Philipp Lahm is the captain of Germany’s most successful football team, FC Bayern Munich. Winner of the most German domestic league titles as well as seven European titles, the club is once again riding high in the Bundesliga.
But observers have noticed a recent change in the team’s performances. No longer dominant in matches, it has lost or drawn several Bundesliga games this season and is under pressure in the European Champions League.
Staffing issues have also unsettled the German giant. Spanish coach Pep Guardiola, widely regarded as the best coach in the world, has announced he is leaving in the summer. And the club’s management is currently considering what to do about former club coach and president Uli Hoeness, who has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for tax evasion. He is working with Bayern’s youth team but wants to resume his role of president.
Mr. Lahm spoke to the newspaper Die Zeit about his career and the club’s current predicament ahead of its crucial Champions League replay against Italian side Juventus on Wednesday.
Die Zeit: Do you wake up in pain the day after a physically and mentally exhausting game?
Philipp Lahm: No, fortunately that hasn’t happened to me yet. Unless I have an acute injury, of course, but everything is going well at the moment.
National team manager Joachim Löw described Bayern Munich’s league game against second-place rival Borussia Dortmund last weekend as the best he had seen this season. But your team hasn’t been quite as dominant recently, losing in the Bundesliga and giving up a lead in the European Champions League. How strong is your team at the moment?
It depends on how you measure the strength of a soccer team.
How do you measure it?
We are still able to impose our style on every opponent. Our way of playing is very offensive. We want to attack and score goals, and that only works in the opposing team’s half. In other words, if the game shifts forward, it becomes more challenging to maintain balance in the defensive.
Because of your offensive orientation, you always run the risk of being overrun by a fast break.
Yes. It’s provocative and challenging, but that’s also what makes it so appealing. If you take another look at the first leg against Juventus, you’ll see the threat I’m talking about.
You controlled the game for the first 60 minutes…
… and then Juventus found their way back into the game with a few strong attacks. This can happen to any team, no matter what style it uses. Every match thrives on such moments and on players taking advantage of their opportunities. We would have had enough opportunities in Turin.
Do you become more ambitious the older you get?
Yes, I do. The good thing is that I’m also better at handling failure.
In your 13th year as a professional player at Bayern Munich, are you still developing?
Yes. My outlook has changed once again. It’s become clearer. And I feel even more concentrated than before.
More so than when your team won the Bundesliga, the German Cup and the Champions League three years ago?
The win in the Champions League and then [Germany’s] in the World Cup a year later were great successes and experiences for me. But that’s the past. As a professional, you have to be able to leave that behind and redefine your goals. We could win the championship for the fourth time in a row, which no Bundesliga team has ever done. I’ve also continued to develop on a personal level
I’ve never been one to get upset about decisions I made on the field, and still I’ve become even more relaxed. I have the feeling that I’ve experienced everything on the field once before. This certainty is liberating. I can simply play the game without devoting any energy to things I can’t change.
Are there situations during the game when you feel older?
Yes, there are. [Smiling] But I won’t tell you exactly what they are.
Do you also have the impression that Bayern has recently resembled a Rolls-Royce, which, thanks to its experience, is confidently moving toward the championship title, but which has also become noticeably older? It repeatedly stutters due to breakdowns caused by injuries.
I haven’t seen that many Rolls-Royces, and certainly none that had a breakdown by the roadside. But seriously, our breakdowns are very rarely age-related. Bayern is a technically highly sophisticated vehicle that is constantly being improved. Of course, experience is one aspect of success. But we most certainly don’t feel relaxed as we roll toward our goal. Our vehicle is constantly being tweaked and adjusted, the concept is constantly being reexamined, modified and improved, while the technology is being optimized. To remain at the front of the pack, the team has to be readjusted week after week, and it has to be reoriented from one game to the next.
Your manager, Pep Guardiola, seems to be extremely fond of optimizing. After the final whistle in the match against Dortmund, he handed out advice to your 21-year-old teammate Joshua Kimmich. Is every player now capable of putting the Spaniard’s ideas into practice?
Yes, and that makes everyone, and every position, interchangeable. Of course, this doesn’t mean that individual qualities can be directly replaced when players are out. In big games, you need your own style. But big players are even more important. In other words, you want a top player in every position.
Pep Guardiola will leave the club after this season. Has the announcement of his departure weakened the team’s concentration?
Even the most seasoned pro is an emotional being.
That’s true. We’re not talking about a partnership, though, but a professional relationship. As a pro, you experience a situation like this once every two or three years. A manager leaves the club and a new one comes in. That’s just the way it is.
But not every transition phase feels the same. In the final phase of the club’s relationship with Jupp Heynckes, Mr. Guardiola’s predecessor, it felt as if the team were playing for the coach, to give him a gift at the end to his career by winning the treble. Today, it doesn’t seem as if the team are playing for Pep Guardiola.
The two situations are not comparable, because of the different relationships with these two coaches. That’s because they are two completely different personalities. The initial situation, the team itself, the experiences and the individual players are different. With Jupp Heynckes, it was clear that it would be his last season as a coach. For that reason, he exuded great calm and confidence, and that rubbed off on the team. Pep Guardiola, on the other hand, has only been a manager for eight years. He’s still young, and he’ll become the manager of Manchester City next. He’s full of ideas and his goal is to make sure we’re optimally prepared week after week. Pep Guardiola is on fire. And with him, so are we.
How did he gain your trust?
By giving me his, and by trusting my abilities. I have respect for his tremendous knowledge of soccer. It’s incredible impressive to see how many and what kinds of thoughts he has about this sport.
How do you force a player to fully reveal his abilities?
By promoting rivalry. The prerequisite for each new game is the complete variability of each player. Pep Guardiola is very idealistic in his approach to the game, even though he knows, of course, that he has to make compromises. He wants every player to be able to do everything, and that’s also the way he wants every player to play: always involved.
In the end, Mr. Guardiola’s commitment to Bayern could be judged by whether he manages to repeat the team’s treble success of 2013. If that happens, the public will feel that the relationship was worthwhile.
I don’t ask myself after the fact whether something was worthwhile. I ask myself whether I am currently working with a coach who can help me win the next match. It’s like this: If you win the championship with FC Bayern, it was a good season. If you win the double, it was an outstanding season. Winning the treble isn’t a goal, but rather a legendary success after years of developing a team. It was like that with Manchester United in 1999, Inter Milan in 2010 and Barcelona last year. The treble isn’t a title you can aim for. It’s important to distinguish between performance and success.
But competitive athletes are mainly judged by their success.
Yes, that’s true – and I’ve been lucky enough that it’s worked for me. But I wouldn’t have been a different player without winning the Champions League or the World Cup. My performance would have been the same, but it’s just that the evaluation would have been different.
Uli Hoeness accompanied your career from the very beginning. He was the manager of Bayern when you started playing for the club’s youth team in 1995, at the age of 12, and you’ve always said how important your relationship with him was for your development. What exactly is so special about Uli Hoeness, as a soccer manager and a person?
His experience. I’m 32 and I’ll be 33 soon. I’ve been playing soccer at the highest level for 13 years, and I’ve already experienced quite a lot. Uli Hoeness can look back at almost twice as many years, both as an active professional player and an official at the top levels of soccer. This lends a completely different quality to his decisions. And he’s also a very good listener. It makes conversations very pleasant, because you’re really communicating.
Mr. Hoeness, who after coaching Bayern went on to become club president, was released from prison last month after serving time for evading €28.5 million in taxes. Have you spoken with him recently?
We talk once in a while.
Mr. Hoeness says that he’ll decide this summer whether to return to the club in a management position. Would a return by Uli Hoeness be important for the club?
FC Bayern is a soccer club that wants to win every game. This only works with a top team and top players. To find these players again and again, you need someone who can evaluate quality based on his experiences and can make decisions. Uli Hoeness is someone who makes clear decisions and puts them into practice, creating order in the process. But Uli Hoeness is also a free man, and he is the only person who knows what’s best for him.
This article originally appeared in the newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org