FEATURE | World Cup One to Watch: Joshua Kimmich

At Joshua Kimmich’s first international tournament for Germany, he played at right-back. Reaching the semi-finals of the 2016 UEFA European Championship, he was named in UEFA’s team of the tournament. Now, he towers above the rest as one of the world’s best central midfield players, often deployed as a deep-lying playmaker due to his wonderful ability to dictate play from that area of the field. Once noted by the great Pep Guardiola as possessing “everything a player needs,” it’s fair to say that Kimmich has fulfilled his potential.

In his illustrious career to date, only two words truly do him justice. World class. To label Kimmich as anything else because of his slightly lean and paltry figure would be doing a fine footballer a colossal disservice. Having devoured in trophy after trophy with his club FC Bayern, it’s clear Kimmich belongs firmly at the top of the food chain. Since joining Bayern Munich from RB Leipzig in 2015, Kimmich is yet to endure a domestic campaign that hasn’t ended in league success.

The man from Baden-Württemberg – nestled in Germany’s deep south – fizzed oh so brightly when bursting onto the scene. At the inception of Kimmich’s inexorable career, the Rottweil native was often built up as the next Phillip Lahm, with such clamour heavily exacerbated by the fact that the latter announced his retirement at the same time Kimmich was publicising himself on the biggest stage. Though it all started in eastern Germany – a fact that is often forgotten amongst all the fanfare of Bayern’s opulence. After playing youth football for his more local VfB Stuttgart, Kimmich joined RB Leipzig in 2013 with the promise of first-team football. Whilst instantaneously a recognisable club now with regular Champions League forays, Kimmich was in fact joining a third-division side. He made his 3. Liga debut in September 2013, but rapidly became a regular for the east German outfit. Promotion to the 2. Bundesliga ensued, before an impressive season at that level saw Kimmich make the much-anticipated move south, to Bayern, where Kimmich has certainly never looked back.

Joining the Bavarians for around €7m, he made his Bundesliga debut under Guardiola as a late substitute against Augsburg. Four days later, Kimmich enjoyed his first taste of Champions League football relishing a tricky trip to Olympiakos which Bayern overcame unscathed. As Kimmich became more and more settled into a Bayern side full of international stars, the number of appearances made skyrocketed season upon season. 23 league appearances in his first Bayern season, was followed by 40 in all competitions the next.

Ordered by Guardiola to act as an inverted right-back, hovering in the deep-lying midfield spaces he was so typically used to, the Catalan had unleashed something special. Initially a midfielder, Guardiola utterly eulogised Kimmich, stretching his innate versatility to the maximum. Kimmich was utilised as a midfielder, a right-back and also a central defender during Guardiola’s Bayern years, with the move from central midfield to right-back a seemingly career defining one. Through the enactment of such a role, Kimmich’s penchant for both attacking and defending was realised and enhanced, as the position encapsulated his defensive abilities of covering all areas of the pitch, as well as unlocking his highly creative potential.

Providing three assists to Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben and Robert Lewandowski’s goals in his very first assignment of the role as Bayern battered Mainz 4-0, so clearly elucidated his transitional ease to implementing his newly-designated duties with commanding precision. Later that season, Kimmich exhibited that he could control games at the very highest level. He scored a goal in both legs of Bayern’s Champions League semi-final tie against the might of Real Madrid, but despite Real’s progression to the final, Kimmich had largely bossed one of the best midfields in the world. The following season Kimmich played every single minute in all 34 matches in the Bundesliga, as well as providing the assist for Kingsley Coman’s winner against PSG in the Champions League final.

On the topic of Kimmich’s remarkable adaptability, he has also been described as a “veritable Swiss Army knife,” citing Guardiola’s genius conversion of him into a player that is unquestionably elite in more than one position. How many players in the world are able to display genuine mastery of least two different positions? Kimmich has additionally developed his trademark picking up of the ball in front of the defence, before chipping the ball over the top of the opponent’s block. No other six in the world is quite like him.

Whilst this all paints the picture of a player rapidly ascending towards legendary status, the story at international level appears a little different. One of the few Germany players who has played in a relatively disappointing era, there remains much to be achieved when it comes to the international side of the game. Although Kimmich reached the semi-finals of his first Euros in 2016, the two tournaments that followed were to be some of Germany’s worst-ever. A group stage exit at the World Cup in 2018 and a subsequent Round of 16 defeat at Euro 2020, this is a huge World Cup for Kimmich and Germany. 

Nobody quite knows the true extent of Germany’s chances at this winter’s tournament, with some predicting a deep run into the latter knockout stages, with others foreseeing yet another disappointing jaunt. But with Hansi Flick in charge, Germany have a genuine chance. Flick understands the importance of Kimmich to his side, and the reality is that Germany simply cannot entertain the idea of winning the World Cup without him. He is the heartbeat of the side. Every great team requires a great deep-lying playmaker, someone who can firmly control the rhythm and tempo of the game. A player with such ability gives you an incredible advantage over teams significantly worse, whilst making sure you can at least compete against the very best.

It’s likely that Kimmich will be paired with Manchester City’s İlkay Gündoğan in a midfield two as part of Flick’s tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Having exquisitely impressed as a dynamic duo in Nations League fixtures and international friendlies, truth be told, that is a midfield that possesses pretty much everything. Pace, power, dynamism, and technical quality in abundance, the two complement each other incredibly well. Gündoğan often instinctively bombs forward a little further, offering himself as a talented goal scoring player with late but perfectly timed runs into the box. Their seemingly telepathic relationship means that whenever such an act is displayed, Kimmich can drop back a little deeper and protect the space vacated by Gündoğan as a means of ensuring that the back four is protected. Both are gloriously comfortable on the ball, with Kimmich the deep-lying playmaker, openly willing to slip the knife through the opposition at any unbeknownst point. Germany’s best performances to date under Flick, against the likes of Italy and England, have come with those two players sitting at the base of the midfield.

If Kimmich is to truly put himself amongst the greats, perhaps international tournament success is required. You can be sure that the Bayern man firmly belongs to the current crop of elite players on an individual level, but the time has now come to deliver a real statement on the international stage.

GGFN | James Westmacott

 

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