This feature first appeared in the August 2020 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe now and get your first five issues for just £5
Joshua Kimmich always gets his wish. In March, Bayern Munich’s midfield metronome spoke to FourFourTwo ahead of a hectic end to the season in which he vowed to satisfy his Champions League itch and win Euro 2020 with Germany.
It was our first chat since early 2017, when Kimmich welcomed us to Munich to celebrate both his 22nd birthday and being one of our best young players in the world. “Let’s hope it’s not three years until next time,” he laughed that nondescript spring afternoon earlier this year.
He was right, too. It would be three months to the day. Twenty-four hours after Kimmich cheerily bid FFT farewell, the Bundesliga was suspended due to coronavirus. Within a week, football across Europe was on indefinite hold and the European Championship would be delayed until 2021.
By the time Germany pioneered elite football’s return, though, Kimmich was back on it. In Bayern’s third game back, he settled the Klassiker with a 20-yard chip over Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Burki so delicious it came drizzled with honey. It was effortless muscle memory, the product of hours spent doing non-contact shooting drills, and all but secured his fifth successive Bundesliga winner’s medal.
There was nothing else for it… our previous interview just couldn’t do. Luckily, the affable 25-year-old was all too happy to to chat again about his Champions League ambitions and more...
How strange was it to score that incredible chip at Borussia Dortmund (below) and not have a reaction?
That was unique. It was right in front of the Yellow Wall – I looked up to where there are usually tens of thousands of fans, and there was no one there. I had to celebrate with my team-mates instead. It was a special win, of course, with what it meant for the title race, but there’s no emotion without supporters – even when you’re playing your biggest rivals.
Is that how you spent lockdown – working on chips in the back garden?
[Laughs] I don’t know about that, but we did a lot of shooting when we started training in small groups after lockdown. I noticed loads of goalkeepers often stand off their line when you shoot from a central position. I just tried something and hoped it would work. I knew Burki is always looking to come off his line, so I thought there was a chance he’d be two or three paces forward. But there was a little bit of luck in there. We knew we’d have a great opportunity to win the title if we beat them.
Bayern struggled early this season. How do you always come back?
Leipzig were the Herbstmeister [table-toppers halfway through the campaign] and last year the situation was the same with Dortmund. We knew that Leipzig would drop points and actually enjoyed playing catch-up. It’s harder for other teams to deal with being top than for us to be third or fourth. We’ve been there before last season, but for them it’s a brand new pressure, having to win every game. It’s a different feeling.
Kimmich is the ultimate distillation of what it means to be Bayern. At just 25, he has the trophy-winning experience of someone far older, and speaks with a certainty every bit as precise as the hundreds of passes he makes week in, week out.
That he’s the perfect team-mate is obvious, but there’s more to Kimmich than diligence in defence and creativity further forward. He knows Die Roten are the dominant club in Germany. He knows he is perhaps the most vital cog that connects defence and attack in an indomitable machine. He also knows how to win and talks about it with disarming ease.
Emotion, however, is a big part of his game. While many players fear letting go, Kimmich understands that suppressing how he feels on a pitch only detracts from his frightening consistency of performance. A two-month break due to a global pandemic hasn’t even brought any kind of drop-off.
Nor is this anything new for him. Kimmich went from discarded Stuttgart teenager, via a formative spell with RB Leipzig, to Bayern’s star-filled first-team squad and Pep Guardiola protégé within two years. Embracing his inner emotions is what got him there.
You were told you weren’t strong enough at Stuttgart and then lost your place under Carlo Ancelotti at Bayern. How hard is it, mentally, to respond to those challenges?
The most important thing is to keep believing in yourself. Believe in your strength and your quality, especially when you play for Bayern Munich. Here more than anywhere else, you need to have a strong personality. There are world-class players wherever you look. Xabi Alonso, Arturo Vidal, Thiago Alcantara, Javi Martinez and Philipp Lahm were here when
I joined – all incredible players who have won so much in their careers. You have to believe that you belong, whether you’re at Stuttgart as a child or moving to Bayern Munich in your early 20s. Sometimes it’s not easy to adapt, but when you keep working hard it’s possible.
How important is it to always be yourself during a match?
Hugely. You have to, because giving the best version of myself is how I help the team. My first few weeks at Bayern were really difficult. I could see that all my new team-mates had a perfect first touch and I wasn’t at that level. I knew I had to improve very fast – I needed time to be myself and have a better level of self-confidence. The more good displays you produce, the more players accept you. During the second half of my first season with Pep, I played in central defence and had to learn things I never knew. That was the moment I felt part of the team, as they could see how hard I was working.
Ex-Bayern midfielder and current sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic has called you “world class in every position”. Where do you play best?
Defensive midfield, for sure. I’ve grown up in that position. Over the last few seasons, I’ve proved that I can play as a right-back and in a back three at the highest level. The crucial thing is that I get a rhythm – that I play five, six or seven matches in the same place. It’s not easy to constantly switch positions – two games at right-back, three in midfield, then one at centre-back is difficult – but when I’m settled, I have the quality to play at the top level in each role.
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How do you manage to learn new positions so quickly? What qualities do you think you have to do that?
I try to embrace the challenge, as I know it will make me a better footballer. You have to view the game from a different perspective and appreciate your weaknesses to a greater extent. That helps you to improve a massive amount and work out a new way of playing the position. I’m not a natural centre-back because of my height [5ft 9in], but you come up with a way that’s effective.
Your displays have gone from strength to strength since Germany’s surprisingly poor showing at the 2018 World Cup. What did you learn from that experience?
[Sighs] Yeah… that the most important thing is to work as a team. Having a special team doesn’t necessarily mean you need big stars. You’ve got to have a plan, implement it and be together. Germany will always be among the favourites for a tournament, so you have this… I don’t know… pressure to succeed. You want to get to the final at every tournament, and it’s not easy when you don’t act as one great team on the pitch. You have to fight as a team in every game.
How long did it take, personally, to recover from going out at the group stage?
Oh, yeah, quite a long time... wow. Straight after, when you’re on holiday, you watch the rest of the tournament carrying on without you. I thought we’d disappointed the whole country and felt a sort of shame. I found it hard to go out into the world, worrying that people would be talking about us.
You and Serge Gnabry both spent time in Stuttgart’s youth teams. How much has he changed, and how vital has he become for club and country?
He was the best player in each age group at Stuttgart. At every tournament, especially the small-sided ones indoors, he was incredible. Unfortunately for me he signed for Arsenal, but that was the right way for him. Serge has had an outstanding season. He’s only been a regular in the national team over the last year or so, but now he plays every game and scores every single time! That’s unbelievable. Serge is more of a winger at Bayern, but plays as a centre-forward for Germany. He can do anything – he can drop deep to get the ball, but is so fast and excellent at running behind defences. We joke now that we were playing together at Stuttgart when we were 14, and here we are at Bayern Munich 10 years later, still together despite going down completely different paths. There’s no one golden way to get to the top.
Have the questions regarding comparisons with Philipp Lahm stopped at last?
Well, obviously not! [Laughs] At the start, the question about Philipp came up pretty often, especially when I began playing at right-back. He hardly ever made a mistake and my style is more offensive, so perhaps riskier. I’m more aggressive going forward, whereas he tried to wait and read the game. But Philipp was an unbelievable leader. He won the World Cup, the Champions League – everything. Up until now, I’ve won nothing.
Kimmich has, of course, already won plenty – nine major honours for club and country – yet the deadpan, poker-faced determination with which he delivers that line shows where his priorities lie as he approaches the peak year of his career.
He may have been a contender for player of the season in securing a fifth consecutive Bundesliga title for Die Roten, but Kimmich is well aware that capturing domestic crowns is the bare minimum in Bavaria.
Seven years have passed since Bayern beat Dortmund at Wembley in a first all-German Champions League final, during which time they have failed to progress beyond the semis – until now. There have been heart-breaking defeats to Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, plus a chastening loss to Liverpool in 2019. So...
What would it mean to win the Champions League this season?
Winning the Champions League is a huge goal in my career. We have a great chance but we’ll be in a strange situation, because we have a break throughout July while other countries are finishing their league seasons. It’s hard to predict how it will end up. We’ve seen with Liverpool [who lost to Atletico in the last 16] that sometimes the favourites can go out, so we must be ready in every match no matter who we face. That’s the mentality you need to have at Bayern.
"He's just turned Nelson Semedo inside out! An experienced right-back... Whoops!"Wow, Alphonso Davies is just so difficult to stop 🔥A magnificent assist from Bayern's rising star at left-back 🙌#Club2020 pic.twitter.com/NCbOrOyaJSAugust 14, 2020
Bayern have lost four semi-finals since the 2013 triumph at Wembley. That must hurt?
Oh yeah, it really does. On the one hand it’s amazing how consistent we are to reach the latter stages of the tournament, particularly the generation before me. They were always in the semi-finals or final. It’s the same with Germany. Then I come along and we’re not that good any more! [Laughs]
Why haven’t Bayern been able to take that next step in Europe?
Last year, Liverpool were just stronger than us. In 2018 we didn’t have the luck to knock out Real Madrid – we played two good games [Kimmich scored in both legs], but made one more mistake than them and they punished us. Now we have the next generation coming through, which is yet to win the Champions League. Only a handful of our current side have won this tournament. It will certainly be different [playing at neutral venues in one-legged ties]. Perhaps this will make it easier to win because you play fewer matches, so it’s a great chance for everyone, but also us. We want this.
Tell us about life in lockdown...
I found it difficult at the start, not having a clear structure to my day. I’m lucky to have my son to look after, so getting up early to care for him gave me that before cyber training every morning. After a few days, me and [team-mate] Leon Goretzka set up WeKickCorona, which helps people who want to assist others during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not simply about spending the money. We want to help those who help others. There are so many people suffering at the moment, and we wanted to use our power to make a difference. It’s not only us, either: more team-mates like Robert Lewandowski and Thiago were keen to lend their support in their own projects, and we’ve since gone past the €5m mark. It’s amazing.
Any other projects? Are you now a banana bread expert like everyone else, or did you learn a new language?
[Laughs] Not so much. I spent a lot of time in the garden. My girlfriend and I built a wooden bench and sand pit for our son to play in. I’m quite proud of it, actually.
Finally, how much have you been missing Euro 2020 this summer?
When I saw on social media the day it should have started, I thought, ‘Wow, it would have been really cool to be playing’. I re-watched our Euro 2016 quarter-final win against Italy, which went to a penalty shootout, and that brought back loads of special emotions. Your whole country is behind you, and you see the pictures from your hometown of fans getting involved. These are the biggest tournaments for a footballer, so I hope we return in 2021 and use this break to become a stronger and better side. Maybe next year, when we play our first group match at home in the Allianz Arena against France, I’ll think, ‘This time last year I was building a sand pit!’
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