When the German national team announced head coach Jogi Löw’s starting lineup against France yesterday, even the experts were puzzled: Germany’s debut lineup since spectacularly failing to escape the group stage of the 2018 World Cup in Russia featured four center-backs — Antonio Rüdiger, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, and Matthias Ginter — and, of course, right-back Joshua Kimmich.
But Kimmich was not there to play right-back: when the team lined up, all four center-backs stood on Germany’s back line, and it was Kimmich at the 6 in the defensive midfield, as the team’s central pivot. The results? An outstanding performance that caught Opta’s attention:
1 - @JoshuaKimmich had the best passing accuracy (94.3%) and the best duel success (77.8%) of all German players in the starting XI vs. France. Midfield. #GERFRA @DFB_Team_EN @FCBayernEN pic.twitter.com/3wYvRRjIpn— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) September 7, 2018
Kimmich has always insisted he is his own player, but he continues to be dogged by the ghost of Philipp Lahm: it was at the World Cup 2014 in Brazil that Löw likewise shifted Lahm from right-back to the central midfield while playing a line of center-backs (Höwedes, Hummels, Mertesacker, Boateng) — at least until the knockout round.
Moving Kimmich to the midfield confronts Löw with the same dilemma he faced in 2014: playing Germany’s best right-back as a midfielder while keeping the outside-backs conservatively positioned in their own half indeed stabilizes the defense, but it comes at a steep cost on the other end of the pitch. For most of the match, Germany struggled to move the ball forward to its three attacking players and create real chances.
Matthias Ginter put in a solid performance at right-back and was rewarded with a near assist on a blocked shot by Marco Reus and tested France’s Areola himself with a header. But Ginter’s overall performance was not on the same level fans are accustomed from Kimmich, and the opportunities that arrived at the end of a match neither team seemed to take especially seriously do not change that fact.
In the short term, Löw needed to reboot the German national team with anything but a disaster. The conservative lineup he fielded against the reigning champions accomplished that goal with a scoreless draw. In the long-term, however, can Löw really sacrifice one of his best offensive weapons to give Germany a solid defensive midfielder? Kimmich was among the most creative players of the tournament at the 2018 World Cup, creating 11 chances from his position. Kimmich is world class at right-back, but merely great as a defensive midfielder.
Last season at Bayern Munich, Jupp Heynckes stabilized Bayern’s defense by restoring Javi Martinez to his former role as defensive midfielder and distributor. Heynckes described the position as Bayern’s “breakwater.” Right now, Löw needs to identify that player for Germany. Perhaps it is Sebastian Rudy, perhaps someone else. But moving Kimmich to the midfield and playing with four center-backs is erring on the side of caution.