When Bayern Munich confirmed the signing of Joshua Kimmich in January, many raised a skeptical eyebrow.
The youngster, who's since celebrated his 20th birthday, had only spent half a season in the 2. Bundesliga prior to his move and wasn't even the highest-rated German central midfielder in his age group, let alone one who could truly be expected to deliver the goods for Germany's most demanding and competitive club.
Yet since then, Kimmich's stock has continued to rise, the hard-nosed midfield anchor impressing at Leipzig to earn a somewhat improbable spot in the Germany under-21 team, where he's been arguably his country's best performer at this summer's European Championship. He even was named man of the match in the 3-0 win against Denmark, in which Kevin Volland fell short of the honor despite netting a brace.
It now seems that Kimmich's inclusion in the starting lineup, despite his being the squad's third-youngest player, is justified. Johannes Geis hasn't been missed. Nor has fellow 1995-born midfielder Leon Goretzka, who was capped for the senior national team more than a year ago but was unfit to join Horst Hrubesch's squad this summer.
So impressive has Kimmich been that Bild recently interviewed him and raised the question of whether the newcomer could replace Bastian Schweinsteiger in the Bayern lineup. Kimmich notes in the interview that the Germany captain is his idol but confidently asserted that they will be competitors come next season and that he'll do his best to earn playing time.
Kimmich certainly has the right attitude to succeed in Bavaria: His winning the under-19 European Championship last summer was a good start, but he was also the only player from that team to be promoted to the under-21 level for this summer. And his welcoming of the challenge of standing up to his idol is a sign of true bravery.
In terms of skill set, Kimmich is a bit like Arturo Vidal. He lacks the size of powerhouses such as Javi Martinez and Sami Khedira yet uses his frame extremely well to assert himself in a defensive role. He's extremely aggressive and has lightning-quick instincts to challenge for the ball when it's shown to him. The 5'9" Kimmich's shorter legs facilitate acceleration over short distances, and his low center of gravity makes him extremely agile. In a closely packed midfield, he's a monster of a ball-winner.
On the ball, Kimmich isn't half bad. He may lack Vidal's touch, but his agility and quickness make him a decent dribbler, and he isn't shy to pass. Regardless, the distribution duties in the Bayern lineup will be more the responsibility of Thiago Alcantara, so any shortcomings in Kimmich's ball-playing abilities may not be much of a concern in the Bayern team.
At the same time, the odds are stacked against Kimmich. The precedent for under-21 players joining Bayern isn't exactly encouraging: Sinan Kurt, Mario Gotze, Xherdan Shaqiri, Mitchell Weiser, Takashi Usami, Marcell Jansen, Breno, Lukas Podolsk, Tobias Rau, and Alou Diarra all failed or continue to struggle to assert themselves at Bayern, with Juan Bernat the only 17-to-21-year-old signing since the turn of the 21st century to live up to his billing. And competition has only increased at Bayern in recent years.
There is an impending changing of the guard among Bayern's central midfielders, with Schweinsteiger soon to turn 31, Philipp Lahm 32 and Xabi Alonso 34. But Kimmich will face stiff competition. Thiago is a lock in midfield when fit, and David Alaba and Javi Martinez, if seen as midfield players by Guardiola, will have a huge head-to-head advantage because of their experience.
Kimmich is also not the only up-and-comer vying for a start, with Pierre Hojbjerg and Gianluca Gaudino already first-team players, the former having just returned from loan. And on the horizon is 17-year-old Niklas Dorsch, an excellent prospect to keep an eye on in the coming years.
Although Hojbjerg was benched throughout Denmark's defeat to the Germany under-21s and didn't have a chance to show himself head-to-head, Kimmich put his best foot forward with a masterful performance against the Danes and was more than adequate against Serbia and the Czech Republic.
Whether he can take the next step and assert himself at Bayern remains to seen. Regardless of how the tournament ends, Kimmich will have reasons to be confident as he enters his first season in the German top flight.