Most of the time, Joshua Kimmich stares straight ahead. Even in emotional moments he could easily take part in a heavyweight boxers’ stare down before a fight. There’s a red dot in the retina of his right eye. When he’s angry, the green in his iris glows. His glance gets glassy. He fixes his eyes on his opposite number, the brows push to his nose. His upper jaw bites down on the lower lip, chin pushed forward aggressively. Other footballers scratch their heads after a game or stare into the distance behind the interviewer in order to suppress their anger or tension. He just stares straight ahead. Whether it’s the interview after the 1:2 loss against Real Madrid in April 2018, straight after the World Cup loss to Mexico in Russia or most recently following the 2:0 Supercup defeat to Dortmund. He had trodden on opponent Jadon Sancho’s foot and had been lucky to not have been sent off. He had hit him unintentionally, he later explained.
Kimmich is not an unfair player or a brute. Nonetheless, his bold appearances in front of camera are telling. He’s known as an experienced and prudent pro; the prototype of a generation of players that had to learn discipline and take responsibility much earlier on than in years gone by. It’s these rare moments of overwhelming tension that show a different Joshua Kimmich. To this day, when he’s given his all and still lost, his face reveals the ambitious teenager from years ago.
Today, in 2019, Kimmich is the the most mature young gun in German football. Over 40 international caps, four league titles, two cup wins, a Confed Cup, participated in a European Championship and a World Cup. He’s regarded as one the best right backs in Europe. The 24-year-old’s résumé reads like that of a 34-year-old. And what comes on top: he’s the greatest of the small. Officially he is listed at 5’8, but sometimes it appears as if he was so tall he had to duck under most doorways. This causes tension and frictions. Especially because he wants more, wants to win titles. Barcelona legend Xavi named him as one of his potential successors in an interview with "Sport Bild"; the club officials are allegedly of the same opinion. Critics on the other hand view his bold manner as presumptuous. Is Kimmich a new Xavi with 360-degree-vision on the pitch? A clockwork-like footballer such as Philipp Lahm or even an assiduous „goody two-shoes“-type, who skipped multiple years in school? Or an overly emotional Oliver Kahn? So what drives him?
A Wednesday morning in early March - like a battle field in gun smoke, Säbener Straße, Bayern’s training ground, was covered in mist. It was here, in the offices of FC Bayern Munich, that an era was obliterated just the day before. Coach Joachim Löw had hastily arrived and in an ambush-like move communicated to the three World Cup winners Mats Hummels, Thomas Müller and Jerome Boateng that their international careers were over. Now, in the early morning camera crews had already positioned themselves for live segments, microphones were being tested. At quarter to eight, Joshua Kimmich pushed open the doors that Löw had slammed shut yesterday. He likes to have these meetings before the first session of the day. As if it needed further proof that nothing comes too early for him. His manner can have an element of almost irritating clarity, which is often mistaken for a blasé attitude. Straight back, staring right ahead. Kimmich doesn’t carry a phone or the usual footballers` accessories like comically large headphones. In a small, windowless room he sat down in training kit, crossed his legs and spoke straight out.
When asked about weak form of both Bayern and the national team, he replied simply and bluntly: "It’s no coincidence if you always have bad luck!", "we’re lacking concentration" or "almost nobody played at their usual level". Answers sharp just like his crosses.
During the days following Löw’s decision, Manuel Neuer was asked about the exit of Hummels, Boateng and Müller. He ummed and ahed, showed understanding for Löw but also for the anger about the decision. A team captain torn between the loyalty to his teammates and that to his coach. Kimmich on the other hand would later go on to say that "the manner in which it happened was not okay." The ensuing headline writes itself, of course. It’s a sentence not lacking in chuzpe or risk. If Joachim Löw hates one thing even more than set pieces, it’s public criticism of his style. In this instance, however, the two cleared the air in a phone call. Kimmich still wears the national shirt rather than a sackcloth and ashes. Yet, he still doesn’t mince matters - just before the end of the season, Franz Beckenbauer accused the Bayern team to be a "pack of spoiled brats", which all players were quick to deny. Until Kimmich entered the scene and fully agreed with Beckenbauer.
Kimmich is regraded as a future captain of the national team. Amongst other things because the radical change following the Russia World Cup placed him centerstage. Joachim Löw guaranteed him a new role at the heart of play; but Kimmich also wants to set the tone off the field. The first time this became clear to his colleagues was when the situation in Vatuntinki (Germany’s base for the tournament) reached crisis levels. During the big team discussion following the 0:1 loss to Mexico he was one of the most vocal players; he criticised the attitude and proposed a quick change to three at the back. "In the youth teams I was a backbencher and for sure no leader. But during the 2018 World Cup I was the most capped amongst the young players", he tells us. "Of course I want success, juts like everyone else - that’s why I speak up when something catches my eye." Thus, he became a spokesperson for the younger players, especially those born in 1995/96.
Kimmich coaches peers like Brandt and Gnabry on the pitch, sends them text messages when they’ve had a good game. Kimmich’s ambition is hard to slow down, overall as well as in the details. Take for example a shooting drill during Bayern training. The general mood is more relaxed and fun. When a pass is played too far out, Kimmich chases after it and manages to score from an impossible angle at the perimeter. "Come on guys, four more!", Kimmich shouts at his team mates and motivationally claps his hands. "Come on" is his typical call. This doesn’t sit well with all players, especially because not all are as quick-witted as Niklas Süle. During Süle’s first session at Bayern, Kimmich allegedly reminded him "Nikki, go, move for once." Süle replied: "I don’t care what the small fish say." Kimmich quite likes such exchanges. Today, the two of them are close friends. Süle, an absolute bear of a defender, twenty centimetres taller than Kimmich and seven months younger, says about his colleague: "He is just like a strict dad."
Kimmich has a tendency to overzealousness. He stands symbolically for a generation of self-optimisers. Serge Gnabry is vegan, Leon Goretzka cut out cows’ milk and gluten. Many young players do extra sessions, but even amongst such calvinistic spirits Kimmich goes the extra mile. Hermann Gerland’s warrior heart skipped a beat when Kimmich asked him for extra header practice. Demanding coaches like Matthias Sammer and Pep Guardiola were so taken with his thirst for tactical knowledge, that they thought of him like a son. In addition to club and national team training, Kimmich has brought in his own individual coach.
Over the course of the 2018-19 season Kimmich didn’t miss a single minute in the league or in the national team. No injuries, not even as much as a cold. And when Bayern scored a goal, he shouted in delight. The line "if you haven’t been shouted at by Kimmich in big games, you weren’t there" isn’t circulating the web for no reason. When you tell him about this, he smirks and nods. He can’t really explain his shouting celebration, it comes naturally to him. It’s like he’s got a constant drip of emotions; a drip that was attached when he was seven.
Amsterdam, 24th March. Germany score the 3:2 against Holland in added time - the first win after five competitive games without a win is almost certain now. Kimmich kneels down, shouts again. But then, he startles - the Dutch are throwing the ball to the midline for kick-off. Running towards the ball he stops it, picks it up and after walking a few steps with it, throws it back towards the Dutch goal. The game is as good as done, his teammates are ecstatic but he still senses danger in such a trivial observation.
The spring that keeps Kimmich under pressure until today was first tensioned on a building site in his hometown. His development is inextricably linked to his height and possibly a deep insult that scars him to this day.
Kimmich’s first stadium was a large lawn near the town bypass in Bösingen, Baden Württemberg. 3500 people live here, there is a farming museum, at midday tractors transport hay through town. Everyone here is, of course, a Kimmich-fan; even the landlord of the local pub Wild Man, who doesn’t get tired of asking the Bayern star to sign his Schalke 04 shirts.
Kimmich’s parents cheaply bought second-hand goals off the local club. Seven-year-old Joshua and his friends assembled them, planted corner flags, drew lines with saw dust and mowed the lawn themselves. They even built something resembling stands into the hills of rabble on the neighbouring building site. A few years later they would also build a small cabin next to the pitch with their parents help: a clubhouse, where they had sleepovers. Kimmich and his friends played in shirts with Barcelona’s Xavi or Dortmund’s Tomas Rosicky on the back. Whilst the stadium was "seldom sold-out", it became a school of football, Kimmich remembers, smiling. All players in town flocked to this special pitch. "As opposed to club football, I had to hold my own against older guys; that was a challenge for sure, because I was the youngest for a long time." It was the first time he had to compete against physically stronger players - but it wouldn’t be the last.
"As a six year old he was already able to shoot with both feet", Kai Flamm, a close friend since childhood, tells us. To this day they still go for an indoor kick-about at Christmas time. Flamm points at the deserted lawn where the "Kickstadion" once stood. "If you were on Jo’s team, you won", Flamm says. That was also the case in tennis, handball or when they reenacted the Tour de France together. "We built winners’ podiums specially for this", Flamm remembers. It didn’t take long for Kimmich to stand on podiums built by others. When he and his club beat the local giants, VfB Stuttgart, their academy directors invited his parents to Stuttgart multiple times. But his dad wasn’t impressed: "if they want something they can come to us", Kimmich remembers his dad’s words. Thus, Klaus Hubrich, VfB youth coach at the time, made the 120 kilometre journey to Bösingen and convinced the parents to send their 12-year-old son to boarding school. "We had a large sausage and cheese plate", Hubrich remembers. "The agreement was: We will try it, but Joshua had to make sure that the parents didn’t worry."
Kimmich saw how other parents ran up and down the line at VfB youth games; how children excitedly turned to their parents after goals. Meanwhile, Kimmich’s dad sometimes went shopping or got his hair cut. The analysis in the car on the way back was brief. A well done from time to time, silence after less good games, no talk of dreams about becoming a pro. Kimmich says "It still wouldn’t be an issue for my parents if I stopped playing football tomorrow." He often talks about this, with admiration in his voice. Within the Bayern bubble, where every one of his steps is exploited in the media, his personal environment maintains a distance to the football bubble. Maybe his parents didn’t want to add to the pressure, he says. He himself is already his harshest critic. Kimmich mimicked the outside pressure. He became his own helicopter parents. Following defeats, he used to lose his temper quite badly back in the day; burst into tears and loudly cursed his teammates. He isn’t this extreme any more, but confidants tell us that if they send him positive messages to build him up, he sometimes replies that they ought to stop that.
Kimmich overshoots the mark with self-criticism sometimes. Getting knocked-out of Euro 2016 stuck with him for weeks; he’ll publicly bring up a bad game such as against Freiburg last year. It has an air of self-mortification. Ice hockey coach Don Jackson, who won the league with both Berlin and Munich, once described the job profile for new players as follows: "I want people who love to win and hate to lose." With Kimmich it appears that his hatred of losing fuels him, the anger at feeling out of control when he can’t fix a fault on his own. Just like when youth coaches judged him as being too light and slight.
In May 2019, an elderly lady enters a small café in Munich-Giesing. She says a half-hearted "Good morning" into the room, but Joshua Kimmich replies mid-sentence. She looks at him somewhat confused, hasn’t she seen this fellow on TV? After this quick welcome, Kimmich continues to speak about his career. He, Leon Goretzka and the rest of the new kids have had good manners injected into their DNA; they are boarding school products. Today’s national team is overwhelmingly made up of academy graduates. At the 2014 world cup Miroslav Klose was part of the team; he had only been discovered at age 22, playing for a non-league side. Aged 22, Kimmich had already captained the national team for a few minutes. Today’s youngsters assert their leadership ambitions nonchalantly but firmly. As opposed to the generation of Schweinsteiger/Lahm they turn pro earlier and come into teams with very flat hierarchies. Michael Ballack would probably have rather swallowed his armband whole on live TV than passed it on to a guy in his early twenties. Nowadays, Kimmich doesn’t have to expect as much resistance in teams as he would have in days gone by. It is probable that his generation is endowed with such a distinctive self-perception because they grew up under pressure and had to live the disciplined professional life as teenagers.
“You’ll never make it in Leipzig, you’ll get eaten alive!“
Aged 16, Kimmich and other academy players threw fruit at each other in the dining hall for a laugh; leftovers covered the white walls. A juvenile incident, yet in the world of high performance academies such lapses in behaviour create big ripples. Kimmich was supposed to sign his first contract a few days later, his parents drove down especially for the occasion. Yet, academy director Frieder Schrof, known to be a principled man, pushed the contract aside and told the parents: your son has been suspended for a week! Instead of the boarding house, he slept at a friend’s place. "It was then that I realised how quickly I could lose this big opportunity." A different young player allowed himself another mishap following the food fight; he was expelled from the academy. Kimmich on the other hand accepted the monastery-like life of the academy, no further incidents are known. Neither are tattoos or a bad diet. He finished school with very good grades, became a regular in the under-19s and was made captain. But the jump up to the under-23s was hindered by one factor: his build. Stuttgart coaches and officials thought that he was too slender, too weak relative to his competitors. When he speaks about this time now, he still sounds attacked: "Everywhere I heard: you’re too small, too slim. Much of my drive stems from that period."
In summer 2013, there was no room for 18-year-old Kimmich at VfB. Fredi Bobic, sporting director at the time, says: "Josh had hoped to make it in the first team straight away. But then he had to realise that with Rani Khedira there was a player in his favourite position who was two years ahead of him. But Joshua didn’t want to wait." Right in that phase Kimmich was then signed by RB Leipzig, an up-and-coming third tier side at the time. Bobic says: "I only agreed to the deal because of the buy-back clause, I had seen his development and large potential."
Yet, shortly before the 18-year-old’s transfer the tone roughened. When he came to pick up is MRI scans from the club physiotherapist, he bumped into a club official in the corridor who told him: "You’ll never make it in Leipzig’s first team, their seconds play in the Landesliga. This is grown-up football. You could have captained our youth team, now you’ll get eaten alive." Later, when Kimmich cleared out his locker, the coach reiterated: you’ll get eaten alive.
In Leipzig, Kimmich had to do individual rehabilitation sessions for the first few months, an inflamed pubic joint had troubled him for years. Every move was painful. "You can’t help but think: will I ever be able to play football pain-free?". He lived in a hotel on his own, had to borrow the athletic coach’s bike to look for flats. Every day he called his parents, homesick after many treatments and long days in an unknown city.
“I got completely lost and thought: How am I supposed to do this?“
And even when he was back in training in September 2013, it didn’t get any easier. The established players made him feel their skepticism: "Who are you?", they asked. "You cost a lot of money and spent a good few months on the massaging table." During his first training session he felt more helpless than ever before. The Leipzig players chased their opponents, hunting for the man in possession; they didn’t give him any time, the game was physical. "In the first 15 minutes I didn’t get a single ball, the game completely passed me by. I got completely lost. All I could think was: "How am I supposed to do this?" You’ll get eaten alive. The sentence from Stuttgart was spinning in Kimmich’s head.
Liverpool, 19th February 2019. During the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16, Kimmich denies Sadio Mané’s shot in a last ditch effort. He screams his celebration right into Mané’s face. The message is the same as during the 2017 international against Chile, where he got into an intense scrap with the not so squeamish Arturo Vidal. The subtext of his Rottweiler-like attitude is always the same: YOU’ll get eaten alive. Not me. Sadio Mané scored two goals in the second leg, Bayern played toothless and fatalistic. They were missing that final desire, the courage - and their right back, who was serving a yellow card suspension. It was the only game of the season that Kimmich missed.
Sadio Mané scored two goals in the second leg, Bayern played toothless and fatalistic. They were missing that final desire, the courage - and their right back, who was serving a yellow card suspension. It was the only game of the season that Kimmich missed.
Joshua Kimmich is very cautious about who to trust. "He likes to get to know a person before he builds up a closer relationship", says Tim Lobinger. "He’s got a good feeling for who is good for him and who is not." The former pole vaulter met Kimmich during his time as athletic coach in Leipzig; he worked on lower and upper body strength with Kimmich to better suit the Leipzig’s physical style. They clicked straight away. At first, Kimmich was sceptical about being friends with someone from the coaching staff. This changed in Munich, when Lobinger came to visit him at least once a week to coach him, starting in 2016. A former high performance athlete, Lobinger is not only an expert in athletic training and nutrition, but also very skilled in foolish banter. Once, when Joshua Kimmish and his Leipzig teammate Diego Demme ate at a trendy restaurant with their girlfriends, Lobinger full-on launched himself against the glass window from outside. Lobinger is the antipode to the footballing business, where most people tend to take themselves rather seriously. He is also someone who had to learn how serious live can be.
In spring 2017 an especially aggressive form of leukaemia was diagnosed with Lobinger. Five times he had to have chemotherapy over the following years; following a relapse his liver failed. He survived thanks to a stem cell donor. Today he is cancer cell free. Kimmich visited Lobinger in hospital, but felt too awkward to ask existential questions about death. "It was difficult for me, I didn’t know how to deal with it. Of course, you want to help your friend, but you end up feeling silly when you ask how they’re doing every single day." And if he did ask about it, Lobinger sold every relapse as a positive. If he had a fever it was aiding the anti- bodies. In hospital, the two of them mainly talked about football, Kimmich’s role at Bayern and the national team. Lobinger, weakened by chemotherapy, flourished in this role; it distracted him from his illness. The culmination was that they planned a training camp before the Confed Cup 2017.
In the morning, coach Lobinger had to go for blood transfusions, then ran to the Olympic training facility emaciated and without any hair. On a rented pitch they pumped up balls. Then Lobinger whipped in crosses for Kimmich, they worked on his acceleration and first touch. In the evening, Kimmich went home tired; Lobinger returned to the hospital. All this for one week. Kimmich subsequently didn’t miss a single game in Russia. When he raised the Confed Cup, Lobinger was proudly watching from hospital. Only months later, at a dinner together with Kimmich’s girlfriend, Kimmich asked Lobinger about the lonely time in isolation and during chemotherapy. "I only realised then what he must have gone through in those moments", he says today. "Moments in which you are all on your own, when nobody can help you; when it’s a matter of life and death." He didn’t dare to ask him about those moments - until that dinner. For the first time, Lobinger told the much younger Kimmich about the fear of dying, the dark moments without optimism and hope, but also about his fight. When Lobinger heard the relieving message that he was cancer cell free, he thought "that’s the least - after everything I’ve been through". That’s how tough it had been.
At said dinner all three had tears in their eyes, Kimmich and Lobinger say. At home, Kimmich sat down at his desk, got a blank sheet of paper and summarised what was one of the most moving evenings of his live. He has kept that note to this day. He says: "It may sound strange, but when Tim was at his worst, he helped me more than I was able to help him."
Of course he helped him from a sporting perspective, but also with seeing the bigger picture beyond sport. Kimmich’s captivating maturity and determination also stem from the fact that he stuck with his friend. Stuck with him through the fight against possibly the toughest opponent of all.
25th May 2019, cup final in Berlin. It’s the 47th minute when Leipzig win the ball just behind the halfway line. Kimmich is close to his opposite man Emil Forsberg; he speculates, trying to intercept the ball. Just as he moves forward, the ball is played straight into Forsberg’s path. Kimmich gives chase but Forsberg is quicker. Manuel Neuer can just about deny him with a world class save. Apart from this lapse in attention Kimmich has a great game, winning 83% of duels, adding two crucial tackles and assisting the third goal.
When Joshua Kimmich wants to unwind he goes for a walk in the Perlacher woods in southern Munich, right by the Isar. The idyllic quiet of the Bavarian riverside contrasts his impulsive, fast-paced and aggressive style of play, which sequences in the cup final are symbolic of. Kimmich dashes upfront, not always without risk. Sometimes the way back becomes too far - just like in the World Cup group stage mach against Mexico in 2018. His teammates complained and the press cursed him for playing like a right winger rather than a right back. He’s told this quite often; last season the "Sport Bild" reported that during a team meeting Niko Kovac had also told Kimmich off for his attacking exploits. Kimmich is visibly annoyed by the debate. Aren’t coaches always saying that wingbacks ought to push up the field? Well, there you go. And in his opinion the national team had success playing like this before. The criticism caught him by surprise, also because Kimmich is attacking-minded. And this is different from the way that Bayern played especially in the second leg against Liverpool last season.
At the moment, the trendy phrase "working against the ball" is being used rather liberally in football; Kimmich with his idea of the game is a stark antithesis to this. As a disciple of Guardiola and self-proclaimed admirer of Xavi, he wants to play with the ball above all else. Just like Joachim Löw, his former coach in Leipzig, Alexander Zorninger, thus sees him in the centre of the pitch: "Jo wouldn’t have coped with our style of play for another two years. He can play against the ball, but to give it away quickly by a matter of tactical principle - that’s not him. He needs to have the ball, he has to be part of the game. Otherwise it’s like he’s caught in a cage." This means: even if he is being played as a right back at Bayern, he in fact acts as a central midfielder. That’s also the way he sees himself, in the middle of things. He pushes his body in front of his opponents in duels and viciously attacks; he can produce something with the ball quickly, even under pressure, has trained peripheral vision and good timing. He can cleanly pass the ball and open up the game. Sometimes, Kimmich is a little too carefree in build-up, he should play more fuel-efficiently. But his style won’t change. A desire and drive to push upfront, always with the ball. In the international fixture against Estonia he recorded a baffling 178 touches in 90 minutes.
Kimmich’s game is a manifestation of his biography. At the "Kickstadion" he taught himself to shoot with both feet; being the smallest during his time at VfB academy, he drilled his strong will. His aggressiveness and tactical understanding were forged in Leipzig and by Pep Guardiola in Munich, respectively. And his stubbornness. Walking along the Isar at the end of our interview, Kimmich tells us about his first game for Bayern. The team won 5:0 against Hamburg; despite not having played a single minute he came into the dressing room very happy. With great surprise he realised that his colleagues weren’t overly ecstatic, though. Kimmich says: "At Bayern I learned the principle: just winning on its own isn’t enough." Then he’s got to go, at half eight he’ll be on his way to the Säbener Straße. For training. Though, he won’t meet many colleagues there. Coach Niko Kovac has given the team the day off.