Some high-profile soccer players like to continue playing for as long as possible, even if it means taking a few steps down the ladder.
Teddy Sheringham, a Champions League winner with Manchester United in 1999, did not hang up his boots until the grand old age of 42 following a season with Colchester United. Former Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler played in Australia and Thailand before calling it a day. Xavi Hernandez and Raul both headed to Al Sadd in Qatar after leaving La Liga, while Andres Iniesta is still going strong in Japan.
Other players have taken a different option, stepping away from the game relatively early in order to bow out at the top. Eric Cantona left Manchester United, his final club, at the age of 30 in 1997. Just Fontaine and Michel Platini are two other Frenchman who ended their careers relatively early. Frank Rijkaard, the great Dutch midfielder, walked away before his 33rd birthday, having just won the Champions League with Ajax.
Philipp Lahm belongs in the latter camp. The German turns 37 in two weeks’ time, an age at which many of his peers are still playing the game. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player who Lahm came up against in the Champions League and at the international level, turned 39 earlier this month. Lahm, by contrast, hung up his boots at the end of the 2016/17 season when he was just 33 years of age.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lahm’s long-time team-mate at Bayern Munich, chose a different path, extending his career with spells at Manchester United and in MLS with Chicago Fire. But Lahm, despite still being a regular for Bayern, walked away because he did not want to continue playing when he was no longer confident he could maintain “peak form”.
Lahm spent two years on loan at Stuttgart towards the start of his career, but Bayern was the only club that ever owned him. He made 517 appearances for the club from Bavaria, winning eight Bundesliga titles, six DFB-Pokals, and the Champions League.
Most of his outings came at right-back, but he could also slot in at left-back if required. And when Pep Guardiola took over in 2013, Lahm was moved into a midfield role. Guardiola later called him the “most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career”. Lahm excelled in the center of the pitch, showcasing his technical quality as well as his supreme tactical understanding.
It is a comparison that has been made countless times before, but it is impossible not to think of Lahm when you watch Joshua Kimmich play soccer. His positional path was the reverse of Lahm’s, though: naturally a midfield player, Kimmich was redeployed at right-back by Guardiola following his transfer to Bayern in 2015. Guardiola demands a lot from his players in terms of adaptability, and the young Kimmich impressed his manager with his ability to seamlessly slot into what was then an unfamiliar position.
The 25-year-old has previously called Schweinsteiger his inspiration, hailing the legendary Bayern midfielder as his “role model” ahead of his move to the Allianz Arena. Schweinsteiger was a wide player in the early part of his career before being moved into central midfield, so there are certain similarities between him and Kimmich too.
Kimmich’s time at right-back no doubt helped his development. He sharpened his defensive skills in that position, while also improving his reading of the game. It is in midfield where he is most comfortable, though, and Hansi Flick looks set to use him in the centre of the park for most of this season unless he finds himself short of numbers at right-back, just as he did when Benjamin Pavard missed the Champions League mini-tournament in Lisbon through injury.
Kimmich was already being hailed as the heir to Lahm – for Germany as well as Bayern –before the latter had even retired. Lahm is a bona fide club legend at Bayern, and many would have stumbled under the pressure of being expected to follow his example. It is testament to Kimmich’s mental strength that he has been able to deal with that expectation.
With Thiago Alcantara having joined Liverpool, it looks as if Flick’s first-choice midfield partnership this term is Kimmich and Leon Goretzka. The latter is a more physical player than the former, someone who excels in making box-to-box runs and driving forward from the ball.
Kimmich can contribute in attacking areas too – as he demonstrated with his glorious winning goal against Borussia Dortmund in May – but he usually sits a little deeper, setting the tempo of Bayern’s passing game. He is technically gifted, a smart reader of the game, and a fine passer of the ball, qualities that make him one of the first names on the Bayern team-sheet.
Flick’s side will be competing on multiple fronts this season, as is customary at the Allianz Arena. Bayern got their defense of the Champions League off to a brilliant start, thrashing Atletico Madrid 4-0 in their opening encounter last week to lay down a marker for the continental campaign ahead. They are available at odds of +300 with DraftKings Sportsbook (shorter than any other side) to win the competition for the second year in a row, a feat that only Real Madrid has achieved in the tournament’s modern format. And, in the least surprising piece of odds-related news this week, they remain favorites to win the Bundesliga at -833 with BetMGM.
Kimmich is unlikely to hog the headlines this term. Kingsley Coman was the center of attention after scoring twice in the victory over Atletico. Fellow forwards Robert Lewandowski, Serge Gnabry, and Leroy Sane are also likely to receive more attention from those outside the club.
Yet everyone associated with Bayern knows that Kimmich is one of their most important players. Every big club needs someone like the 25-year-old: an adaptable, reliable performer with superb technical ability and an intuitive understanding of the game.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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