Joshua Kimmich made his first strides as a professional player at RB Leipzig between 2013 and 2015. There, the 24-year-old says he learnt how to say “Man football”. Nowadays, he shows his quality week after week for FC Bayern, and regularly for the Germany national team.
Joshua Kimmich felt the difference between RB Leipzig and FC Bayern right away. “For me it was something completely new, because you can’t just celebrate a victory at Beyern,” he says. “Instead, it’s more like you can relax a little more for a few days because you’ve met your expectations.” In Leipzig, things were different: “You knew that there was a chance of losing every game, so a victory was celebrated more.” This feeling still applies today, as Kimmich and Bayern face his former club in the DFB-Pokal final.
Despite this, the distance between the two sides has shrunk significantly since Kimmich’s transfer. The third-tier side, which Kimmich helped improve, the second-tier side by the time he left, have since become one of the best teams in Germany. However, the perceived difference in success remains the same. For final debutants Leipzig, a cup victory would be huge – it would be the first title in the short history of the club and would also mark the first DFB-Pokal title for an East German team since Dresdner SC’s success 78 years ago. Meanwhile, the most successful team in the history of German football will look to like the Pokal for the 19th time.
"Joshua Kimmich’s story is a reflection of both. At 24 years of age, he knows how it feels to be at the very top, but also remembers how it was to start out small. "Like a child," he said, describing how Leipzig saw him when they first saw their new signing play for the youth team. The scepticism written across their faces: "This kid’s supposed to help us?", as Kimmich did something he would "never forget," in his words. "I wanted to try and play it out from our own penalty area. That’s what I’m all about after all, but it has been a learning curve to realise that there are moments when this isn’t the way to go about it."
Moments, like in this match-deciding moment, when Kimmich tried to dribble the ball out of his own six-yard box and lost it to Duisburg’s Deniz Aycicek, who scored into an open goal. Leipzig lost the game 2-1, but it was the last defeat of the season, and never again did somebody question Joshua Kimmich’s ability. "Leipzig was the right move for me," he said. "In the second and third divisions you learn to play men’s football. Two-touch tiki-taka is a no go in these games – they’re all about physicality. Knowing how things went down there, helps me to this day."
Leipzig sporting director Ralf Rangnick recognised Kimmich’s potential and tried to keep him at the club, but because Stuttgart had a buy-back option and wanted to resign him with the intention of selling him on, a bidding war ensued. Bayern ended up winning and got their man. Pep Guardiola even braved the cold to travel to Leipzig in December 2014 and watch Kimmich during the second division game against 1860 Munich, and it seems he liked what he saw.
“We won’t see another rapid development like this for a long time,” said Rangnick on Kimmich’s career with Bayern Munich and the national team. “Rags to riches stories are nothing compared to his.” The 19-year-old, who was deemed not even good enough “to train with the U23s” in Stuttgart, according to Rangnick, was good enough to make 36 appearances in Guardiola’s star-studded Bayern side just two years later. Kimmich played in five different positions that season, including eleven games at centre back due to selection issues, in which Bayern only conceded four goals. “I love this player,” said Guardiola as he lauded Kimmich’s intelligence and versatility.
Ironically, it was this versatility that proved to be an obstacle for the self-proclaimed ‘defensive midfielder at heart’. In the Stuttgart youth teams and in Leipzig, Joshua Kimmich played in his favourite position as a holding midfielder, a role he has since adopted with the national team, following the group stage exit at the World Cup in Russia, where he still played as a fullback. Only at Bayern, where he has filled the boots of Philipp Lahm since 2017, does Kimmich still occupy the right back position. However, the imminent squad changes at FC Bayern could open up a central midfield role for the 24-year-old: New signing Benjamin Pavard won the World Cup with France playing at right back. "These are very exciting times at Bayern," said Kimmich in March, as he signed his three-year contract extension until 2023. Regarding the changes being made at the club, he sees himself in a position to "play a big role in the team’s success. I see a good future for myself in Munich."
This wasn’t always the case. "This path won’t be an easy one," the song by Xavier Naidoo, which Kimmich sang to his teammates as part of an initiation on Bayern’s China tour in 2015. Indeed, the path was nowhere near as easy as it might have looked for Joshua Kimmich, the young magician for whom everything seemed to fall into place. Especially not under Pep Guardiola’s successor, Carlo Ancelotti, who benched Kimmich for the biggest games of the season (Champions League vs Real Madrid, DFB-Pokal vs Borussia Dortmund). The youngster began to ask himself, "Is FC Bayern the only club in the world for me?" The question appears to have since been answered. This season, Joshua Kimmich played every possible minute for Bayern in the Bundesliga. In the one game he missed through suspension in the Champions League, incidentally his only suspension in four years as a professional, Bayern were knocked out by Liverpool.
"Josh is one of a kind," said Bayern head coach Niko Kovac: "His passion for the game, his joy when he steps out onto the green grass, it’s unbelievable. Like a kid on the playground. It’s something that every manager wants to see." Rangnick backs Kimmich to become captain for club and country in the next three or four years: "I don’t know anyone who isn’t pleased for him. In Leipzig especially, we’re all happy to see how well he’s done." Perhaps, the only exception would be this Saturday.