In appreciation of Joshua Kimmich, Germany’s Footballer of the Year
It was at the end of 20th and the beginning of the 21st century that the leaders of German football association (DFB) wanted to make a U-turn and start a revolution in domestic football. One of the goals was for Germany to become world champions once again.
That happened about a decade and a half later. Germany first demolished Brazil, before Mario Gotze scored in the final to defeat Argentina. The famous trophy was back in their hands.
Yet, that is not the whole story. Main wish of the DFB was for Germany to reach the top of world football. That could be called ‘the final destination’. It also meant a previous creation of modern footballers, supposed to be intelligent, technically astute.
It was that attitude that got Die Mannschaft fourth star above their emblem. Yet, another boy — one that was not part of Germany’s 2014 winning side — maybe even reflects the changes made by DFB at the turn of the millennium better than any other player.
In his brilliant, precise and insightful book “Das Reboot”, Raphael Honigstein describes the whole process since 1998 all the way to Germany’s win in Brazil. The author depicts changes in German football system, oriented towards developing young talents, taught by the well-trained coaches.
That is where Joshua Kimmich enters the scene. As of this January, he is Germany’s Footballer of the Year 2017. This young man was only 12 when he joined the famed Stuttgart academy. Born in Rottweil, Kimmich could not have been any more analogous with the intelligent, courageous and eager to learn breed of dogs.
Kimmich’s beginnings: Rapid progress
It happened a year after the new enthusiasm in German football, a year after the World Cup hosted by Germany. The DFB’s process was in power for some time now and Kimmich arrived in Stuttgart, at one of the best football academies in the country.
That was where he grew and progressed, soaking it all in like a sponge. He was turning into a player with the style of play which will become desirable at every big club.
Intelligent and of a smaller build, Kimmich was a central midfielder through all youth categories. He was learning how to manage himself in the densest area of the pitch. In the area where everyone wants control, there where space is a luxury.
In the summer of 2012, when he was just 17, Kimmich was transferred to Stuttgart’s under-19s team. By the time the next summer arrived, one of the growing forces of German football had to react. RB Leipzig maybe never were favoured by the German public because of their somewhat murky formation and operating ways. Yet, their board has always been making wise moves.
One of such moves was when they brought in famous Ralph Rangnick to be their sporting director. Rangnick was one of those, as Honigstein pointed out in “Das Reboot”, who said German football needed reform. That was back in 1998. Everyone was still sleeping on laurels due to the European Championships win in 1996. He was the one that looked into the future — and he was right like he often was.
Rangnick also looked into the future in 2013 when he said Leipzig must bring in a certain Joshua Kimmich. The club from Eastern Germany — which was then still in the third tier — splashed half a million euros for the player. After all, they were “energised” by the money of a well-known Austrian company.
It might sound like a phrase, but Kimmich at Leipzig improved with every passing day. It only took him two years to get from an 18-year old facing professional football for the first time to become Bayern Munich’s regular. In the meantime, he played 55 matches in Bundesliga 3 and Bundesliga 2. His Leipzig earned promotions in both seasons, so in 2015–16 he had the chance of playing against them for the first time.
When Pep and Bayern call…
It was then that Kimmich received the call impossible to decline. Yet, that call was not a surprise. Ever since the day Pep Guardiola turned up at one Leipzig’s match, it was clear Kimmich will move sooner rather than later. That day Kimmich must remember — it was 22 December 2014 and Leipzig played against 1860 Munich. The result of the match remains irrelevant. Guardiola had seen what he wanted to see.
Kimmich showed what he was all about. He was the main player on the pitch, controlling the tempo of the match. The ball barely ever left his feet. That blond kid, tall only 175 centimetres, shrewdly kept the ball safe at the most ‘vulnerable’ part of the pitch. Often, he would borrow it to his friends without making a mistake. Looking at him, the fans could forget he was just a teenager playing in Zweite Bundesliga.
Just over a month later, Bayern Munich confirmed Kimmich was to become their new player the following summer. The fee was seven million euros.
There could not be a better description of the transfer. Already by the turn of 2015 into 2016, Guardiola will realise that this young man must play in a team filled with stars. And Kimmich had good mentors around him. Xabi Alonso and Thiago Alcantara played in the centre of the park. Phillip Lahm was also there.
And everything Kimmich will do, it will be compared to the legendary German. With similar build and style of play, always with his head up when receiving the ball, his brain will be five seconds ahead of everyone, “seeing” in front of his eyes the moves that are about to happen. That was how Lahm was seeing the game. That is how Kimmich sees it these days.
But these are not the only reasons for the two being compared. Lahm spent basically whole of his career playing at right-back. His agent would go around repeating as a parrot that right-back is not the right place for Lahm. Even though he was one of the best in the world in that position, his agent would be saying his place was in the centre of the pitch. Later on, under Guardiola’s guidance, Lahm did move inwards to play as a holding midfielder.
Kimmich’s path was reversed. Raised as a midfielder, the youngster got his first minutes under Guardiola as a centre-back. That was Pep’s way, to put a talented boy into a more dangerous environment. There, Kimmich would not be allowed to make mistakes. He had to learn that now behind him was only the goalkeeper.
The best in the world?
Even though that is not so bad, considering Manuel Neuer was the goalkeeper behind him, Kimmich painstakingly worked and learned, learned and worked. He had to fathom into everything the demanding hairless coach would ask of him.
In the end, Kimmich would get to ‘Lahm’s’ position in a meandering fashion. He would move from centre-back to right-back and realise some new things. Now, he will be limited by the throw-in line. He will have to contribute more to the attacking play, to be more present at both ends of the pitch. Also, he will have to spend his energy wisely.
Ever since, Kimmich has been managing himself as a right-back quite well. So well that some journalists of Deutsche Welle claim Joshua Kimmich is world’s best right-back at the moment.
At the age of 22. As a player growing up as a central midfielder.
That only speaks of his intelligence. It speaks about his skill of finding his feet in new surroundings in such a manner that many would not see this is not his natural position.
Yet, that is where we get to the importance of people Kimmich worked with. First, that was Rangnick and this time it was Guardiola. Majority of people will always point out Spaniard’s frenzied style of communicating with Kimmich after a goalless draw against Borussia Dortmund. That video went viral around the world. That same world which became blinded by these less important things, not paying attention to details.
And those details are what Kimmich brought to a team like Bayern Munich. The Bavarian club had played with inverted wingers, getting the most out of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, and others. They would be given orders to run inwards from wide positions, creating space for full-backs to make their runs and create havoc against defensive sides.
Kimmich’s skilfulness will captivate Bayern fans. He will be finding passes for team-mates from tough positions, creating goalscoring opportunities. He will show all the sensibility of his feet, finding players with long balls and perfectly weighed crosses.
Those crosses are what sets Kimmich apart from some of the best right-backs in the world. In England, many are praising Kyle Walker for his contribution to Manchester City, yet still pointing out his not so good crossing. Something similar could be said about Dani Carvajal this season. Kimmich is probably the best right-back in the world in that segment.
Just months after winning Confederations Cup with Germany, he continued his steady progress. He became one of the most consistent performers at Bayern and he is a first-team regular. His passing game is even better than before, as Kimmich completes 90 percent of all his passes. That is a seriously high output even for central midfielders. However, his precise crossing delivery is the thing that gives Bayern new options.
This season, the soon-to-be 23-year old averages 2.7 crosses per 90 minutes. From top 200 players who have played 1000+ minutes in top five European leagues, only eight have done better than that. From those eight, only four are out-and-out full-backs. Yet, none of those four play on the right-hand side of the pitch.
Kimmich also averages 2.5 key passes per 90 minutes, which only goes to prove how rare players like him are. After all, with seven assists this season, he is better than any right-back you could think of.
Kimmich will become a great footballer
Yet, it is not only about the numbers. Trust me, we could go on about them for hours. We could talk about Kimmich not losing possession and almost not making any fouls. Or about his attacking output, but also the defensive one where players virtually cannot dribble past him. No, the thing here is that we are witnessing nascence of a great footballer.
Already, Kimmich is a very good footballer. Some people might use the phrase “world class” to describe him. But he is not a great footballer just yet. You become that later when the end of your career is closer. That day will come because, rest assured, Kimmich will become a great footballer.
Then, when people start looking back, they will be talking about his great impact on Bayern Munich’s displays. About a brain which sees things in advance. They will talk about his movement, technical prowess and orientation in space. They will also talk about so many other things this youngster is about to achieve between now and then.
These types of players you just recognise while watching football from your favourite chair. Even now when you watch him, it is hard not to wonder what is this midfielder doing at right-back. Or, vice versa, when will this right-back return to his natural habitat. He can play both here and there. Heck, he could do it at centre-back when necessary. These players are tough to look at through a single lens.
If we would have to label him somehow, we could say he is a utopian product of the German reboot. Intelligent, quick, consistent, dependable, hard-working and incredibly talented.
That sounds like a perfect combination. Sounds like Germany’s Footballer of the Year.