The latest bombshell to rattle the rumor mill was the news that Bayern Munich will sign two of Hoffenheim’s key players: central defender Niklas Süle and defensive midfielder Sebastian Rudy. According to Bild, Rudy has already informed coach Julian Nagelsmann that he will join Bayern on a free transfer. It looks like the move is really happening.
Where does Rudy fit on this team? Rudy has established himself as a key cog in Hoffenheim’s midfield, but is he even a starter at Bayern? And if so, where? While a contract with Bayern will no doubt represent a major payday for the twenty-six-year-old, is he risking trading his starring role at Hoffenheim for the bench?
Direct replacement for Xabi Alonso?
Rudy plays for Hoffenheim as a defensive midfielder, but can also play right-back - as he has done occasionally for the German national team since the departure of Philipp Lahm. That combination of roles ties his fate instantly to that of Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso - as well as Joshua Kimmich and others.
The most obvious fit would be the position Rudy plays extremely well for Hoffenheim: central defensive midfielder. It so happens that Xabi Alonso’s contract expires at the end of the season and has not, thus far, been renewed. If Xabi indeed departs at the end of the season, Rudy could seamlessly fill that gap.
Or Rudy for Philipp Lahm?
Philipp Lahm has publicly flirted with the idea of retiring at the end of the current season. As the man who walked away from the national team after winning it all in 2014, he is to be taken at his word. Some observers believe Rudy’s signing all but guarantees that Lahm will retire.
The situation for Lahm’s role is more complicated, though, because Lahm plays not one, but two different roles: right-back and right midfielder, both positions Rudy could play, but also two positions played better by Joshua Kimmich. In fact, Kimmich has alternated with Lahm in both spots over this season, sometimes playing right-back, while Lahm plays midfield, and vice versa.
Kimmich looks like Lahm’s heir apparent. Although originally a midfielder, he seems to possess the same remarkable aptitude for both of Lahm’s post-Guardiola roles (and even center-back). It remains to be seen whether Kimmich establishes himself primarily at one position or the other or continues to alternate, but it seems merely a matter of time before he is starting every game. At right-back, Rudy would certainly be a third option behind Kimmich and Rafinha, who has also now extended through 2018.
That leaves Lahm’s midfield role. Obviously, Rudy poses no threat to either Vidal or Thiago, who are dramatically different, and more dynamic players. But if Alonso stays on as central defensive midfielder and Kimmich starts at right-back, Rudy could conceivably play in the right midfield, especially if Vidal is unavailable. He could also become an option for rotation in lower-stakes games or simply an injury backup. That would be a humbling new role for the man who has been one of Hoffenheim’s most important players. Rudy may be inexpensive, coming on a free transfer, but hiring him merely to ride the bench would seem like a waste.
A question of formation
An answer may lie in tactics. We’ve come to know Carlo Ancelotti as a conservative coach who prefers the defensive advantages of a traditional 4-3-3 formation, even if he recently has come around to using the more aggressive 4-2-3-1 formation on occasion. Sebastian Rudy fits only one of the two, and it happens to be Ancelotti’s favorite.
Rudy, like Alonso, is a perfect fit for Ancelotti’s 4-3-3. That is the context in which Rudy’s signing makes the most sense.
Even with a stacked midfield with Thiago and Vidal, an aspiring youngster in Renato Sanches, and flexible service by Kimmich and Javi Martinez, Ancelotti almost undoubtedly will require a solid defensive midfielder to anchor his system. Rudy would be that player and potentially sit out the same games that Alonso would have missed: the occasional matches featuring the attacking 4-2-3-1 and a two-man midfield of Thiago and Vidal, Kimmich, or Sanches.
All this flies out the window if Alonso extends his contract: would Rudy assume his place as starter and Xabi play backup? Or might Xabi still be so good that he’d push Rudy to the bench? The situation could become very messy. And, of course, Javi Martinez is actually a defensive midfielder and could play there again, even though we usually see him as a back-up center-back.
Also, what if, in contrast, Alonso leaves but Lahm stays? Lahm and Kimmich could potentially carry on the partnership they’ve developed this season, alternating between right-back and the midfield, but with Alonso out of the picture, Kimmich also could theoretically take his place as defensive midfielder while Rafinha plays behind Lahm at right-back. That would leave Rudy high and dry - but seems rather unlikely. Kimmich could simply play right-back and Rafinha continue in his present role.
Starting role or just a paycheck?
Ultimately, it comes down to what Bayern and Rudy know that we do not: has the decision to let Alonso go at the season’s end been made? Has Lahm intimated to Rummenigge that he will retire? The Alonso question obviously is the easier one to answer: Bayern’s front office could very well have come to Rudy and told him they intend to let Alonso go and want Rudy to fill that gap. That would be a very attractive offer to someone like Rudy, who is used to playing the same important role as a starter for his current club.
Where do you think Rudy fits?