If Pep Guardiola deems it necessary to rush on to the pitch after a game to provide an impromptu lecture on positional play, then it’s probably because he feels the player is worthy of the attention. This was definitely the case with Joshua Kimmich. Seconds after the referee blew for full-time in Bayern Munich’s goalless draw away at Borussia Dortmund at the back end of last season, Guardiola flew on to the field and almost manhandled the 21-year-old centre-back. What followed was typical Guardiola: part emotional-tactical strategist, part Basil Fawlty.
The short but intense exchange finished with a hug and both men were quick to play down any talk of conflict afterwards. “I love him,” said Guardiola. “I love working with these players, who want to learn and improve.” And that was key; this was not a public dressing down but rather instant feedback from a tutor who knew his student would understand and not get the wrong end of the stick.
For his part, Kimmich said the incident was nothing out of the ordinary. He explained that, as if everyone didn’t already know, his coach was someone who is always correcting his players and trying to get the maximum from them. Aside from his undoubted ability and potential, it was probably Kimmich’s eagerness to learn that drew so much affection from Guardiola.
At the top end of professional football, the margins are fine. Ability is expected and taken for granted. Kimmich’s skillset and attitude make him tactically malleable, a prerequisite for many coaches in modern football as the game moves away from producing players coached to excel in one single position.
Born close to Stuttgart in 1995, Kimmich signed for VfB aged 12. Those involved in the club’s youth set-up had high hopes for the young midfielder and many were upset when he was allowed to leave to RB Leipzig and the third division in 2013 before he had made a single professional appearance for Stuttgart – especially as VfB have a tradition of developing young players and bringing them into the first team. Even though VfB made money when RB Leipzig sold him on to Bayern Munich, their decision was shortsighted at best.
Kimmich joined Bayern Munich at the beginning of the 2015-16 season following 53 games in the third and second division for Leipzig, where he had been deployed largely as a defensive midfielder, a classic No6. Guardiola, who worked with then sporting director Matthias Sammer to bring the youngster to Munich, had other ideas.
He has proved well worth the €7m that Bayern paid for him. The way Kimmich has switched from playing as a defensive midfielder in the physical surroundings of the second and third division to becoming an elegant ball-playing centre-back for a Bundesliga-winning and Champions League-chasing Bayern Munich, and then developed further to play as a right midfielder in a 4-3-3 is enough to make English fans envious.
Kimmich’s versatility is impressive but it would be a mistake to assume he has glided to success. Guardiola’s lecture on the Dortmund pitch offered an insight into the effort, hard work and concentration he has invested in the job. It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Kimmich was clearly a player in Guardiola’s mould: multi-functional, intelligent, comfortable on the ball and always playing with his head up. As last season progressed, he became a more regular fixture in the starting XI. On top of that, his domestic form had accelerated his progression in the national team and he was a major part of Germany’s squad at Euro 2016 – and was named in Uefa’s team of the tournament.
But when Guardiola left Munich for Manchester he took with him his footballing ideology – an ideology that Kimmich looked to have bought into. The arrival of a new manager provides players with a clean slate, which is good for players on the fringes of the team but can be frustrating for the starters. Where would Kimmich fit into Carlo Ancelotti’s plans?
The Italian brought in some big names this summer, most notably Mats Hummels and Renato Sanches – two specialists for the roles Kimmich had operated in so effectively. And so the season began with the youngster from Rottweil on the bench. With Hummels at centre-back alongside Jérôme Boateng, and Philipp Lahm playing on the right, there was no place for him in defence. And further forward, Ancelotti’s first-choice midfield trident of Thiago, Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal left no place for €35m man Sanches, let alone Kimmich.
But fast-forward a couple of months and Kimmich was not only in the team, but was arguably their form player. He wasn’t just starting games but also scoring goals. He scored his first goal for Germany, his first goal in the Bundesliga and his first goal in the Champions League within the space of 10 days in September.
It is getting increasingly difficult to pigeonhole players into positions – particularly players who have spent any time under Guardiola – but Kimmich was never supposed to be a goalscorer. But the stats speak for themselves: he has scored eight goals in his last 15 games. This glut will probably not continue in the long run but that doesn’t really matter. His recent goalscoring run is just a by-product of his superb performances and it highlights his general excellence and obvious quality. Having been deployed at right-back, centre-back and defensive midfield, he seems to have found a home in a more attacking role, but it would not be surprising if he finished the season in another position.
On the international front, Joachim Löw appears to see Kimmich as the solution to Germany’s problems at right-back, where they are missing Lahm, who retired after winning the World Cup in 2014. Playing different roles for his club and country may prove a challenge, but Kimmich will back himself to stay in both teams. When he made the move from Leipzig to Munich in 2015 it looked a little premature. It seemed to fit Bayern’s reputation for hoarding young talent, but rather than hovering between the reserves and the bench, Kimmich has already shown he is comfortable flying at higher altitudes.