Munich - When news broke that would be sidelined for up to three months with a fractured right ankle early on Tuesday afternoon, much of the footballing community was united in shock. Lahm needs an operation? But he’s never injured!
Fortune in misfortune
Indeed, Lahm has been such an ever-present for both club and country in recent years that Bayern coach Pep Guardiola could almost take it for granted that his skipper would be available each game. Now that he is not, however, what will it mean for the Bundesliga pacesetters?
In terms of the number of matches Bayern's Mr. Versatile will miss, the impact might not be as drastic as it first appears. Assuming club doctor Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt’s prognosis of a mid-February return is accurate, then Lahm could make his comeback on Valentine’s Day at home to Hamburger SV on Matchday 21. Given the month-long winter break in Germany, that would mean an absence of nine Bundesliga fixtures; a significant but not disastrous figure.
Furthermore, the German record champions are already guaranteed top spot in UEFA Champions League Group E, so the remaining two group stage fixtures are effectively dead rubbers. The Round of 16 dates have yet to be finalised, but mid-February is when they have taken place in recent years - and Lahm should be back by then. Meanwhile, the DFB Cup is currently on a three-month hiatus of its own and Bayern do not face Eintracht Braunschweig in the last 16 until 3 March. Therefore, if recovery goes to plan the 31-year-old will not miss many decisive games. Glück im Unglück as the Germans say: fortune in misfortune.
Bayern more rigid?
Yet the question Guardiola must now answer is how his side will line up in those nine Lahm-free Bundesliga matches. After all, Bayern are just four points ahead of VfL Wolfsburg in the standings and already have seven long-term patients in the treatment room: David Alaba, Pepe Reina, Tom Starke, Holger Badstuber, Claudio Pizarro, Thiago Alcantara and Javi Martinez.
Replacing the Bayern No. 21 will be no easy task. Of all the players in the Bundesliga, only Xabi Alonso (1261 touches) and Alaba (904) have seen more of the ball than Lahm (887) this season, while he rarely gives the ball away, completing almost 89 per cent of his passes. Statistics aside though, it is Lahm’s leadership and flexibility that are likely to be missed most of all. Guardiola famously called him “the most intelligent player I’ve ever worked with,” and re-programmed him from a full-back into a defensive midfielder last term.
Schweinsteiger nears return
Lahm’s ability to switch between the two positions - or indeed to play a more attacking role as he did on Matchday 8 against SV Werder Bremen - give Bayern a huge tactical versatility, allowing them to shape-shift several times during a match as they probe what tend to be deep-lying defences.
The imminent return of Bastian Schweinsteiger from injury should help plug the gap in midfield alongside Alonso and offer a new on-pitch leader, while Sebastian Rode is an energetic and adaptable player who would relish the prospect of proving himself with more game time in the coming weeks, and Rafinha is an able deputy at right-back. Guardiola will doubtless find a workable solution - he must in fact - but whatever option he chooses, Bayern will not quite be Bayern until Lahm is back on the pitch.
Jonathan Stockitt reporting from Munich