It was Philipp Lahm’s agent who first suggested his client be played in the center of midfield way before Pep Guardiola did in his first season at Bayern Munich. For his part, Guardiola called the 33-year-old Lahm “the most intelligent player” he’s ever coached, and regarded moving the fullback to midfield as the pivotal moment of the 2014 season. Lahm’s positional understanding enabled Bayern to outnumber opponents in possession while keeping a defensive structure in seeing out potential counterattacks. Perhaps the closest they ever came to achieving a Platonic ideal was in this three minute span against Manchester City in the Champions League match three years ago. In the second leg of their semifinal loss to Atletico Madrid last season, Bayern went out firing with Xabi Alonso pinging diagonal crosses as a third center back and Lahm covering the right side by himself.
Tracing the impact of each player, it was inevitable that Lahm and Alonso would play together before their careers were over (and inevitable that it would be Guardiola overseeing the duo). And it was fitting they would leave the game together as Lahm and Alonso each announced their retirement at the end of the season. While not as outwardly versatile as Lahm, Alonso played a variety of roles in the center of midfielder and towards the end of his career under Guardiola, at center back. Yet each player shared a similar characteristic in that their metronomic quality was so consistently high you’d take them for granted. Alonso’s view of slide tackling as a last resort sums up how he saw the game: a step ahead, reading and reacting to situations before they happened.
It’s a testament to Alonso’s technique and intelligence that he was able to play until 35 years old at the highest level. His transfer to Bayern three years ago was a surprise as you could ask what more he had to accomplish at the highest level after winning the Champions League with Real Madrid the season prior. And yet, as Chris Reina wrote that winter, he developed into an essential cog that kept Guardiola’s style ticking. His diagonal passes were the tonic to the counter press that opened up space for wingers like Douglas Costa to use so effectively.
There was never a signature moment that defined Xabi Alonso, no four goal match or step-over to win a European Championship. His gift was that he was always available to give and receive a pass, hardly the pieces that make up YouTube compilations. His 2005 performance away to Juventus in the Champions League announced him to a worldwide audience. With Liverpool clinging onto a 2-1 advantage heading to Stadio delle Alpi and without Steven Gerrard, Alonso was called on to command the midfield in his first full match since Frank Lampard broke his ankle six months earlier. Opposing Pavel Nedved and Emerson, Alonso controlled the match as Liverpool escaped with a 0-0 tie and a 2-1 win on aggregate. It exhibited the best of his qualities: the controlled nature, tactical nuances, and tempo, and foreshadowed his long career regardless of any loss in athleticism.
In contrast, Philipp Lahm became Philipp Lahm on the most public stage with this curler against Costa Rica in the opening match of the 2006 World Cup, at home. The signature goal introduced him to this audience but also shoehorned him in our memories as “just” a fullback. There is an alternative version of Lahm where an adventurous manager recognizes his center midfield qualities at an earlier age. As it stands, he’ll have to settle for being the greatest fullback of his generation.
Lahm led Bayern and Germany through action and consistency. His retirement announcement was brief, direct, and fitting - he would play at a top level until the end of this season, but nothing beyond. He joined Bayern Munich in 1995, and as much as we romanticize a one team player, there were rocky moments. While playing under Louis van Gaal in 2009, Lahm criticized the club for its lack of long term vision in its lack of competition with other European sides. It used to be that German teams were catching up to their European counterparts on a tactical and talent level. Four years later, Bayern beat Dortmund in an all-German Champions League final to win their first European trophy in twelve seasons.
The movement of soccer power from Spain to Germany over the past decade symbolizes the changing role of each position. The center midfielder and fullback played one way in the tiki taka era, then another in this current gegenpressing phase. Each required their own technical elements from one touch passing, to pressuring opponents, to breaking the pressure with passing and movement. If Alonso’s signature skill is the diagonal ball, Lahm’s is perhaps the simple act of using his body to shield the ball from an opponent. Alonso noted that the Premier League, with its reliance on the direct long ball, didn’t produce midfielders of his ilk. Joshua Kimmich is tasked with the current title of “the next Lahm”, and Spain will always produce passing midfielders. But the combination of consistency, versatility, and intelligence that defines both players is near impossible to replicate.
Both Lahm and Alonso will move on to the boardroom in some form. Lahm is fated to eventually return to Bayern, where he has a leg up in navigating the club’s strongest figures as he was fined by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge for his criticism of the club. You could see Alonso in either England or Spain; a reunion with Real Sociedad would be appropriate. Sami Hyypia, Didi Hamann, Harry Kewell, and Gerrard from that Liverpool side he lead into Juventus have all dipped into management.
For the immediate future, Bayern Munich play Hamburg, Schalke, then the return leg at Arsenal. They would have already won the league by this time in the past few seasons, but are still favorites with a five point lead on RB Leipzig. Not that they need any more trophies to justify a place in football history. Lahm and Alonso combined for ten league titles, three Champions League trophies, and two World Cups. Their 34 years playing at the senior level speaks a fundamental truth about the game: as much as it’s defined by the physicality of power and pace, it is positioning and technique are the last characteristics to age.