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September 19, 2019

Joshua Kimmich is the key to Bayern's revitalized midfield

By Sam Planting

Considering that it’s my first weekly digest about the Bundesliga on Statsbomb – Sam, nice to meet you etc. – I figured that I’d start off with a spicy take about the powerhouse of German football. And by take, I mean TAKE. Ready? Here it goes. I believe that Bayern München, who have been criticized a fair bit on their transfer business these past few months – most notably when they missed out on signing Manchester City winger Leroy Sané or RB Leipzig speedster Timo Werner as the future frontman of their attack – might have made one of the sweetest deals amongst all the big summer signings in international football. His name? Benjamin Pavard. Really, Benjamin Pavard.

Yes, the same Pavard that was the most boring starter on one of the most boring World Cup-winning teams in recent memory – mind you, in a French starting eleven that featured Oliver Giroud as a striker up top. Yes, the same Pavard that played in the heart of VfB Stuttgart’s defence, which ceded 70 goals in 34 league games on its way to relegation last season. Yes, even the same Pavard that hasn’t looked all that comfortable on the pitch in his first weeks as a Bayern regular.

The most logical question to ask now would in fact be: why? Why is the signing of this clearly talented, but somewhat boring and at times even shaky, young French defender such a win for Bayern? The answer is rather simple. Because the arrival of a dependable right back has promptly given Der Rekordmeister one of the best – if not the best – midfield duo’s in all of European club football. The presence of Pavard on the roster has provided manager Niko Kovac with a legitimate option at the right side of defense, which has opened up the door for Joshua Kimmich to move up to a spot in the heart of Bayern’s midfield, right next to the oft-injured, but excellent Thiago Alcántara. This midfield is good, y’all.

Yes, there was, or is, a strong case to be made that Kimmich might have been the best right-back in all of European football for the past few seasons. Especially from an offensive point of view. Kimmich played in 81 Bundesliga and Champions League games the past two seasons, in which he posted the absurd tallies of 28 assists and 178 chances created. Which is – *check notes* – ridiculous for a fullback, even one who specialises in corner kicks.

This level of production for a fullback goes a long way in explaining how Kimmich did not make the transition to midfield earlier at Munich – as a teen at Leipzig, he actually played as a midfielder. Kovac et al already knew what Kimmich’s skill-set was, but the risk of giving up a large chunk of his output on the flank made the seemingly logical switch to midfield a pretty dicey proposition.

Ralf Rangnick once lauded Kimmich as the most tactically sound, positionally fluid player he had ever seen. Kimmich is the poster child for the wave of tactical and technical innovation that swept through German in the last decade plus: he’s lightning-quick as a decision-maker, has always been smart beyond his years in positional play, reacts fast, possesses good ball-control with both feet, applies pressure on the ball in a rather relentless way, hounds passing lanes and, maybe most importantly for a player in his tactical role, is the type of star player that can also excel in a non-star-role. Which, at Bayern, is kind of a big deal.

If Kimmich is the Prince of Pragmatism (from the House of Gegenpressing), Thiago can be viewed as the Sultan of Style. The Spaniard is often overlooked in the debates about who the best midfielder in the world currently is, and that has a lot to do with Thiago’s one glaring weakness: he truly deserves the label ‘injury-prone’. Even though the playmaker has avoided another major injury since his ACL tear in 2014, Thiago has missed 40 out of a possible 208 competitive matches with nine different smaller injuries since the start of 2015-16. When Thiago is able to play, he pretty much balls out. Due to his silk first touch, his Xavi-esque vision of what transpires around him on the pitch – he is one of those passing wizards for which the football cliché of ‘player X sees things before they even happen’ seems to be invented – his at times jaw-dropping ball control, his accurate short ánd deep passing and his impressively calm on-field demeanour, Thiago regularly looks ‘un-pressable. Unsurprisingly, he led Bayern in deep progressions per 90 minutes last season (among players with over 1200 minutes).

The combination of his flair and ball progression with the durability, stamina, and tactical flexibility of Kimmich gives Bayern something they’ve been searching for for quite some time: an elite midfield duo at the heart of their squad.

The fact that a bunch of the star players were deteriorating at the same time last season, drew some attention away from Bayern’s ongoing search for the ideal balance in midfield. Whilst an at times unrecognizable Manuel Neuer, a slowed-down Jérôme Boateng and an out-of-form Mats Hummels took the brunt of the criticism last year, mainly due to the team’s vulnerability against the counter-attack, the midfield just wasn’t all that good, for the lofty standard Bayern have set for themselves. Especially in the games where Thiago was out. This midfield struggle, one of the main reasons Bayern struggled in the early months of Kovac’s tenure last season, was a long time coming. They simply didn’t have the same amount of really good-football-plsaying dudes that they did it in the days of Guardiola. Javi Martínez’ decline was foreseeable, the Basque defensive band-aid in midfield never was much of a speedster, and quietly fell off a cliff, agility-wise, last season. Renato Sanches just wasn’t Bayern material. Corentin Tolisso missed all of last year with an ACL injury. Leon Goretzka is a good all-around player, but seems to be functioning better in a more attacking role.

But none of the midfield sets Kovac could forge out of those options, seemed anywhere near as comfortable in possession as Bayern has looked in its last two league games, against Mainz (6-1) and at RB Leipzig (1-1). In the first big league fixture of Bayern’s league campaign, they were cruising in the first half against Leipzig. If it weren’t for two rigorous tactical changes from Julian Nagelsmann at half-time – switching from a 5-3-2 to the Red Bull-approved 4-2-2-2 ‘vice grip’ formation, and letting Yussuf Poulsen start his press from a cover shadow on one of Bayern’s midfielders in the second half – that brought new life to Leipzig’s patented press, the reigning champ would’ve crushed the energy drink-fueld new kid on the block last weekend. Making Leipzig’s pressing scheme look ineffective, even toothless, is one tall order.

And Thiago and Kimmich managed just that in the first half, with Pavard not only providing solid defensive work on the right in Kimmich’s old spot, but also offering Bayern a lot more flexibility in its build-up: varying between ‘3+1’ (three defenders, one midfielder in the build-up), ‘3+2’ or ‘2+4’ is a lot easier when both your fullbacks – Pavard and the big money signee Lucas Hernández (from Atlético Madrid) – have had experience at positions in the center of the defense.

Bayern’s offense looks to be zooming, at the moment. And the prospect of Thiago-and-Kimmich-run midfield is very exciting for all of us tactics nerds out there. The biggest question mark in the formation is the 10-position. Goretzka has proven to be a valid option for that role, with his patented box-runs and general technical usefulness. If Bayern can coax the real Philippe Coutinho from the ghost-version of him in his days at Camp Nou, the Brazilian would be the main option. But as it stands, it seems that all signs point to – who else? – Thomas Müller. If you put the premier Raumdeuter – ‘explorer of space’ – in front of a functioning central midfield and behind a world-class striker, watch out. And that is exactly what Bayern’s competition should do.

 

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Article by Sam Planting