It was the 82nd minute of the DFL-Supercup, and Joshua Kimmich had a game to win.
Typically, as a world-class defensive midfielder—and, sometimes, as a world-class right back—Kimmich helps Bayern Munich win by doing all those significant yet subtle things that teammates and coaches revere but that don’t necessarily show up on the score sheet. On this September evening at the Allianz Arena, however, something a bit extra was required. The occasion called for more. And as has become increasingly common over the past couple of seasons, Kimmich rose to it.
In the center circle, Kimmich cleanly stripped the ball from Borussia Dortmund midfielder Thomas Delaney, took an authoritative touch toward the penalty area and then fed Robert Lewandowski in the right channel. Kimmich kept running. Lewandowski cut a pass back across the 18-yard line but Kimmich’s low, right-footed shot was saved by Marwin Hitz. But Kimmich kept running. He tripped and then somehow, as Kimmich hit the turf, he stabbed his left foot toward the ball—while horizontal—and lifted it over the goalkeeper.
Bayern beat its rival, 3–2. Captain Manuel Neuer lifted the Supercup, Bayern’s fifth trophy of 2020, and then said of Kimmich’s goal, “That was will and talent at the same time."
Neuer’s summary of the goal was a succinct yet profound description of Kimmich, a player who, as his career unfolds, is getting tougher to label. It turns out that Germans don’t have a word for everything. And Kimmich, who turned 26 this month, blushed a bit while admitting that nobody has come up with the ideal technical or poetic descriptor for the role he plays. Nominally, he’s a defensive midfielder in Bayern’s 4-2-3-1. But that just scratches the surface.
He’s an award-winning defender, having played both center back and right back for his club. He covers ground, clogs passing lanes, tackles and wins second balls. His performance at right back during Bayern’s successful run through the delayed knockout rounds of the 2019–20 UEFA Champions League earned him UEFA’s Defender of the Season award. But Kimmich is so calm and creative with the ball that in the same competition, despite spending half of it in back, he ranked first in passes that led to a scoring opportunity. In the Champions League final against Paris Saint-Germain, it was Kimmich’s looped, curling cross that set up Kingsley Coman’s title-winning header. And in this month’s FIFA Club World Cup final against Tigres UANL, it was Kimmich’s pass that resulted in a chance for Lewandowski and then the game-winning goal by Benjamin Pavard.
The best descriptions of Kimmich take note of his holistic impact. He said he looks up to Bayern legend Bastian Schweinsteiger, former Munich midfielder Xabi Alonso and Barcelona icon Xavi Hernández. Kimmich has absorbed qualities from each. Add to that the killer instinct—the will to win he displayed in those late moments against Dortmund—and you’ll get a sense of why this undersized, unheralded player has become the competitive conscience of the best club side in the world and a national team with almost peerless pedigree that’s looking to rebound at this summer’s European Championship.
Footballing luminaries from Germany and beyond have declared Kimmich the inevitable successor to Neuer as captain for club and country. Kimmich is a unique combination of will and talent, a man who’s mastering both the technical and intangible aspects of the game. Bayern manager Hansi Flick has tried to sum it up as well, calling his versatile match-winner a “mentality monster.” Perhaps that term will enter the positional football lexicon along with “enganche,” “regista” and “Raumdeuter,” all evocative words that have helped us define flexible and influential roles.
Kimmich has been a “mentality monster” for years. His story is one of hunger, perseverance, commitment and confidence. His story is one of a player who was overlooked, but who doesn’t perform or lead like it.
“I try to play my own style. I don’t want to copy other players,” Kimmich tells Sports Illustrated. “Of course there are some things I like, especially when Xabi Alonso played here—his long passes were amazing. And Xavi. There are a lot of players when I watch them playing I say, ‘Amazing, I want to do like them.’ But not to be like them—just some parts to copy. But always be myself and always play my own style.”
As Bayern celebrates its historic sextuple and continues to defend its Champions League title with Tuesday’s round-of-16 opener against Lazio, it appears to be straddling eras. Neuer, Lewandowski, Thomas Müller (the Raumdeuter) and Jérôme Boateng are among the Bayern stars who’ve passed 30. Its bid to repeat—and to clinch a ninth straight Bundesliga crown—will depend as much or more on the cohort behind them. Bayern’s future will be anchored by Leon Goretzka, Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sané and others. And Kimmich likely will be its face as the player who embodies Bayern’s (and Germany’s) persistent pursuit of victory.
"He is passion and professionalism personified,” Germany coach Joachim Löw said last year. “He is incredibly ambitious and always trains hard. He has a winning mentality and shows it, no matter what position he plays.”
Xavi told Bild, “Joshua is the present and future of Bayern and the German national team.”
Responding to success isn’t easy. Once you’ve achieved your goals, mustering the hunger and focus to do it again can present an existential challenge. Kimmich is the present and future because that hunger comes second nature to him. At every level, there were those who thought the next step was too far. And each time, taking that next step left him feeling starved rather than satisfied.
“As a young kid, I thought it’s the greatest to win these titles,” Kimmich says. “I [would be] more relaxed and more calm. But I have to say, I’m more hungry after winning these titles because you want to win it again, and you want to prove that you are the best.
“This is the most special thing at Bayern Munich. They won everything, but the players still want to win more,” he continues. “Especially in football, it’s always important what you did the last game. So you always have to confirm your performance and this will to win.”
Confirm your performance. Validate yourself. This instinct was what led Kimmich from his small club in Bösingen, about 50 miles southwest of Stuttgart, to Bayern and beyond. Kimmich, who’s listed quite generously at 5' 10" and 165 pounds, has said that he was considered too small and too slight for both Germany’s U-16 national team and then VfB Stuttgart’s senior squad. When he felt held back at Stuttgart, the team he cheered for as a boy, he moved on to RB Leipzig, for which he debuted in Germany’s 3. Liga in the fall of 2013. There, he caught Pep Guardiola’s eye. It’s not difficult to understand why when you hear Kimmich discuss his development.
“At first I was angry, because this is something I cannot influence, how big I am,” Kimmich says. “I’m able to influence how strong I am, so I tried to work on my body. But especially, I tried to work on my mind. Xavi was a big idol in my youth because he was smart in his head. He was not the biggest player because of his body length, but he was one of the greatest players because he was always smart in his mind. He had really good technique.”
Kimmich continues, “For me it was my goal to prove the people that they were wrong, because they told me in my youth, when I changed to RB Leipzig, that the step is too big for me, because now I play with adults there in Leipzig and yeah, they will eat me and I don’t have any chance and something like this. And I was really disappointed and angry, and then I wanted to prove that they are wrong.”
Kimmich had surgery and overcame a pelvic injury that had been bugging him for some time, and in the summer of 2015, Guardiola brought him to Munich for a fee of around €7 million ($8.5 million).
“For a coach, the most important players’ skill is the passion,” Guardiola said shortly thereafter. “Players like Joshua Kimmich are always hungry in training. He wants to play and play and learn and listen to you. That’s awesome for a coach. We are coaches exactly for that, and you’re left with the sensation like, ‘Oh, this f------ guy! I can really help him improve.’”
Kimmich never felt finished. He made more than 30 appearances for Bayern during the 2015-16 season and that summer, he made his senior international debut. At Euro 2016, where he earned caps No. 2–5, he was named to the team of the tournament as a right back. But he wanted to be a midfielder, a starter, a linchpin. Germany fell in the semis. Bayern was knocked out at the same stage of the Champions League. There was always another step.
“Since I was a little boy, I always wanted to be the best, and I always wanted to win and I always wanted to challenge,” he says. “When I changed to Stuttgart, I was at the beginning not the best anymore. So in my little town of Bösingen, I was the best player at first. But then when you change to a bigger club like Stuttgart, you’re not this big player or the best player. So you have to challenge, and I always liked to challenge.”
He climbed the ladder at Bayern, proved his worth and versatility to Guardiola and now, under Flick, is as entrenched in midfield as Neuer or Lewandowski are in back and up front. The will to improve is especially evident in the attack. In 2018–19, he tallied two goals and 19 assists in 48 appearances. The following season, his production rose to seven goals and 17 assists in 51 games. Now in 2020–21, he’s at already four goals and 13 assists in 24 games (after missing six weeks with a knee injury).
And many of those goals, like the one in the Supercup, are memorable. Kimmich has been willing and able to do the extra running required to get into more scoring positions, and he’s had the confidence to take his shot. Whether it was the incredible chip in last May’s 1–0 Bundesliga win over Dortmund, or the long-range side volley against Lokomotiv Moscow in late October, Kimmich has a knack for the jaw-dropper.
“I always think about my own performances, about my style of playing, and I know some weaknesses and I also know my strengths. And I have to improve both. I think I can score more often. The assists are good now, but to give an assist is also a bit of luck, because your teammate has to score,” he says.
A few moments before the Lokomotiv goal, Kimmich recalls, he missed a wide-open net.
“I didn’t hit the ball,” he says. “So it was five minutes later and I thought, ‘O.K.’ Because otherwise I would be the idiot in this game.”
He’s not shy about being critical, of himself or others. Read stories from Germany about Kimmich and you’ll come across more descriptors, such as “snappy,” “annoying” or “exhausting.” The motor never stops running. He sends text messages to teammates following games with his observations, compliments and critiques. He’ll analyze or criticize Bayern’s performance to the media in spots where others might prefer to keep those words behind closed doors. He’s even gone after Löw for his selection decisions. Different people will receive those words in different ways, but Kimmich and others insist that it’s all in the service of winning.
“It's loud sometimes. It’s also a bit brisk. But he's not one who just has a big mouth and then delivers nothing,” long-time Bayern player and executive Uli Hoeness told ZDF Sport. “Of course he puts himself under pressure with his statements. But he is largely able and ready to fill with life what he demands, and I like that.”
Said Guardiola, who left Bayern for Manchester City in 2016, “The problem is when you are honest in the media and you are not honest in the locker room. That is a big problem. But if you are saying the same in the media that you have told before in the locker room, this is not a problem.
“Even if he’s not a captain, he’s like a captain,” Guardiola continued. “He behaves as a captain. Sometimes you don’t need to use the armband to be a captain.”
Kimmich says this behavior isn’t part of a strategy. It’s enough that he understands the motivation behind it, and that it’s a fundamental component of who he is.
“It’s not a decision I made. It’s not like I told myself, ‘O.K. let’s be a leader,’” he says. “It’s something that is inside me. I recognized early that I cannot win the game alone. I don’t have this power of Lionel Messi or Maradona. I knew also as a young kid that I need my teammates to win the game. … So I am not just focused on my own performance but also on the performances of the whole team.”
The demands on himself are highest.
“At first the most important thing is to perform well, so the most important thing that your teammates say is ‘O.K. this is the leader.’ You have to be the best on the field. You have to perform. You have to show them that you want to win,” he adds. “I’m a person who has a lot of energy inside me, and I try to use this energy in a positive way. I also have to learn this because of course there is also negative energy inside me and sometimes, yeah, it’s not easy to deal with it.
“It’s really important to grow up, to develop, that you also criticize yourself and think about your own performance, and not always in a positive way. To be self-confident and strong and stuff like this, you also have to work on your weakness, and I think this is really important to become a better player.”
As he’s aged and matured, Kimmich has found ways to diffuse or redirect some of that energy. Having a family—he and his partner just had their second child in October—has helped immensely. Kimmich is no longer spinning his wheels at home after an imperfect game or practice. He’s also committed himself to being more than a footballer. He wants to lead in other ways, so last year Kimmich and Goretzka formed We Kick Corona, a charity that has raised millions for welfare and medical organizations that have been stretched by the pandemic. The pair personally contributed €1 million ($1.2 million).
He’s in position to use his place in the spotlight for good because its brightened so considerably over the past year-plus. As he ages and matures, and as the wins and trophies pile up, so do the demands for club and country. Kimmich is now considered one of the world’s best players. Expectations come with that. He must, as he says, “confirm your performance.” As the spotlight brightens, cracks or flaws can be revealed, and there’s nowhere to hide. So there’s always something new to provide motivation. There’s always another level to reach.
Kimmich is barely joking when he mentions that maybe he is dispensable because Bayern went undefeated in eight games without him in November and December. And he was on the field last month when the chance for a double sextuple was washed away by a stunning loss on penalties to Holstein Kiel in the DFB-Pokal. As for the national team, well, he has nothing to do with that championship pedigree.
“When I see the guys before with Philipp Lahm, Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer, they were always good, always [at least] in the [World Cup] semifinal. And then I came there, and we are going out in the group,” says Kimmich, who played right back in all three games of Germany’s disastrous 2018 World Cup. “We have a special generation, but we have to show that we are special. We have a lot of quality, but until now, we couldn’t show it. This has to be the next step.”
Perhaps Germany could use some of the “energy” that drives Bayern, Kimmich suggested. As Kimmich is now a primary source of that energy, whether that’s delivered will be increasingly up to him. There seems to be little chance it will be exhausted. Being doubted drives him, losing drives him and winning drives him. His absurdly high standards are the fuel. He wants to contribute and he wants to lead, and while he’s chasing his goals, Kimmich now knows that others are chasing him. That all feeds the mentality monster.
“In Germany, you’re a Bayern fan or you’re a hater, and of course, when I was a Stuttgart fan, I always hoped that Bayern will not be the German champion because they are always the big favorites and you always want to see the big favorites fail,” he says.
“But this is a special feeling to play for the favorite. This is special to win every game—to have the opportunity to win every game, but to win the games and still have this hunger to win,” he continues. “Everybody wants to see you fail and you keep going and you win and [then], there were some people I think they are not Bayern fans, but they liked our style of playing. And I think this is the biggest thing in Germany, when the people who are not Bayern fans, when they say, ‘Oh, they play nice.’ I think this is the biggest thing as a team.
“To inspire other people inspires me.”