Kimmich following in Lahm’s footsteps for Germany ahead of World Cup

Germany's Joshua Kimmich, left. (Petr David Josek/AP)

Joshua Kimmich will be 23 when he takes the field for Germany’s opening World Cup game on June 17 against Mexico, still fending off inevitable albeit diminishing comparisons to Philipp Lahm – and just missing a mark held by the legendary Franz Beckenbauer.

Kimmich played 81 minutes in Friday’s 2-1 friendly win over Saudi Arabia, ending at 23 a streak of consecutive full matches he’s played for the German national team, just one shy of Der Kaiser, and 11 back of Berti Vogt’s 34. Think about that for a second.

Much has been made about the overhaul of the German system following the national team’s debacle at Euro 2000 – Raphael Honigstein’s book Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World details it best. But here’s something else to chew on: the two young players who combined on Germany’s World Cup-winning goal in 2014, Andre Schurrle (23 at the time) and Mario Gotze (22), are not part of manager Joachim Low’s roster this time around. Leroy Sane, meanwhile, is 22 years old and was voted the PFA Young Player of the Year with Premier League champions Manchester City this season. But one assist in 12 mostly unremarkable matches for his country left no room for him on the World Cup roster for this summer.

Despite their absence, this edition of Die Mannschaft will be even younger than the 2014 team: with an average age of 25.7 years, Germany’s side in Russia will be the second-youngest, older only than Nigeria. In 2014, Germany’s average age was 26.31; sixth-youngest in the competition.

The FIFA World Cup in Russia runs from June 14 to July 15, and Sportsnet.ca will have in-depth daily coverage.

So, it’s clear that few national teams are as much a meritocracy, to the point where Lahm, one of the country’s most beloved players, played at three different positions until his retirement after Germany’s last World Cup title: left back, right back and midfield. Low felt comfortable shifting his captain around after Pep Guardiola opened the door by using Lahm in the midfield at Bayern Munich, moving him to the midfield from right back a few months before the 2014 World Cup for friendlies against Chile and Armenia – and then using him at right back in Germany’s 7-1 semifinal hammering of Brazil and their final victory over Argentina.

Lahm, Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos combined for a staggering 313 passes as Low’s midfield troika in a group win over the United States four years ago, but his hand was forced by inconsistency from defenders Jerome Boateng and Benedikt Howedes, and by pressure from his staff.

“I am not immune to advice,” Low explained later.

Enter Kimmich, who played right back during Germany’s qualification campaign for this summer’s World Cup and set up nine goals – more than any other German player. It has not been an entirely smooth ride for Kimmich; he lost a regular spot at Bayern Munich under Carlo Ancelotti despite his stated willingness to play central defender if necessary. (Ancelotti’s predecessor, Guardiola, once declared Kimmich had the potential to be one of the best central defenders in the world.)

Instead, Ancelotti dropped him from a rotation that included Renato Sanches, Xabi Alonso, Arturo Vidal and Thiago Alcantara. Kimmich over the past two Bundesliga seasons, finding freedom only when Jupp Heynckes replaced the Italian manager last September. Heynckes has since retired, but Kimmich is now so firmly entrenched that Bayern agreed to tear up his contract, and hammer out an extension through 2023.

Heynckes was clear: “Kimmich can be another Lahm, both for club and country.”

In an interview with The Guardian last month, Kimmich offered this assessment of comparisons with Lahm, who he has at times referred to as “the perfect player.”

“I always wanted to be me and not a Lahm clone or Lahm the second,” Kimmich said. “Of course, Philipp was a great player – even when he had a bad game he was still better than the others. There was a higher consistency in his performances and you want to match that. But you want to play as your own person. I really don’t think people are making the comparison as much anymore, and that’s better for me.”

Kimmich and Timo Werner – who is touted as one to watch in Russia – were teenaged teammates at VfB Stuttgart’s academy before Kimmich left for RB Leipzig as a 19-year-old loanee. He flourished for a club that was on a rapid ascent to the Bundesliga and along the way caught the attention of Guardiola. The story is that Kimmich had 80 touches of the ball in a match against 1860 Munich with Guardiola in attendance. Bayern Munich quickly made a move for him.

“Whoever was involved in letting Kimmich leave should be strung up,” said then-Stuttgart coach Alexander Zorniger.

Kimmich was brilliant in last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup for Germany. And while it’s doubtful he will wear the captain’s armband this summer – if goalkeeper Manuel Neuer doesn’t fully recover from a broken foot, that honour is expected to go to either Thomas Muller or Sami Khedira – there is little doubt that Kimmich will claim it henceforth. He’s already inherited Lahm’s ability to read the game from a variety of spaces on the pitch, an important component for a versatile player who out of necessity must accommodate talented and at-times headstrong club teammates such as Muller, Arjen Robben, and Robert Lewandowski. Few Bundesliga players are as shrewd on the overlap as Kimmich.

“He’s young, but has a lot of tactical understanding,” Low said at the Confederations Cup. “Plus, he implements it quickly.”

Kimmich has no choice. He was outspoken in his criticism of the side after a 2-1 loss to Austria that left Germany winless in five matches heading into Friday’s game against the Saudis. And this will be the most interesting aspect of his development: will he be a leader such as Lahm, who joined the national team at the age of 19 and was controversially named captain after Michael Ballack was injured ahead of the 2010 World Cup, making his mark as a quiet, redoubtable player who talked about the difference between “projecting a presence” and “being a presence on the pitch?” That was integral to Lahm’s strength and ability to emerge in a program that was going through transition. It was why Guardiola called him “the most intelligent player” he’d ever managed.

Lahm was very much a man for his time and Kimmich seems cut from the same cloth. The guess, here, is that is one similarity he won’t mind.

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