The Kimmich Problem
The Butterfly Effect is a phenomenon where one tiny action can cause giant reactions later. Sometimes the initial event is so small that it is barely perceptible.
Last summer, at the 2018 men’s World Cup in Russia, such an event occurred. Joshua Kimmich, at the time a highly talented 23-year-old right-back, was given almost totally free rein in the German team to pop up wherever he liked. The impact of this has devastated German football ever since.
You see what happened was manifold and lead to Löw ending the international careers of three high quality, World Cup-winning, players:
As Joshua Kimmich went on marauding runs deep into the opposition half, Boateng was having to come across and essentially fill in the gaps at right-back. After Boateng received a red card against Sweden, Süle fulfilled this role
As Boateng was pulled out of position, Hummels had to cover the entire central area by himself. He actually did a decent enough job of controlling the space, normally covered by 2 or 3 players. A fully-fit Manuel Neuer would have helped to alleviate this but hadn’t played any competitive football for 8 months, at that stage.
And now to the game’s underappreciated genius. Thomas Müller invented a position called the Raumdeuter. A Raumdeuter (meaning “space explorer/interpreter,”) is a player that essentially finds gaps of space to exploit, wherever they are to be found, as opposed to making heavily-coached vertical or horizontal runs that fit a specific system. They normally start in a wide area and then drift or run in to act like an advanced forward. But equally a Raumdeuter could pop up through the middle.
With Kimmich not only bombing down the right but also drifting into central areas, this took up large pockets of Müller’s natural attacking space essentially rendering him useless. Given that this was a player who had 10 World Cup goals and had won both the Golden Boot and the World Cup itself, it seemed an inexplicable waste from a German perspective.
Now, Kimmich was and remains an exceptional talent. He has since been shuffled into defensive midfield by Joachim Löw and enjoys playing there. This is a good move by the tactical master and carries echoes of him moving Philipp Lahm there shortly before the victorious 2014 World Cup win.
But in a move that raised quizzical eyebrows across the footballing community, he didn’t just say that Boateng, Hummels & Müller had to go away and prove themselves still worthy of a place in Die Mannschaft, he said that they were finished at international level. They were 30, 29 & 28 respectively.
It did feel a little like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The main culpability lay with Löw. And given that the DFB had just given him a new contract, he was unlikely to throw himself out. So why not go whole-hog?
Kai Havertz is possibly the greatest young talent of his generation (read more,) and logically you would think that he would be the one that the new-era team is shaped around. Jogi Löw apparently doesn’t want to rush him, as he did with Sané. It’s reasonable enough but anyone who has watched Havertz basically own the Bundesliga over the last year could tell you that he is different.
You’d think that Toni Kroos would make way for him at some point.
But after the feeble capitulation against Holland in the Euro 2020 qualifiers, at the weekend, his hand may now well be forced to entirely sweep away the old guard and put his faith in the exceptional youth they possess.
Or perhaps he will revert to Boateng, Hummels & co.
Because, at the moment, the Butterfly is still beating its wings.
Words by J.S. Leatherbarrow. Artwork by FATC staff - all rights reserved.