The tenure of Pep Guardiola at German giants Bayern Munich will be remembered for a number of things: the dominance on the ball, the switches in emphasis from central penetration to wing superiority, and the drastic improvement of several players under his watchful eye as they moved towards the world-class bracket.
That said, one of the most dramatic moments of the Spaniard’s time in charge was when, after a 0-0 draw with rivals Borussia Dortmund, he ran onto the pitch to confront Joshua Kimmich in the centre circle and spent time remonstrating passionately with the young German. This was not an act of annoyance from Guardiola but rather an opportunity in Guardiola’s eyes for a teaching moment.
You see, Guardiola had already realised something significant: he had realised that Joshua Kimmich is special.
Kimmich benefitted from a great footballing education having originally been part of the progressive VfB Stuttgart academy, where he received a sound footballing education. In 2013, Kimmich was targeted by the recruitment department at RasenBallsport Leipzig and he moved to the club who were then in the 2.Bundesliga. Kimmich made over 50 appearances for RB Leipzig before securing a move to Bayern Munich.
Kimmich has already played various roles for his club and country, from right-back to right midfield and from defensive midfield to centre-back. His accomplished technique and tactical intelligence ensures that he understands the responsibilities of each role in relation to the overall tactical game model.
In the long run this versatility could potentially work against Kimmich, who would do well to adopt a settled position to ensure his full development. For now, though, as a younger player, the variation is positive for the initial phase of development.
The German international is equally comfortable in the attacking and defensive phase but personally I see his final position being in the centre of the park, where he displays positional traits and abilities that are similar to fellow Bayern player Philipp Lahm.
Strength in the defensive phase
With Bayern Munich and, to a slightly lesser extent, Germany, there is a need for players across the defensive line to be comfortable defending in space and facing a stream of one-on-one situations. The high defensive line, coupled with a high press, can see teams escaping the pressure by playing the ball over the top of the defence for the attackers to chase.
This threat is diminished by the presence in goal of Manual Neuer, who plays effectively as a sweeper, but the threat still exists.
Kimmich is capable of defending in space, and whilst he is not particularly quick, he is intelligent enough with his positioning to rarely get caught out by quicker attacking players. He also reads the game exceptionally well for a player who is just 21 and covers well for team-mates who are in trouble.
As the ball is played from the middle third into the final third by the opposition, Kimmich finds himself isolated in an overload with one player centrally taking possession of the ball and another on the outside threatening in the wide area.
Kimmich reads the game well and is able to process information quickly enough to form the correct choice and move to immediately close down, and eventually dispossess, the man in possession of the ball, while using his body shape and position to cover the danger of the pass to the outside.
The ability for central defenders to cover the defensive third in this manner is key as the likes of David Alaba and Juan Bernat in the wide areas will advance forward and potentially leave gaps in the defensive structure.
This time we see Kimmich operating from a central midfield position. As the ball is played by the opposition to the wide area – and originally miscontrolled – Kimmich sees the opportunity to force a turnover and moves quickly across to engage the ball.
One of the keys to most modern pressing strategies is that when the man in possession is tight to the touchline, he is more open to being pressed given the fact that the touchline cuts out 180 degrees of movement and passing availability.
The speed at which Kimmich covers the ground to engage the ball speaks again to the speed of thought and tactical awareness that the young player possesses.
Composure and timing
A third image and yet another position for Kimmich – this time playing as something approaching an orthodox right winger for Bayern.
When he takes possession of the ball he is isolated against the left-back and has options available to him. Instead of attacking down the wide channel, though, Kimmich prefers to come inside and try to access the central spaces. As he cuts across the penalty area, the attacking player makes an angled run from inside to outside and Kimmich is able to find him easily with a reverse pass.
This movement shows the composure that Kimmich has on the ball. He appears to have a trait that is best described in Spanish as it is a regular part of the game of young Spanish and Argentine players: La Pausa. This essentially means that he has the capacity to slow the game down in possession and allow play to develop around him before choosing the right option.
Here we see Kimmich choose to pause in possession and wait for the best opportunity to present itself. As the ball breaks to him on the edge of the penalty area, and with the defensive structure of the opposition in disarray, the most common option would perhaps have been to shoot. Instead, Kimmich waits and assesses his options before slipping a pass to the wide area of the penalty area where he has a team-mate in space with an unobscured vision of goal.
This form of selfless vision is rare in players so young, especially those players who tend to operate in deeper areas of the pitch.
Bravery in passing
Part of the reason why Pep Guardiola quickly fell in love with Kimmich was his willingness to be aggressive with every pass, rarely choosing the easy option and instead looking to put pressure on the opposition by playing the ball through the defensive lines of the opponents block. He has the technical ability to play a wide range of passes across the width and depth of the field.
Here we can see the vision and technical ability working together. As the ball comes to Kimmich in the centre of the park, he eschews the simple passing options ahead of him and looks to isolate and attack the opposition where they are most vulnerable. He plays an accurate lofted pass over the heads of the defensive structure, allowing his team-mate to run into space and have a chance on goal.
The bravery for a young player to identify and execute such a pass amongst more experienced team-mates speaks highly of his character.
Kimmich is in possession of the ball centrally against an opponent who is content to sit in a low block and force Bayern to play through them. Instead of playing the simple lateral pass – which most young players with limited experience would choose – he plays a vertical pass, bypassing the initial pressing line from the opposition.
Not only does he play the pass vertically, he plays it into space, making his team-mate move centrally to collect the pass. This is a deliberate attempt to help the man taking the ball access space and to tempt one of the deeper opposition players to come out and break structure.
Against PSV in the Champions League he played as a central defender for part of the match against the Dutch side, who sat back and tried to frustrate the German champions. In this situation, Kimmich quickly identifies that there is an opportunity to bypass the defensive structure on the far side of the field and he has the technical ability to execute the long diagonal pass to play the left back into space.
For fans of German football, the emergence of technically and tactically excellent youngsters is nothing new. The measures put in place to further the development of national prospects have worked extremely well and the future looks bright for German football.
Even in that context, though, Joshua Kimmich is a special talent. His ability to adapt and learn at an astonishing rate makes him a favourite of coaches and team-mates alike. With Philipp Lahm set to step away from the game at the end of the season, Bayern may already have the man in their ranks to adopt his leadership role. Joshua Kimmich is special; Pep Guardiola knew it, and now we all do too.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis