Battle of the midfielders will be a duel of power and precision.
Manchester City v Bayern Munich: One of Toure or Lahm will stand tall
Upstairs at Manchester City, close to the club’s power brokers, there works a man who was once football’s archetype of the modern central midfielder.
Even two years after he retired, Patrick Vieira, who heads City’s development department, still hears scouts and strategists talk about how much their teams need “a Vieira type”. Lately, he has enjoyed watching a player with many of his old qualities, Yaya Toure, galvanising City.
Upstairs at Bayern Munich, who meet City at Etihad Stadium tonight, there is a VIP seat reserved in perpetuity for a man who in his time, the 1960s and ’70s, redefined the deep, central midfielder.
Franz Beckenbauer, honorary president of the club he captained to two European Cups, was admired for his leadership and his capacity to transition from defence to attack.
The young Beckenbauer was a masterly defender, while the more mature version would be an elegant, tempo-setting midfielder. His protean ability meant the game reached out for new terms to describe what he did: “Libero” was a popular one.
Beckenbauer has been intrigued by the transformations of the current Bayern team’s central midfield since the arrival of manager Pep Guardiola in June.
Guardiola inherited splendid resources in that position, as well as proven effectiveness. But it is in Bayern’s central midfield that he has done his most innovative work.
Tonight, the task of guarding against Toure’s signature safaris from deep, but also dictating the direction and rhythm of Bayern’s build-up, may well be assigned to the Bayern captain, Philipp Lahm.
Lahm’s two-footed versatility has always been one of his great assets: Of his 100 caps for Germany, 61 have been at right-back, 36 at left-back. Only three, though, have been in the position Guardiola sees Lahm as most useful, anchoring midfield, as a pocket-sized Vieira.
If you surveyed any group of leading coaches, and asked them to describe the archetypal anchor midfielder, the majority would almost certainly come up with a figure more like a Toure – big, muscular – than a Lahm, who is a scant 5 feet 5 inches tall, and though strong, unlikely to win too many headers. Central midfield, the orthodox thinking goes, is where you want a Vieira type. At Barcelona, where Guardiola started his meteoric coaching career, he had one: Toure.
They worked successfully for two seasons, with Guardiola grateful to the player for his versatility as well as his command of his favourite central midfield position.
At the business end of the Uefa 2009 Champions League campaign, with Barcelona short of centre-halves because of injury, Toure played in defence, well enough that Barca lifted the trophy.
But at age 30, Toure is revealing assets that Guardiola may not have appreciated enough. The Ivorian goes into tonight’s match with four goals in his last four matches, and six in eight games overall.
His direct free kicks, not a skill that was displayed much in his time at Barcelona, have been especially effective.
“It is something he practises very hard, after training is over,” said City manager Manuel Pellegrini, whose maximising of Toure’s potential has been as impressive over the last two months as Guardiola’s stimulating of Lahm.
When a new coach comes to a club of established strengths, he earns himself kudos if he coaxes something fresh, surprising, from established stars. But he takes a risk, too, if he asks a highly paid, highly decorated senior player to do something inappropriate or unsuitable. In a high-achieving squad, he can meet resistance if he defines a new role for one player, because the likelihood is that somebody else will feel marginalised, edged out.
Toure had that experience in his final season at Barca. He was a popular player, an influential one, a key stakeholder in Guardiola’s first two Spanish titles and his European triumph. But Guardiola was also boldly promoting the young Sergio Busquets as his anchor midfielder at the time. So when Toure was offered a deal by City, Barcelona felt they could say yes to his departure.
Guardiola’s instincts with Busquets proved correct, although Toure was always the more dangerous of the two as an attacking force. His instincts with Lahm seem to be well-founded, but whether he can provide Bayern more than Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez or Toni Kroos provide from the base of midfield remains a longer-term question.
Lahm has responded so well to the shift in role, says Guardiola, because “he is the most intelligent player I have ever worked with”. That is high praise from a thoughtful coach who has worked with some sharp footballers in his time, among them the multifaceted Toure.