Suddenly, we all want to say intelligent things about the 4-1-4-1 formation’s hybridity and its incestuous relationship with the 4-2-3-1 formation. We also want to say that the formation itself doesn’t matter because football is a “complex team invasion sport” with constant motion and complex ramifying variables. After all, Pep’s Bayern features much motion and variables. But then again, who’s to say that any starting XI doesn’t feature the same dynamics?

My point is that many of us are compelled to say something – some way – about Pep’s formation. It catalyzes discourse, like a Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde-filled shark tank. This compulsion comes from our perception of Pep as a filmmaker-like auteur,  who rules his squad with a fastidious aesthetic vision, imposing his “artistic” plan on every pitch angle, vector, run, and passing triangle.  Curiously, Pep is one of the few managers we grant these almost talismanic powers to in football. (Side note: should we view more managers in similar light? None? Is Pep an illusionist from the Victorian era?)

Look, I’m no different. When I see all that gesticulating, brow-mopping, tie-flapping, brow-raising, and feet-stamping I can’t help but see the pitch as a canvas-like extension of this sideline performance in which every run and pass is (somehow) Pep’s brushstroke. However, the “thinking slow” part of my brain knows better, because I really have no idea where Pep ends and Bayern’s XI begins. In other words, what’s vision (or Pep’s “plan”) and what’s just the barely-controlled chaos of the football pitch? Football is slippery this way.

These opening four paragraphs are a necessary preface for considering Philipp Lahm’s walk to the midfield. From what I’ve observed, we view football through a pretty conservative frame (conservative in the sense that we are wary of change, holding onto our truisms). So when Lahm leaves the right flank and takes up a spot in the midfield, there’s some confusion, giggling, and wondering what the hell that crazy auteur Pep is up to. Honestly, I have no idea what he’s up to. Do you? Are you privy to his staff meetings? The commands he incessantly barks at his players? No. So let’s not pretend we understand. However, we can make some limited observations.

To get into some footy talk for a minute, it’s interest to speculate whether Pep is grooming Lahm to eventually play this position full time, or as a stop-gap until the likes of Javi Martinez and Thiago return (or heck, Götze’s full return). Currently, Lahm has taken a walk to the dead center of the pitch – where you can see him running horizontally across your screen – up and down busytown. (In these horizontal runs, I see shadows of his right flank movements, ironically as if he’s assiduously avoiding a right-ward drift on the pitch.) You can find Lahm here:

Yes, man is an existentially-isolated island. Behold his loneliness. In other words, Lahm's starting position in Bayern's XI vs. Schalke at the raucous Veltins. (Courtesy WhoScored.com)
Yes, man is an existentially-isolated island. Behold his loneliness. In other words, Lahm’s starting position in Bayern’s XI vs. Schalke at the raucous Veltins. (Courtesy WhoScored.com)

In 4 of Bayern’s last 5 matches (vs. Chelsea in the Super Cup, vs. CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, vs. Schalke at Veltins, and vs. Hannover in the Pokal) Lahm has taken up this position, and in the other match (again vs. Hannover, this time in the Bundesliga) he lined up with Kroos as the pivots in a 4-2-3-1 formation, so Lahm’s been getting plenty of time in the midfield.

From his central running and passing lanes, I realize now with naked awareness how short Lahm is, as he occasionally gets pushed around/over – he is the “Magic Dwarf,” isn’t he? His tucked-in kit is all the more easier to see, as are the clean parallel lines between his captain’s arm band and kit sleeve. Indeed, the lines of Lahm’s runs are themselves parallel with both sidelines, such is the integrity of movement and its projection with Bayern’s captain.

In the starting XI diagram, Lahm looks like a Camusian hero from high school World Lit; however, in practice he’s less an of island and more of a node in a network, particularly one involving Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos, who collectively weave midfield triangles around in Bayern’s last three matches:

Bayern's World-beating triangle, as seen recently in the last two matches.
Lahm, as network node. A router. An acute angle. A shape replicable across the midfield.

Of course, Lahm’s pitch activity is not limited to this triangle. Not even close. However, I think of it as a sort of recent base unit for Bayern. Lahm moves up a bit, Schweinsteiger down a bit and the triangle happens. This unit can feed the ball up to Robben, Müller, Ribéry, Shaqiri, or whoever else is attacking the box. Or the unit can redistribute the ball to Alaba, Rafinha, Boateng, or the marauding Dante.

Despite fretting over his misplaced passes, as “Lahm gets used to his new role,” he’s still completing plenty of passes (thus far, 92% vs. 90% from a season ago) – what this pass completion rate is a function of, I have no idea. Perhaps it’s because Lahm makes more shorter passes in midfield. Perhaps it’s irrelevant. Regardless, it’s not as if Lahm is suddenly throwing the away the ball in midfield, even if our minds nag us with the doubt, “Lahm is playing a new position, he must be uncomfortable, therefore he’ll misplace passes.” This doubt is simply an instance of the “availability heuristic,” in which mind accesses the most available thought (i.e. playing new positions = discomfort and mistakes) when evaluating the event (i.e. Lahm playing midfield). For example, glance at the passing chalkboards from the recent 4-0 demolition of Schalke at Veltins:

You can see him passing from his central lane in the midfield, making a variety of passes: up toward the attackers, back to (presumably) Schweinsteiger, to Kroos, and back to the centerbacks. A nice radius of distribution. Lahm’s heatmap from the same match is worth a visual, too:

Lahm's heatmap vs. Schalke. (Courtesy of Squawka.com)
Lahm’s heatmap vs. Schalke. (Courtesy of Squawka.com)

While I don’t think your average heatmap says much about a player, I do think heatmaps showing anomalies of influence are worth chuckling at. For example, I can’t think of another midfielder’s heatmap showing such integrity to a lane of play (literally central midfield here), instead I observe that midfielder heatmaps are usually blobs oozing everywhere from the pitch’s middle. Because it’s interesting, check out Lahm’s heatmap in another 4-0 demolition of Schalke from a season ago when he was playing in his customary rightback position:

Lahm's right flank heatmap against Schalke from a season ago.
Lahm’s right flank heatmap against Schalke from a season ago (2012-2013). (Courtesy of Squawka.com)

Because our minds are pattern-seekers, mine wants to see the presence of “lanes” in both heatmaps, or that integrity of movement I’ve already described. But there’s also a key difference: from the midfield, Lahm’s influence is necessarily increased. It’s simple: there’s more space. Take another look at that passing chalkboard from the most recent Schalke match. And take another look at the heatmap from the most recent Schalke match – if Lahm moves in lanes, then in the midfield he’s cruising on a SoCal freeway. Kicking things up a level of abstraction, in the midfield there’s dispersion and on the flank there’s restriction.

Dispersion. Restriction.

Consider the difference again. Obviously, the right flank is restricted by the touchline, while the midfield is a zone of dispersed freedom. Here’s where I think it gets interesting: imagine if had you played your career at the highest levels (Lahm played defensive midfield some in his youth) of football along the touchline – that white line always restricting you – then you walk over to the midfield and space abounds. There’s more freedom, presumably. The walk is exciting. Perhaps we thought we already knew what Lahm could do on a grassy pitch. Suddenly, we’re not as sure. What are his limits? Do we even know what he can do?

Considering Lahm in the midfield reminds of a tweet one of my favorite sports thinkers, Yago Colas, sent my way:

Yago and I were discussing something I wrote about LeBron James in last year’s NBA finals. The idea, I think, was raising the possibility of suspending our judgement, especially about something (i.e. the human body) of which we don’t even know it’s full limits. Our age is one of specialization, divided labor, certified specialty training. Frequently, sport is no different. The modern professionalization of sport creates more training and fitness time, which translates into the repetition of specialized actions in practice and during competition. Contemporary football coaches and players talk about the automation of play, specifically in passing, positioning, and marking. On the football pitch, the division of labor and specialized training is especially evident in positions like right and left fullback – Lahm’s customary domain. Consequently, us spectators sometimes watch the beautiful game with a moral framework grounded in an inflexibility understanding of what formations and positions are supposed to do. For example, when Lahm is suddenly in the midfield, we are already looking for examples of his “failure” or “discomfort.” I’m no different. We’re used to many of our footballers being specialists. Or at least we believe they’re specialists. Indeed, Lahm is such a consummate specialist on the flank that it’s easy to forget about him, or undervaluing him when sniffing around for Germany’s best player. Uli Hesse captures this Lahm perception problem in a recent ESPN piece in which he makes the case for Lahm being Germany’s best player. I tend to agree. Lahm is so supremely good at fullback that he’s often invisible. Sometimes, when we’ve become  so accustomed to excellence its taken for granted and we fail to recognize it anymore. So with Lahm, perhaps.

Who is this Lahm?

However, I think us spectators are on to something in our morality about lineups and positioning. After all, our favorite often are marked by the same spots on the lineup sheet – week after week – heck, even their heatmaps all look the same. I mean, it’s not like Lahm won’t be playing at fullback during the 2014 World Cup – it’s his position. He is one of, if not the best players in the world at this position. This dominance doesn’t just evaporate.

Which makes Lahm’s walk over to the midfield even more fascinating.

Here is a world-beating player at the peak of his powers in his specialization being moved. Lahm is one of the world’s few players who embodies his position – that is, when I think of a worldclass fullback (specifically right back), Lahm is name and face my mind inserts. He’s the world’s consummate player at this position. So logically, he’s uprooted from his domain.

One of the things I love about sport is that it’s (literally!) a frontier for the human body. In the same way that dance and performance art pushes the limits of what’s possible with a human body, sport pushes the body’s limits. For example, think about Olympic records constantly being reset – Usain Bolt in sprinting is the easiest example here – or think about watching LeBron James play hoops, or Leo Messi score goals. Or think of Philipp Lahm playing in the midfield. Frontiers of what’s possible.

There’s a radical awareness of the present moment that I love about Pep (presumably!) moving to Lahm to midfield. A sort of claptrap logic to Lahm’s walk. Let me explain. How does a club “recover” from winning a treble? Especially with the finely-tuned starting XI that dear old Jupp Heynckes assembled? Well, for one thing, you don’t hire an auteur manager like Pep and expect things to stay the same. Otherwise, Pep is simply expensive and wastefully glamorous window-dressing. Look, we all knew some changes were coming, because changes are a crucial component of the “new manager” narrative (see Socceronomics, if you need a reminder). There will be changes. And there are.

“Mustard seeds. Mustard seeds, Philipp.”

Lahm’s walk to midfield reminds me, strangely enough, of high modernist and avant-garde aesthetic theory, specifically Gertrude Stein’s curious little essay, “Composition as Explanation.”  In this essay, Stein argues that modernist art is art that has simply caught up the present moment in the same way Lord Grey observed that, during WWI, the generals had to fight the war according to the demands of the present moment, rather than according to the rules of 19th century warfare. Until this “catching up” happened, the generals remained behind the present moment. Of course, as Stein observes, such a volte-face is difficult, as people resisted both the new 20th century warfare and modernist art. Gradually, both are accepted. On these grounds, Stein explains her own milieu’s resistance to the brand spanking new aesthetic emerging in modernist art.

Sport is no different than art – or warfare (Orwell’s famous dictum: sport is war minus the shooting). Indeed, sport is a proxy for the latter and a conflict/tension-laced version of the former. We hold old rules over the present moment, even when the old rules have out-lived their functionality. You could argue that the “Moneyball” phenomenon finds opportunity in market inefficiencies enabled by the old rules.

Like Gertrude Stein’s avant-garde modernists, I see Pep moving Lahm to midfield as a “being present with the present” moment. Flexible use of players is becoming one of the hallmarks of the contemporary game. Jonathan Wilson provides a bit of a roundup of this idea in his “tactical trends” piece for 2012-2013. It’s worth a full read, if you haven’t seen it yet. Ironically, Bayern was already in line with this trend last season, especially in how Heynckes used Dante, Martinez, and Schweinsteiger – could argue Europe never recovered from this trio’s power last season. Pep bringing in Thiago is an extension of Bayern’s flexible Dante-Martinez-Schweinsteiger spine. Throw in a healthy Kroos and Müller, the Space-Translator, and it’s hard to argue this Bayern side isn’t the most contemporary, front-leading (avante-garde!) squad in the world. These players embody the “flexibility” philosophy. And now we have Lahm in midfield.

Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”  Like Mr. Jones, in Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” we’re steps behind the on-pitch spectacle unfolding in front of us, as Bayern makes the present. In this light, it’s irresistible to cast Pep Guardiola as the world’s supreme fußball auteur. How can you blame us?

So Philipp Lahm takes a walk. He still runs in his lanes, still makes his (mostly) tidy passes, and still runs a lot. But he’s doing all these customary Lahm-like things out on his personal frontier – with the touchlines receding away to his periphery. How it all works out is almost irrelevant. Isn’t it just worth seeing a captain on the frontier?

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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