Pep Guardiola famously said that Philipp Lahm is the most intelligent footballer he has coached. During his short managerial career, Pep Guardiola has coached many modern-day legends, including Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi. But there is only one player who bags that superlative of being the most intelligent one.

In footballing terms, this was a match made in heaven – the tactical understanding of the game possessed by player and manager is perhaps unmatched. Pep had said that – 

“One of the reasons for my success at Bayern is the relationship with Philipp Lahm; he helped me a lot from the beginning. He always performs. I have never seen Philipp have a poor match. He will always be a special person in my life, and he is an absolute legend. Philipp Lahm is the most intelligent footballer I have ever coached.”

For over a decade now, Lahm has remained a constant in the Bayern Munich team and in the process has won 113 caps for Germany, the last coming in the victorious World Cup final before a calculated retirement from the international scene. Along with the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Paul Breitner, he will go down in history as a true great for both club and country; a consistent performer on the pitch and a well-spoken, humble man off it.

A picture of Lahm in school portrays an awkward boy standing for the class picture quietly in the middle of the top row, surrounded by his flashier classmates. On the pitch too, whether for Bayern or Germany, he would toil away on the flanks whilst being surrounded by his teammates who would grab the flashbulb moments.

Humble Beginnings

Lahm is the son of two football-mad parents. His mother, Daniela, was a youth leader at community team FT Gern, while his father was a player at the same club. Having met and married through FT Gern, the couple welcomed Philipp into the world on 11 November 1983.

With such strong connections to the club and with it also being in close proximity to the family home in western Munich, it wasn’t long before Philipp was playing for the junior teams and making a name for himself. It was quickly evident that he possessed talent that far outweighed his team-mates, opponents, and parents.

By the age of 10, scouts from Bayern and 1860 Munich were making regular trips to see him play, but, despite their professed eagerness to sign him, Lahm was uninterested in moving. He was happy and settled at FT Gern, where he played with his childhood friends and enjoyed the close-knit environment the club afforded him. Eventually the persistence of both clubs, and a realisation that he would have to move sooner or later, made him start considering which of the two he would sign for.

Whilst making his mind up, Lahm was offered the chance to reverse the roles and scout 1860 when FT Gern received an invitation to play against one of the club’s youth teams. After the game, Lahm, who is not one to complain lightly, bemoaned the Spartan nature of the facilities 1860 had to offer and duly made his way to Bayern.

It was around this time that coaches at Die Roten would pin their masts to his career as a future Bayern star. His coach at the time, Hermann Hummels, whose son Mats would later win the World Cup alongside Lahm, would tell the press – 

“If Philipp Lahm doesn’t make it in the Bundesliga, nobody will.”

After coming on in the 90thminute to make his debut for Bayern – two days after his 18th birthday – during a Champions League group stage match against Lens during the 2002-03 season, it would take another 18 months before his real chance would come, such was the strength of French full-backs Bixente Lizarazu and Willy Sagnol. Hermann Gerland, another of Lahm’s coaches, had been, without much success, trying to find a club to take the youngster on loan for months.

Hermann Gerland said – 

“Lahm was a perfect footballer even at that age but no one wanted him when I offered him out on loan. One manager even wanted me to reimburse him for the petrol money he had spent to come and watch Philipp because he was unimpressed. A few years later I met the same manager in Berlin so I took out my wallet and said: ‘Now, young man, how much did you want for that trip?’”

He wasn’t a Leftback

Lahm was originally signed to provide competition at right-back for Andreas Hinkel but soon found himself occupying the other flank. Lahm’s many years at left-back was all the product of a cheeky lie. When asked by Magath whether he had played there before, Lahm, desperate for a chance to prove himself, said that he had. From the sixth game of the season onwards, Lahm overtook German international Heiko Gerber as the first choice left-back and never looked back, making his first Champions League start against Manchester United soon after. In total, Lahm played 38 games for Stuttgart during his first season and, such was his impact, came second in the German Footballer of the Year awards.

The master of positional flexibility

Giacinto Fachetti and Carlos Alberto may headline the discussion on the template for the modern fullback and Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Ashley Cole, Paolo Maldini and Javier Zanetti may have improvised on that blueprint, but when it came to defensive duties, the Bayern captain was as solid as any of the above.

Goodbye to the Champions League

Philipp Lahm described his final Champions League outing as a ‘bitter farewell’ in a social media post following Bayern Munich’s controversial extra-time defeat by Real Madrid. Not withstanding Bayern’s elimination, Lahm has enjoyed a glittering European career, despite suffering heartbreak to Jose Mourinho’s Inter in 2010 and Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea in 2012 on home soil.

Bayern overcame rivals Dortmund 2-1 at Wembley in 2013 thanks to a last-gasp winner from Arjen Robben and followed up their victory by avenging their agonising Champions League defeat to Chelsea by beating them on penalties in the 2013 UEFA Super Cup.

Lahm has been included in the UEFA team of the year five times (2006, 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2014).

He has confirmed that he will retire from the game completely in 2017. It’s highly likely that Lahm will add to his glittering career before then, one that has seen him lift seven Bundesliga titles, six German Cups, a Champions League, a European Super Cup and a FIFA Club World Cup. Being awarded the Silbernes Lorbeerblatt, Germany’s highest sporting award, on three separate occasions highlights the esteem with which he is held in his homeland. Add all that to five appearances in the UEFA Team of the Year as well as a sixth-place Balon d’Or finish in 2014 and the scale of Lahm’s achievements begin to sink in.

He is one of football’s greatest full-backs, a man who has shone head and shoulders above most of his peers and rivals for a decade now. A man who combines the uniqueness of outstanding stats with visibly intelligent performances. A natural leader, Lahm has surely etched his name into the pantheon of football’s greatest defenders.

As the years wind down on his career, perhaps it’s best to leave the final word to a man who knows him better than most, Bastian Schweinsteiger – 

“Philipp is the perfect footballer. He has pace, defensive ability and is an attacking threat. He will be remembered as one of Germany’s greatest players.”

He may have never won any individual honours but made it to the all-star teams in each of the major tournaments that he played in from 2006 to 2014 – ever the consummate team man, but never the man.

The Bavarian was calmness personified and if there was ever a statistic which exemplified this, it is the fact that Lahm has never been sent off at any level of professional football and between September 2014 and October 2015, he did not commit a single foul!

Lahm’s desire to retire while at the top of his game is reflective of his outlook towards the game and his rejection of a sporting director role at Bayern is once again, an indicator of a man who was waiting for the right time, akin to a beautifully placed cross.

For now, once the season is over, Bayern fans and many others will miss that blonde haired fullback, tirelessly romping up and down the flank. Lahm retires as one of the game’s understated greats and even though Joshua Kimmich is a ready replacement, not many will be able to fill the giant shoes of the little fullback.