In the never ending debate on Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo, some find it convenient to conclude that Messi is the best player in the world, while Cristiano is the most complete player in the world. But what does the most complete player really mean? Cristiano has pace, power, incredible technical skill, he can shoot with either foot, can jump higher than maybe any other player, he can score with his head, inside the box or outside, from penalties or free kicks. But if he was asked to play in defense, or organize a midfield, dictating tempo from the center, would his ‘completeness’ serve him just as well there? Could Cristiano Ronaldo play any position on the pitch?
Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that Cristiano is the most complete attacking player in the world. There is a different player, however, who is truly the most complete player in the world, whose intelligence and attributes enable him to play literally any of the 10 outfield positions. His name is Philipp Lahm.
Philipp Lahm was born in Munich and joined the Bayern Munich youth team at the age of 11. His talent was evident early on, with one of his coaches, Herman Hummels, famously stated that “If Philipp Lahm will not make it in the Bundesliga, nobody will anymore.” For Bayern’s youth sides, Lahm played at right midfield or defensive midfield in addition to full-back.
At the senior level, Lahm has proved more than adequate at either the right or left full-back position for both Bayern and Germany over the years. Since Pep Guardiola arrived in Munich this summer, he’s had nothing but the highest praise for Lahm, calling him the most intelligent player he’s ever coached. In an interview with adidas, Pep had this to say about the Bavarian:
“He understands the game. Not all players do. A lot of players understand his position. Philipp can play in all positions. Football is a game where people move and you have to decide in one second what’s going on in your position as well as all around the field, and what he decides in that moment is right.”
Guardiola is a product of the Barcelona system implemented by Johan Cruyff, who himself evolved his game from the concept of Total Football as a player under Rinus Michels at Ajax and later Barcelona. In this footballing philosophy, players must understand space, where their teammates are, and the intricate movements required to break down an opposing team. Complete players are valued in this system, and Philipp Lahm is the most complete of them all.
Lahm has the technique, intelligence, spatial awareness, and tackling, passing, and shooting ability to play in any position. He hasn’t scored too many goals in his career (just 18 for club and country at the senior level since his professional debut in 2002), but no one could deny that he’s capable of finishing when given the chance.
Lahm’s unique combination of skills is why Guardiola has trusted him as the team’s base in central midfield this season, despite the unprecedented success that Bayern had last year under Jupp Heynckes with Lahm as the right full-back.
The central holding midfielder, operating as a single pivot, is a very important position for Guardiola. It was the position he occupied as a player at Barcelona, and the position he entrusted to Sergio Busquets once he became the manager. The single pivot in Guardiola’s system is required to do several things extremely well. On offense, the pivot must be able to collect the ball from the goalkeeper or the defense in order to build play from the back, and use intelligence and vision to pick out the appropriate pass going forward. The player needs excellent positioning sense, and must always be available as an outlet for the more advanced midfielders if they are under pressure. When the opponent has the ball, the pivot must be available to drop into the defense as a third CB to cover for the advanced full-backs. He must also be ready to press quickly and win the ball back in the midfield to cut out opposing attacks before they begin.
The qualities that Busquets possess allowed him to displace Yaya Touré in this role for Barcelona, another player who could play in almost any position on the field. And Busquets went on to be a cornerstone in the Barça side many consider to be the best team ever assembled. But is it possible that Lahm, who has played full-back his entire career, is even better in the ‘Busquets’ role than Busquets himself?
A look at some statistical graphics from Squawka reveals that while Lahm may not be superior to Busquets in the role, he is just about the best imitation you can find. Let’s take a look at heat maps and total passes for Lahm and Busquets from a Bayern Munich match in the Bundesliga and a Barcelona match in La Liga this season.
These games are quite similar in terms of the performances of the two sides. Bayern beat Schalke 4-0, having 60% possession while completing 685/790 passes (87%) for a performance score of 517. Barça beat Real Sociedad 4-1, having 64% possession while completing 700/766 passes (91%) for performance score of 563. Two performances as dominating as they come, and it’s not as if they were against weak opposition. Both Schalke and Real Sociedad are competing in the Champions League this season.
Statistics courtesy of Squawka.com
As we can see, both Lahm and Busquets locked down the middle of the park and completed a very high percentage of their passes. Lahm’s heat map is more contained to the center while Busquets roamed from touchline to touchline. This can likely be explained by the free flowing attack of Barcelona compared to the discipline of Bayern Munich. Bayern’s full-backs and wingers stick to the wide areas, which allows the central midfielders to contain themselves in a more narrow stretch of the pitch.
Both players completed a great number of passes with extraordinary accuracy (77/84 or 92% for Lahm, and 80/86 or 93% for Busquets). It would be difficult to find more similar performances from any two players on any two teams in the world. And lest you think that these stats from just one game don’t tell the whole story: this season, Busquets has completed 95% of his passes in La Liga and 93% in the Champions League, while Lahm has hit on 91% in the Bundesliga and 94% in Europe.
The difference between Lahm and Busquets, however, lies in the Bavarian’s ability to perform just as excellently in other areas of the pitch. Playing at both full-back positions for Bayern and Germany over the years has seen Lahm positioned in the opponent’s half just as often as not. Last year alone for Bayern, Lahm contributed 11 assists, mostly from crosses and cutbacks from the right wing. Even playing mostly as a holding midfielder for Bayern this campaign, Lahm has created 20 chances to 8 from Busquets.
At some point this season, Pep Guardiola will once again be able to count on the services of Javi Martínez and Thiago, which could likely see Lahm moved from central midfield back to his usual place on the right side of defense. Or Pep may decide that he can’t displace his new midfield general, and incorporate Martínez and Thiago in alongside Lahm.
Wherever the coach decides to play him, know that Philipp Lahm will perform at the highest level. As Guardiola claimed earlier this season, “if I told him tomorrow he has to play at centre forward, he’d be one of the best in Europe.” It is difficult to doubt the words of such an accomplished tactician. There is no outfield position on the pitch that doesn’t suit the most complete player in the world.