Reds boss could coach Germany - he pushes players to new levels
On a bitter, snowbound morning at Bayern Munich's Saebener Strasse training complex, Joshua Kimmich is a study in understated cool. He hails from Rottweil, the medieval town that spawned a belligerent breed of butcher's dog, but there are few Rottweiler traits evident in his demeanour today.
Considered, impeccably polite, he is as happy extolling the virtues of Jurgen Klopp as he is reflecting upon the anguish of Germany's premature exit at last summer's World Cup. From a first meeting, one would hardly guess that this is one of the fiercest, most passionate defenders in the Bundesliga. "It's my characteristic, so I cannot hide," he smiles. "Here in Germany, we have emotional players, too."
The Champions League duel that Kimmich and his Bayern team-mates confront at Anfield tomorrow night is one brimful of emotion. Already, for the return leg at Allianz Arena on March 13, tickets have sold out faster than for the club's semi-final against Real Madrid last year. Liverpool's lustrous heritage in the competition, coupled with the sheer charisma of Klopp - familiar to Bayern fans through so many Der Klassiker clashes with his Borussia Dortmund side - has made this a dream draw in Bavaria.
Kimmich leaves no doubt as to where he believes the balance of power lies. "Liverpool are the favourites," he says. "They have lost one league game all season and have let in only 15 goals. We are not as consistent as before."
This is not kidology: Bayern, of late, have offered a pale imitation of past vintages. Defensively suspect, they trail Dortmund in the league by two points, having played a game more, while Croatian manager Niko Kovac is struggling to establish himself as a worthy heir to Pep Guardiola and Jupp Heynckes.
Rumblings of internal discord are growing, with Uli Hoeness given a fearful dressing-down at the annual general assembly by lawyer Johannes Bachmayr, who criticised the club president's autocratic leadership and the board's tepid backing of Kovac after giving him a three-year contract.
And yet this remains a team richly decorated with stars, from Franck Ribery to Arjen Robben, Manuel Neuer to Kimmich, heralded by Joachim Low as "one of the greatest talents I have seen in the past decade". He is only 24, but uninterrupted glory is all that Kimmich has ever known at Bayern.
Since being plucked by Guardiola from RB Leipzig in 2015, he has savoured three straight Bundesliga titles. In the German top flight, Bayern's recent travails are the closest he has come to a struggle - not that it is one he shirks.
"Now, it's a bit different," he says. "It's a chance to develop, to find new ways to success. We are close to Dortmund, in the quarter-finals of the German Cup, and still in the Champions League. So, not everything's bad. But we need to improve our style of playing before we can compare to the best teams in Europe."
Such is Kimmich's precocity, he is regarded as a shoo-in to inherit the Bayern captaincy soon. Indeed, it is a sign of his versatile gifts, which allow him to switch from central midfield to right-back with a minimum of fuss, that nobody esteems him more highly than Guardiola. During the Spaniard's time in charge, he sought out Kimmich near the end of a match with Dortmund and harangued him. It looked like a public admonition, but was in fact extravagant praise, as the manager told him he was one of the best centre-backs in the world.
If Guardiola eyeballs a player like this, it is a sure sign that he has been earmarked for the big time.
Clearly, Kimmich adored Guardiola. "When I came to Bayern, I was a second division player," he says. "For me it was a new world. The coach showed me a lot, showed me the spaces on the pitch. I improved just from training. He was amazing. Soon I was a national player, competing in the European Championships. He inspired me."
Even the face-to-face challenge during the Dortmund game is one that he recalls with affection. "It's how he works. If he sees that there is something wrong, or if you have made a mistake, he talks to you directly, not in the dressing room or one day after. He wants you to understand the situation. It's much easier as a player that way."
He insists, diplomatically, that he has embraced the adaptations of working under four managers in four years, but one senses this is not quite the full story.
"We didn't want to change Guardiola," interjects Martin Haegele, Bayern's long-serving head of media. "If he had wanted to stay, we would have been very happy."
Kimmich, laughing, does not demur. He draws a direct line between the magnetic personalities of Guardiola and Klopp, who has transformed Liverpool back into Champions League finalists and Premier League contenders.
"It's amazing, the emotion he has, on the field, with the fans," he says.
"You can see how he pushes his players to another level. Every player is better with this coach."
For all that he has accomplished at Bayern, Kimmich remains haunted by events in Russia eight months ago. The World Cup had appeared his chance to burst to global prominence, but instead it all unravelled with a 2-0 defeat to South Korea and Germany's first failure to reach the knockout stages for 80 years.
Today, the ignominy is still hard to bear. "It hurts," he says, quietly. "I don't know if it's so hard for others, who have won the World Cup once before. But for me, when you haven't won any great titles - Champions Leagues, World Cups or Euros - then it's tough when you lose this opportunity."
On returning home, Kimmich evaded the spotlight, spending a low-key summer with his girlfriend, Lina Meyer, whom he met in Leipzig, in an effort to turn the page. It did not help that Germany's humiliation was followed days later by incendiary remarks from Mesut Ozil, who, in confirming his international retirement, accused the federation of racism and disrespect. The ugly episode caused damage, Kimmich admits, to Die Mannschaft's image.
"Normally we are a symbol for respect, for migration. It was always normal that every player respected the other. Maybe this time, we lost a bit of a team spirit. Maybe this was a big reason that we got knocked out."
Still, he does have one bold suggestion for a successor one day to Low: Herr Klopp. "He can coach every team, including our national team," says Kimmich, relishing his visit to Anfield. "Everybody likes him. He is just really..." He trails off briefly, searching for the right word.
"Authentic." (© Daily Telegraph, London)