Philipp Lahm and the art of building play

Upon agreeing to join Bayern Munich, Guardiola reportedly had a five-second crisis, wondering who would become the fulcrum of his new team. Guardiola came to a solution almost immediately: Bastian Schweinsteiger.

For the first few games of his reign, Schweinsteiger was positioned in the all-important holding role. This all changed on August 30th 2013, when Bayern found themselves short of midfielders. Thiago Alcântara, Javi Martinez and Schweinsteiger himself were all unavailable to start. For the first 60 minutes (prior to Martinez coming on for Rafinha), Philipp Lahm was given the job.

He put in a measured performance; dictating play and recycling possession well. Guardiola was impressed. This was the beginning of a new role for Lahm, as he played centrally 31 times in all competitions during 13/14 (versus only 14 times at right-back).

Lahm has an elegance that supersedes all around him. Even alongside some of the world’s best midfielders, his control of the ball appears effortless. His impact in terms of building play in the Bayern half is tremendous. This was evident particularly in Bayern’s 2-0 German Super Cup loss to Dortmund.

Bayern originally started the game in a 3-4-3 system, with Sebastian Rode and Gianluca Gaudino occupying a double pivot in the centre of midfield. It was evident from the first whistle that the two were finding it difficult to build play centrally. The vast majority of Bayern’s first phase attacks therefore had to come through David Alaba. Against a pressing system as potent as Dortmund’s, having your primary ball recycler on one side of the pitch is unlikely to be fruitful. As talented as Alaba is, it was his first game in the new central defensive role. Guardiola spotted these issues and brought Lahm on for Müller at half time.

Within only a minute of being on the pitch, Lahm was able to play a sharp ball into the path of Xherdan Shaqiri, bypassing five Dortmund players in the process. With the Swiss star in space, he had time to play a simple ball to Lewandowski, who should’ve bagged himself a debut goal, chipping the ball straight at the keeper. Bayern went on to lose the game, but they would’ve been ripped to shreds by the Dortmund press had Guardiola not brought Lahm on.

The importance of building centrally

Having a capable holding midfielder is of utmost importance to the top teams because building through the flanks is much easier for the opposition to defend. So much so, that teams such as Dortmund will lay pressing traps in order to pin the opposition to the touchline, where they will then swarm the man on the ball.

“The touchline is the best defender in the world” – Pep Guardiola

This is because of the restricted options the touchline leaves the man on the ball with. A player in the centre of the pitch will have twice as many passing options as a player on the touchline. For obvious reasons, this makes him much harder to successfully press.

Teams that try to build from the side tend to struggle if the opposition adapts. For teams that like to play with a large amount of possession, such as Bayern, it will often lead to pointless side-to-side ball circulation as the option to push play forwards is not available.

This does not mean that width should be abandoned completely. Wide players serve a key purpose in creating space in the centre of the pitch to allow for central build-up. The key to a sturdy defensive system is to minimise the space your defenders need to cover. If an attacking system has little width, the opposition are able to constrict and each player will have less space to cover, making it easy to defend. Finding a balance between player positioning and ball circulation is the key to building through the thirds.

Which would you rather defend against?

What makes a good on-ball holding midfielder?

One of the major keys to building play through the centre of the pitch is having a capable holding midfielder. This player needs to have footballing intelligence, as well as excellent technical ability. Players who have these skills make it look easy, but it is usually their movement which puts them in preferable situations.

Prior to receiving the ball

The first stage of play for a holding midfielder begins when the goalkeeper or central defenders have the ball. At this point, the player will have to find space in order to receive the ball. If they don’t have space, they won’t receive the ball.

The difference between this and the positioning of the truly great holding midfielders is the space they occupy relative to their teammates. Xavi Hernández surveys the pitch when play is one pass away from him. Not only does he need to be in a suitable position so as to receive the ball, but also to allow for him to release the ball to a teammate immediately. If his passing options are limited, he will move to an area where more are available. This means he can immediately rid himself of the ball and keep the team’s tempo at a high pace.

Xavi and Lahm often appear to be playing simple passes, but these passing options would not even be available were it not for their awareness and movement.

In possession

If a player has good movement prior to receiving the ball, it can often mean he has very little to do when he has it. But this is not always the case. Particularly against teams such as Dortmund, it can be very difficult to find desirable space. This means the technical ability of the player is tested.

In situations such as these, first touch and close control are key. Being able to thread a perfect twenty yard pass helps. The ability to dribble past a man can also be handy if the opposition leave you in tight spaces. Lahm is an expert at all of these things.

The difficult part is knowing when to release the ball and when to take another touch to allow the game to progress to a more favourable state. Guardiola recently suggested there was very little he could teach Alonso about playing midfield, because he “knows what he’s doing”. He was referring to Alonso’s ability to understand when to slow or quicken play. In Alonso and Lahm, Bayern now have two of the few players capable of controlling a football match almost single-handedly.

Alonso and Lahm have one major difference between them; Alonso is capable of consistently delivering 50-yard+ passes with precision. This can be vitally important for a team playing a short-passing style. If you don’t have this player, the opposition is able to constrict and simply slide across to the other side as the ball is circulated. But Alonso’s presence alongside Lahm means that the opposition are constantly stretched because the Spaniard could play a long pass at any moment. Bayern now have more successful long passes per game than any other Bundesliga team. This is partly because of their consistently high ball possession, but also indicates a slight change for Guardiola’s men. Plenty of space is created in the centre of the pitch because of this, and it’s easier for Bayern to penetrate centrally.

It is now even more difficult to play against Bayern. If the opposition constrict on the ball and press high, Alonso is able to open up the game. If they don’t, then Lahm will slice open their midfield.

Guardiola has always favoured a single pivot, but with three central defenders and Alonso & Lahm as a double pivot in front, Bayern are finding it all too easy to get into the final third. Their build-up play is by far the best in the world.

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