Bayern Munich's Next Great Talent: The Inexorable Rise Of Joshua Kimmich
If versatility used to be a mixed blessing for young footballers, it's the hallmark of the modern game. Joshua Kimmich has it in abundance, and is using it to take the Bundesliga by storm.
If versatility is the hallmark of the modern footballer, then Joshua Kimmich is the poster boy for the new generation. Having been signed by Bayern Munich as a holding midfielder, established himself in the side as a centre-back and been named in Euro 2016's team of the tournament at right-back, he's spent the opening months of this season laying down his credentials as a goalscoring midfielder, averaging a goal every other game for the German champions who have been beaten only once in the Bundesliga.
Kimmich, it's worth mentioning, is still only 21. All of the above has happened within less than 18 months. In short, the formative years of his career could hardly have been any more comprehensive.
That Kimmich is currently one of the hottest properties in European football is proof of the breakneck pace at which things move at the top end of the sport. Only 14 months on from kicking his first ball in the Bundesliga as a relative unknown, Kimmich has 51 appearances under his belt for a bona fide footballing superpower, has played a starring role in a domestic double and is the most talked-about prospect of a national setup that's hardly lacking in promising youngsters.
But as much as Kimmich's fast track to eminence might reflect many a schoolboy's daydream, his career has been shaped by more cynical forces, too. His only two transfers so far – first to controversial Reb Bull-backed club RB Leipzig, then on to the financial powerhouse of Bayern – are hard evidence of how money talks in modern football, and how talent flows upwards so quickly.
Born in 1995 in Rottweil, the quaint town in rural southwest Germany most famous for the breed of dog named after it, Kimmich's first club was VfB Stuttgart, where his progress within the age-level groups was made with eye-catching speed. He was a fiercely competitive kid ("I wanted to be the best at everything. When I lost a match, I always cried," he once told ESPN) and in the summer of 2013 he was named as the silver medal winner in the Fritz-Walter award, which goes to the country's best footballers at Under-17 level. Leipzig duly pounced, their two-year loan deal adding the midfielder to the small army of promising German youngsters they were banking on propelling the club up the divisions. Their plan worked a treat: his debut season in Saxony saw the club promoted into Germany's second tier, the teenage Kimmich an authoritative presence at the base of the midfield.
The following season Kimmich and co. took to their new surroundings like ducks to water. Leipzig narrowly missed out on promotion (that would come the next year) but their young midfielder had made a name for himself and Bayern swooped in with typical ruthlessness, waving a five-year deal in the direction of their new recruit and handing his parent club Stuttgart €7m for their troubles.
A handy profit on a player who'd never kicked a ball for the club was seen by the suits at Stuttgart as decent business, but not everyone was quite so chuffed. "I would like to kill everyone who was involved in this decision," reflected manager Alexander Zorniger, who joined the club just as Kimmich departed, having formerly coached the youngster at Leipzig. "It was a suicidal mistake."
But Stuttgart's loss was Bayern's gain, and when a central-defensive injury crisis in Pep Guardiola's squad saw a 20-year-old Kimmich parachuted, out of position, into the starting lineup, it was a classic sink-or-swim moment.
Guardiola has a history of plucking youngsters from relative obscurity and instating them as mainstays of all-conquering super-teams – think Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez – and so it proved with Kimmich, whose lack of any discernible experience as a centre-back didn't stop him excelling there from minute one. "Not many coaches would have had the guts to play me," he admitted. That Kimmich ended the campaign, barely six months later, clutching a pair of medals and packing his bags for a major tournament tells its own story.
At the Euros, Kimmich was deployed in yet another position, this time the right side of defence, with he and Jonas Hector asked to provide the team's width from full-back. His adventurous showings prompted an inevitable comparison, and one he was keen to play down. "Philipp Lahm is the best full-back in the world," Kimmich protested. "I have played at right-back once for Germany; I have only just completed my first Bundesliga season. Sure, I am happy to hear those comparisons, but they make no sense." But Hermann Gerland, Bayern's assistant coach took a rather different angle: "When Philipp retires at Bayern in two years we don't have to worry about his position. Joshua will be Bayern's new right full-back."
Once upon a time, versatility was a symptom of the second-rate – the mark of a middling player eking out a top-level career as a jack of all trades. But in recent years, as Guardiola's rejuvenation of Cruyff's totaalvoetbaal has reshaped top-level tactics, being able to do it all is increasingly a mark of the elite, while positional specialists – even the likes of Sergio Aguero and Daniel Sturridge – have found themselves watching on from the bench.
Given, then, that it was the Catalan who oversaw his rise to prominence, maybe it's little surprise that Kimmich's standout trait is the ability to switch position seamlessly. Guardiola's epochal Barcelona team was marked by Yaya Toure, Sergio Busquets, Javier Mascherano and Rafael Marquez all flip-flopping between defence and midfield, while Xabi Alonso was briefly reinvented as a centre-half under his guidance at Bayern (Kimmich's habit of striding out of defence to send passes billowing around the pitch certainly brings to mind his Basque teammate). Certainly Kimmich is under no illusions about the volume of tactical knowledge he soaked up in 12 months under Guardiola. "Pep showed me spaces on the pitch I hadn't previously thought about," he said.
"He has absolutely everything, I love this boy," was Guardiola's verdict last term, and those who feared Kimmich's progress might slow with the departure of his mentor have been able to breathe easy. If anything, Kimmich has upped the ante under the tutelage of Carlo Ancelotti, reinventing himself once again as a forward-raiding midfielder, with the goals flowing accordingly. "Perhaps we are a bit freer in our attacking play under Ancelotti. He believes and trusts in our individual quality," Kimmich has said.
For a sumptuously gifted youngster who has already excelled in defence, midfield and attack, the question at this stage is not what the future holds (answer: shitloads of trophies), but where it will all be achieved. But, in an age where shapeshifting tactics dominate and the all-purpose footballer is newly revered, perhaps Kimmich understands better than most that the second part of that question is academic. He'll play his football from anywhere, and from everywhere, too.