I never thought the day would come when I would be surprised to see Philipp Lahm starting in defence for FC Bayern München. Over the past decade he has established himself as one of the world's finest on either side for club and country – most recently captaining Bayern to an unprecedented treble from the right. Yet that was precisely the reaction on Wednesday evening as the team sheet was published ahead of Bayern's UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg at Arsenal FC.
Josep Guardiola, the Bayern coach, is not averse to tinkering – in fact, he has not picked the same side for two games running since he took over in the summer – so the five changes to the team which beat SC Freiburg 4-0 in the Bundesliga the previous weekend were nothing out of the ordinary. However, the fact that Rafinha, a virtual ever-present on the right of defence this season, was not among the starting XI in London immediately caused raised eyebrows.
"Javi Martínez must be playing at centre-back, with Jérôme Boateng moving out to the right, then," one reporter assumed, probing for my thoughts on the team selection. "Possibly," I responded hesitantly, knowing of Boateng's reluctance to play on the right but anxious not to give out any false information. But why suddenly move Boateng, who has been enjoying a fine campaign in the centre, for a match of such magnitude?
To begin with, there was no suggestion of Lahm, who was repositioned into defensive midfield during pre-season, returning to the full-back role he grew up and flourished in. Why should there be? What began as a surprising summer experiment – made semi-permanent through injuries to other midfielders – has since proven to be a resounding success, with Lahm operating as the unlikely pivot in an imperious Munich winning machine.
But it was the only possible explanation on Wednesday. I could not see Boateng being shifted for no reason, so Lahm had to be at right-back – and so it transpired. The Bayern captain was back in defence, with Martínez screening the back four in a 4-1-4-1 formation.
An unlikely time to make such a manoeuvre, even for Guardiola. Indeed, despite their recent bumpy patch, Arsenal are riding high in the Premier League and were widely expected to present Bayern with one of their toughest tests so far this term. Even so, few could have predicted quite how boldly they would start. The Gunners had the world and European champions on the rocks in the first ten minutes and would have been thoroughly deserving of an early lead had Mesut Özil converted his eighth-minute penalty.
Bayern seemed stunned by the game's frenetic start – confused almost. It was a relief to get through the opening stages and although they began to gather themselves as the first half wore on, they were lacking the cohesion which Lahm has brought them from the middle of the park. Martínez is a fantastic ball winner and certainly not a poor passer, but you got the sense he needed either Thiago Alcántara or the outstanding Toni Kroos to drop deeper and aid with the distribution side of things. But both are more effective further up the pitch.
Had Arsenal not been reduced to ten men when goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny was dismissed for fouling Arjen Robben – David Alaba missed the resulting penalty – we may well have seen a different outcome. Bayern naturally wrested a hold on possession, but Guardiola had seen his side struggle enough and, further prompted by the risk of Boateng's yellow card, reinstated Lahm at the heart of the team for the second period.
Their man advantage aside, the results were immediate and Bayern began to tick once more. Kroos was without question the man of the match with his incredible range of passing, but Lahm resumed his role as the central cog, his fellow outfield players creating a nonagon around him with nine potential passing triangles. Numerically short, Arsenal could not get near them and by the end Bayern had assumed a 73% stake in possession, by which time goals from Kroos and Thomas Müller had secured a 2-0 victory.
After such an awkward first half, it was almost a relief to see Lahm back in midfield. At the start of the season he spoke openly of his preference for playing at right-back, partly out of fears it could disrupt his role in the national team. Guardiola too referred to the change as an "experiment" and, despite the subsequent success of the move, it had always been a question of when he would revert – presumably when Martínez and Bastian Schweinsteiger returned to fitness.
The problem now facing Guardiola is that all his midfielders are approaching full health, but, as Wednesday's first half showed, returning Lahm to his former berth is not as simple as hoped. The 30-year-old has grown into his new position and Bayern's perceived improvement under their coach has become synonymous with Lahm playing as the pivot. The player himself has also changed his tune recently, claiming he is enjoying "seeing more of the ball" in midfield.
Guardiola clearly sees Lahm as the 'Xavi' of his Bayern squad and will be reluctant to disrupt a fully functioning unit for the sake of keeping other star names happy. It is obvious they are more comfortable with their diminutive captain running the show from the centre, so the question of Lahm moving back to defence has now become less a case of 'when' than 'whether' – and it will be intriguing to find out the answer in Bayern's upcoming matches, beginning in the Bundesliga against Hannover 96 on Sunday.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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