Right after Bayern Munich legend Philipp Lahm left the club, fans immediately looked to Joshua Kimmich to take his place. Kimmich had recently arrived from RB Leipzig, where he played as a central midfielder, so why would he be expected to transition to right back and follow the footsteps of one of the greatest to ever play there?
The answer lies in his qualities and playing style. Like Lahm, Kimmich is renowned for his versatility. Right when he arrived at Bayern, he was thrust into a center-back role because of injuries. Out of his 35 appearances in the 2015/16 season, he made 17 as a center-back, just about 50%. In contrast, he only played as a right-back twice.
In the next year, Kimmich was restored to his natural position in the center of the park. Out of 38 appearances, he made 23 a center midfielder. His stats were not those of the Joshua Kimmich we’ve come to know and love: he scored nine goals and assisted only twice. As opposed to sending balls into the box for Robert Lewandowski, he was more involved in central buildup and was counted on to put the ball in the back of the net himself.
Fast forward another year, and Kimmich played 44 out of 46 games as a right-back. Of course, there was a spot to fill with Philipp Lahm leaving, but Kimmich’s production justified the switch. He scored 6 times and supplied 17 assists, assuming the role of the creator down the right flank.
Now’s a good time to talk about Kimmich’s style of play as a right back. In order to get all of his assists, Kimmich has to push forward. Really far forward. This of course leaves a huge amount space behind him for the opposing side to counter-attack into. If you didn’t realize this before the 2018 World Cup, Hirving Lozano made it painfully clear. Just look back at the goal that Germany allowed in that stunning 1-0 defeat: Kimmich tries to make a run forward, but before Sami Khedira can play him through, he loses the ball. Now, all of a sudden, Mexico can play a quick one-two, and they find themselves on a breakaway to goal.
Now, this surely wasn’t Kimmich’s fault. He saw a good opportunity to press forward, but his teammates let him down. However, since Kimmich is coming from a defensive position, there’s limited cover for him. In the case described above, Marco Reus had to sprint back and try to stop Lozano — with no success. This could be a reason why Jogi Löw wants to play Kimmich at the 6. He can still have an aggressive style of play, but he has an entire back line to cover for him.
A problem with moving Kimmich to the midfield, however, is the limited number of options Löw has to replace him at right-back. In recent friendlies we’ve seen Thilo Kehrer, a natural center-back, moved out wide. Outside of him, other options might include Matthias Ginter or a more natural fullback in Benjamin Henrichs. No matter who you choose to replace Kimmich though, there’s a significant drop in quality. Looking at the other side, Germany has a good amount of depth in the midfield. Toni Kroos and Ilkay Gundogan are good enough, not to mention Niklas Stark’s rise to stardom. So, in the end, is it really worth sacrificing the best right-back in the world to be a marginally better defensive midfielder?
According to Löw, it is: he confirmed to Kicker that he’ll play Kimmich at the 6 in the upcoming Euro Qualifiers, adding:
His toxicity, aggressiveness and defensive thinking are something we’ve been missing.
But what about his club coach Niko Kovac?
During his time with Frankfurt, Kovac played with a variety of formations, the staple being three at the back. If he were to adopt such a formation for Bayern next year, he could very well push Kimmich up to the midfield. Since Bayern has strengthened its defense with the signings of Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard, there’s more than enough talent to supply an effective back three. Now, whether this leads to Kimmich playing as a 6 remains to be seen. What would be more likely is a 3-5-2 formation where Kimmich, along with David Alaba, are both pushed up to become wing-backs. As wing-backs, they’d have more opportunities to run forward and have fewer defensive responsibilities to worry about. That could solve the problem of vulnerability to counter-attacks.
Similar to this formation, Kovac could also turn to a 3-4-3. There would still be two wing backs, the main difference is just having one striker and two attacking wingers as opposed to a flat two strikers in the a 3-5-2.
With a player of Kimmich’s quality, he’ll produce no matter where he plays. So, with the dilemma of deciding where he should play, that’s certainly a good problem to have.
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