Philipp Lahm: Imminent exit of Bayern Munich’s understated captain can spark bid for European glory

Ahead of Bayern Munich's Uefa Champions League last-16 first leg with Arsenal on Wednesday, Ian Hawkey dedicates his preview to outgoing Bayern captain Philipp Lahm.

Philipp Lahm will be making his 503rd Bayern Munich appearance against Arsenal on Wednesday night. Matthias Schrader / AP Photo
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Expect an extra loud bellow of applause when the name of Bayern Munich’s captain is announced over the public address system ahead of Wednesday night’s Uefa Champions League meeting with Arsenal at the Allianz Arena.

It is the German champions’ first home game since Philipp Lahm made it public that this will be his last season as a player. For many loyalists, his retirement will come too soon.

Lahm only turns 34 in November, and anybody searching for signs that his energy, athleticism or uncannily precise positional sense is waning after 15 years as an elite professional has to look very hard for evidence. But anybody who tries to argue against his decision will struggle even more.

Lahm has confronted the Bayern hierarchy with his declaration, made last Wednesday morning, that he will be leaving the club in June to explore new horizons.

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The boardroom bosses, notably president Uli Hoeness and senior executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge — both former players of distinction — were surprised to hear of Lahm’s decision last week.

They issued a statement to that effect. They had intended the captain’s next career move would be to a sporting director position within a club where former players are valued as future managers.

Lahm is understood to have found the definitions of the role envisaged not quite to his liking.

Do not rule out seeing him in a position of executive power at Bayern one day, but there may be a wait until he and the club are of one mind about what that job should entail.

The impasse is unlikely to unsettle either a footballer of steely nerves and constant high standards, or a club in such an established groove of domestic supremacy and European ambition.

Lahm may have played in more domineering Bayern teams than the one that, after six months of Carlo Ancelotti’s stewardship, have suffered the odd unexpected defeat, and — unusually — finished only second in their Champions League group.

The outgoing captain, though, should expect to leave with his stack of medals even higher. Bayern’s seven-point lead in the Bundesliga points to an eighth league title for Lahm, come May.

As for Europe, force of habit suggests that Arsenal are a surmountable obstacle. After all, Bayern have eliminated the London club twice in the past four years at this stage in the competition en route to the five successive semi-finals.

Thank you very much for all your messages. A day later, I'd like to explain my decision to you in detail: pic.twitter.com/Xz213rxM73

If there is an itch Lahm needs to scratch it is that only once in that sequence, in 2013, did he go on to lift the trophy.

Many are the teammates who will find an extra motivation in Lahm’s imminent farewell, a reinforced desire to send off their captain with another gold medal in club football’s major prize.

“We will miss him,” midfielder Thiago Alcantara said. “I respect his decision but would have liked to have him as a teammate for longer,” goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said.

Lahm’s leadership will be missed, understated though his style of captaincy is compared with some of his predecessors as Bayern captain.

His versatility, too, has been an outstanding asset. Lahm has few challengers as the greatest right-back of his generation, anywhere. He has also been an excellent left-back. Under the management of Pep Guardiola, he often operated as a cultured central midfielder — key to Bayern’s possession game — superbly accurate in his passing.

Against Arsenal, Lahm will play his 503rd game for Bayern at right full-back, anticipating — among other things — the movements of his former international colleague and fellow World Cup winner, Mesut Ozil.

He will also anticipate spending a great deal of time in the opposition half. Arsenal know that. Lahm has set up three of the six goals Bayern scored against them in the most recent last-16 ties between the clubs.

Bayern inflicted a 5-1 defeat on Arsenal in the group phase last season, but Lahm cautions against complacency.

“Overall, this is a stronger, better Arsenal than we faced the last two times,” Lahm said. “A single goal can easily shape the tie.”

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