It was the 27th minute when Joshua Kimmich prevented a great opportunity for Marco Reus with a merciless and focused tackle. Not every centre-back would have been so resolute in that situation. The tackle prevented Bayern from conceding a goal and ironically also created one of the biggest counter-attacking chances of the season. Despite Costa not managing to put the ball in the back of the net, Kimmich saved Bayern’s season. Once again.
On January 22th, 2016 – when Jerome Boateng was injured – many observers saw the chances for Bayern to secure multiple titles this season diminish. Especially since Medhi Benatia and Juan Bernat were already injured and were also joined by Holger Badstuber and Javi Martinez in the following weeks, thus creating a “for centre-backs only” Bayern hospital. Joshua Kimmich therefore has been used as a temporary centre-back since the 19th matchday and can now finally collect the playing minutes that could have been expected of him in the first third of the season. Back then, he was only seen as the temporary replacement of Xabi Alonso.
In six games as a centre-back in the Bundesliga and in the two cup matches (DFB Cup and Champions League), Munich won five games and picked up three more draws. Among them were some serious games against strong opponents like Juventus, VfL Wolfsburg and Borussia Dortmund. The only Bayern defeat in the second half of the season took place without Kimmich. In those eight games, Bayern conceded just four goals. This corresponds to a goal against every 180 minutes played. Compared to the first half of the season, Munich indeed concede more goals, but the difference is only very small. By comparison, in the first half of the season Bayern conceded a goal every 212 minutes.
Why does Kimmich excel in defense?
Joshua Kimmich plays an important part in these good statistics. Despite his underwhelming physique of 176cm and only 70kg, he knows how to use his body perfectly. This was examplified perfectly in a counter-attack by Borussia Dortmund, where Mkhitaryan sent Aubameyang on a high-speed route towards Neuer. Kimmich, who of course cannot win this unequal sprinting duel, used a good positioning in his run, thus forcing Aubameyang to a weak shot on goal from a wide angle. Kimmich did not open up the inside lane. The direct route to Manuel Neuer was blocked for the Gabonese.
Throughout the match against Borussia Dortmund, Kimmich crowned his form of the recent weeks. With a tackle rate of 83%, he was the player with the strongest win percentage on the entire field. His other defensive actions: two intercepted balls, a clearance and a blocked shot were his statistics at the end. Equally important: Kimmich almost never fouls. Against Dortmund it was just one foul, just like against Wolfsburg and Darmstadt. Against Juventus he didn’t cause a single foul. With his good tackling strategy and his clever decision making, he prevents dangerous set pieces around the own penalty area.
In the game against the BVB, his offensive actions were almost more important. In the beginning of the 2010s, Klopp’s BVB was able to disrupt Munich’s build-up game by pressing the centre-backs very efficiently. Kimmich is so well trained that he offers not only the necessary technique, but also the eye to bypass this tactical measure. Time after time Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang and Reus ran at Kimmich and created tight situations. However, they could not force any errors. The 21-year-old played 113 passes against Dortmund, only six of them didn’t find a teammate. By comparison, the similarly convincing Mats Hummels played 16 inaccurate passes for Dortmund – in only half as many attempts (55 passes, 71% passing accuracy).
Of course Kimmich is not error-free. This was visible at the goal conceded against Augsburg, but also in Turin. Those who only look at conceded goals as isolated events and with only one action as the clear cause can perhaps call out Kimmich here. In the end, he was usually the last piece of a chain of errors – sometimes even offering a final chance for a clearance, as before the 1:2 against Juventus. At this point, however, the expectations should not be raised to the sky. Other centre-backs – even Jerome Boateng or Mats Hummels – do not play without making errors either..
It is certainly an achievement of Pep Guardiola, who has demonstrated the courage, despite the squad addition of Sedar Tasci, to trust Kimmich and accept the risk to go into the deciding weeks of the season with him and Alaba in center.
As of now, it has paid off. While Dortmund have reduced the gap to Bayern by three points since the winter break, this was probably to be expected when looking at the schedule and the tough away games (Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Dortmund). The predominantly good combination of the two youngsters also allows Bayern to give Benatia and Martinez a longer time to get back on the field, so they don’t have to carry the burden too early. Given the weak form of Bernat, it is more likely that Alaba will move back to the wing than Kimmich rotating back onto the bench. He could even turn into a temporary right-back in the meantime. The performances of Rafinha in recent weeks have certainly not been convincing enough that he must be the first option should Lahm need a break.
Thus Kimmich could grow further as a replacement for Alonso and Lahm. Until then, however, he continues to rescue the season for Bayern.