Joshua Kimmich made his comeback from a knee injury in Bayern Munich’s final Bundesliga game of 2020 away at Bayer Leverkusen. Although the treble winners remained unbeaten in the eight competitive matches without him, his absence was noticeable in the performances. It makes his return all the more crucial ahead of another potentially huge year in 2021.
Bayern won absolutely everything on offer in 2020, lifting the Bundesliga, DFB Cup, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and DFL Supercup in a year that saw them lose only one of their 48 fixtures in all competitions.
Robert Lewandowski deservedly took the plaudits with his astonishing haul of 45 goals in 40 appearances, being named Player of the Year by both UEFA and FIFA. Praise was also rightfully showered on goalkeeper Manuel Neuer for his peerless displays keeping things tight at the other end. But what about the glue in the middle?
That’s where Kimmich comes in. Already regarded as one of the best right-backs in the game, he was restored to his preferred central midfield position for the 2019/20 campaign. From there he provides the team with a balance between attack and defence, and adds impetus with his insatiable winning mentality.
The 25-year-old has shown before he’s the Bayern man for the big occasion. It was his sublime chip in Der Klassiker away at Borussia Dortmund that essentially won the Bundesliga title last season. He was again the scourge of BVB in the 2020 Supercup when he drove forwards and forced home the winner while falling to the ground.
That goal was the perfect embodiment of the fighting spirit Kimmich brings to the treble winners, for whom he featured in all but one of their 52 competitive fixtures in 2019/20, due to suspension for an accumulation of yellow cards.
Never before in his Bayern career had Kimmich been missing from a squad for more than two competitive matches in a row, but a knee injury he suffered in Dortmund in November meant he was set to miss the rest of the year.
Watch: Kimmich’s Klassiker-winning chip in 2019/20
A squad with the depth and ability of Bayern’s can cope with most injury setbacks, but the absence of Kimmich has proven almost impossible to compensate for, as Hansi Flick predicted in the aftermath of his diagnosis and subsequent surgery. “Losing him won’t be easy to get over,” the coach said.
A look at the numbers alone shows the impact of Kimmich being in or out the team. With him, Bayern have won 18 of a possible 21 points from their seven league games this season, working out at an average of 2.6 points. Without him, it’s only 2.0 per match with 12 points from six fixtures. To put that into context, it would equate to a 20-point difference over a full campaign.
The goal counts are also better at both ends. When he’s been on the pitch in 2020/21, Bayern have scored on average every 25 minutes and conceded every 80 in the Bundesliga. But when he’s been watching on, those rates change to scoring every 35 and conceding every 53.
Watch: All of Kimmich’s Bundesliga goals and assists in 2019/20
On top of that, the midfielder has had a hand in at least one goal in all four matches where he played the full 90 minutes. The record champions also have a league-best six goals from set pieces when he’s involved, but none without him. They are substantial differences in all areas.
In total, Kimmich has one goal and five assists from seven appearances. The fifth on his comeback highlighted yet again what a boost he brings to the team.
Bayern went to Leverkusen second in the table and in need of a win to leapfrog their opponents into top spot for the winter break. In the final game of a mammoth year, the champions looked on their last legs, as Thomas Müller also stated afterwards. They recorded their lowest total for touches in the league this season (674) and their worst pass completion under Flick (77 percent) but clawed their way back to 1-1 through a Lewandowski header after Patrik Schick had slammed home a corner.
Watch: Highlights of Bayern’s last-gasp win in Leverkusen
It was the seventh straight Bundesliga game in which Bayern had fallen behind – all without Kimmich on the pitch. That run had started in Dortmund when Marco Reus put BVB ahead nine minutes after the midfielder had to go off.
While the Munich club didn’t lose any of the ensuing six, they also only won three as they struggled to make up for the loss of their midfield maestro.
Kimmich was initially expected to be out until the new year, but such a driven player was never going to accept that prognosis. He was back in full team training on the Monday ahead of the Leverkusen game, only 42 days after he’d suffered the injury.
Flick admitted post-match that the plan wasn’t for him to play, but Kimmich had made it clear during half-time that he felt absolutely ready. And ready he was.
He replaced Corentin Tolisso with 22 minutes left on the clock at the BayArena, after which Bayern looked the team in the ascendancy. Nevertheless, a draw appeared inevitable and the champions seemed destined to spend Christmas in second place as 93 minutes ticked around.
No one told Kimmich that, though. With the full-time whistle only seconds away, centre-back Jonathan Tah was pressured into a mistake deep in his own half, which allowed Kimmich to steal the ball, touch it into the path of Lewandowski and the newly crowned The Best FIFA Men’s Player emphatically smashed home the winner.
“Joshua showed again today how important he is. I’m glad he came with,” said a relieved Flick after the game. “Just having him involved helps the team a lot.”
Kimmich’s influence goes far beyond pure numbers. Although yet to wear the armband for his club, the 25-year-old is already a real on-field leader for Bayern. Alongside Müller, he is one of the voices constantly heard barking out instructions and motivation during matches. It’s no surprise he’s long been touted as a future Bayern and Germany captain.
Away from football, he has demonstrated his social responsibility, most notably creating #WeKickCorona with Leon Goretzka to help people struggling during the coronavirus pandemic. The midfield duo have received a number of awards for their selfless actions.
Back on the pitch, and after a tough few weeks for Bayern by their recent impeccable standards, the return of a Kimmich – who Flick believes has “improved and now has another level of fitness” – will be a very welcome Christmas present in Munich. It also sets them up well going into 2021 with their treble to defend and also the FIFA Club World Cup to add to the collection in February.
Bayern are quite simply a different beast when they have their mentality monster.