First, it seemed like madness. Then it was intuitive. Then it was a moment of affection. Social media exploded in a mixture of surprise and excitement when Pep Guardiola, Bayern Munich's coach until this summer, embraced his young protégé Joshua Kimmich at the end of a gruelling tactical examination against Borussia Dortmund in March.
Guardiola, in his own unique way, stormed on to the pitch after the final whistle, confronting the youngest player in red and proceeded to make a scene as he talked Kimmich through his build-up play in front of a global audience. It appeared like the Catalan was furious, giving the youngster a harsh lesson, but he was in fact engrossed in teaching the 21-year-old.
“I love this boy,” beamed the former Barcelona coach. “I like working with football players who want to learn and want to keep going. He has the desire, he has passion - he has absolutely everything.”
A product of Stuttgart's esteemed youth academy, Kimmich hadn't made a Bundesliga appearance before heading to RB Leipzig for two seasons. The lower leagues of German football – and especially Leipzig’s progressive setup under the management of Ralf Rangnick – was the perfect environment to gain regular first-team football away from the spotlight.
Although Kimmich returned to Stuttgart contractually, he was sold to Bayern Munich for around €8 million. Bayern's technical director Michael Reschke, one of the best talent spotters in the business, kept tabs on the youngster for many months, eventually giving the green light after Kimmich impressed at the U21 European Championship in the Czech Republic.
Since making his Bayern debut in September, Kimmich has become an invaluable member of the squad. He has played practically everywhere in defence and midfield – right-back, centre-back, ball-winning midfielder, ball-playing midfielder. Versatility is often lauded, but sometimes it's a result of players not holding down one position.
Kimmich is different. His flexibility is thanks to his outstanding game intelligence and his tactical awareness. Standing at well under six foot, he doesn't fit the conventional view of a central defender. In fact, Guardiola was pressed almost weekly on the decision to field the German at the heart of his defence. But the new Manchester City manager ignored all the doubters.
What appeals to Guardiola is Kimmich's brilliance in possession. He rarely looks fazed and can resist even the most dynamic pressing attempts. The 21-year-old was excellent at the back in high-pressure games against Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund. Slickness and precision in the build-up phase of the game is a tenet of Guardiola's strategy. If the construction is out-of-sync, the rest of the team functions less effectively.
His performance in the 0-0 draw at Borussia Dortmund, a match which could have seen the yellow-and-blacks blow the title race wide open, was truly outstanding. Public opinion was unanimous at the end of the season that Kimmich had to be part of Germany’s European Championship squad. As the world champions struggled to come to terms with the retirement of Philipp Lahm, Kimmich came along like a Christmas present.
There's a quiet, yet attractive, simplicity to Kimmich's game. He has the persona of a professional who has won everything in the game. He oozes confidence on the pitch, and that naturally helps the rest of the team. Starting at the Euros for the first time in the 1-0 win over Northern Ireland, Kimmich's passing and awareness was key to Germany's improved performance.
“Joshua has played great. It was exactly the right decision by the coach to take him. We were dangerous in the game [going] forward,” displaced Schalke defender Benedikt Howedes wrote on Facebook. “He did a really good job today,” added team-mate Mats Hummels. “But that is not the least bit surprising. He has great qualities and great confidence.”
Germany coach Joachim Low has previously indicated that he intends to use two different plans in the tournament, as he did to great effect at the World Cup. The position of right-back is one of those roles up for debate – and Kimmich has shown what he brings to the table. Howedes offers defensive protection, but the Bayern man's security in possession is a fundamental for this German team to reach its potential.
A favourable draw in the last 16 against Slovakia will give Low another 90 minutes to unleash Kimmich. There's no doubt that losing Lahm after the World Cup triumph has been a problem for Germany, but perhaps there's a solution on the horizon in his fellow Bayern defender.