Kim Min-jae has been solid but his potential for greatness makes his place at Bayern safe


Asked about Bayern Munich’s failure to keep a clean sheet in their past seven matches, Thomas Tuchel blamed a lack of continuity in defence. “We haven’t had the ability to play an unchanged back four for a long time,” he said on the eve of the second leg against Lazio, pointing to a raft of injuries (Noussair Mazraoui, Konrad Laimer, Alphonso Davies, Sacha Boey) and suspensions (Dayot Upamecano, twice) in recent months.

Kim Min-jae’s five-game absence during the Asian Cup won’t have helped either, even if results only turned bad once the 27-year-old returned from Qatar before the 3-0 defeat at Bayer Leverkusen. In a team full of underperforming players, the South Korea international has been solid without being fully convincing, and certainly not quite the force of nature his nickname had promised.

He’s only really been a “monster” fitness-wise, missing no games with injury except the dead rubber against Copenhagen in the Champions League (0-0, bruised hip) and the first round of the DFB Pokal against third-division Preussen Munster (4-0, knock).

Tuesday night will be a big game for last year’s best defender in Serie A. Kim has done better than the out-of-favour Matthijs de Ligt and erratic Upamecano but Bayern expect excellence rather than relative competence from their €42m-plus buy from scudetto winners Napoli. His coach in Naples, Luciano Spalletti, had called him “the best centre-back in the world” last year. “Potentially world-class,” was Roger Schmidt’s verdict. The 56-year-old had managed him for six months at Beijing Guoan.

On Friday, Kim watched on as Freiburg’s Lucas Holer half-volleyed in a late equaliser that killed off what little positive momentum Bayern had built up with their 2-1 win over RB Leipzig the previous week. As individual mistakes go, this wasn’t nearly as bad as his two misplaced passes that led to goals in the 2-1 cup defeat at third-division Saarbrucken and the 4-2 win over Heidenheim before Christmas but somewhat emblematic of the lethargy that seems to have gripped the entire squad.

Kim, bought for his combative style of play and assertive presence in the box, has been unable to marshal a constantly changing back-line with any authority. Yet.

In light of Bayern’s multi-layered problems this season, one shouldn’t apportion too much blame to him though. Tuchel’s team only lost one game all season, 5-1 at Eintracht Frankfurt, when the manager was able to field his preferred defence of Mazraoui, Upamecano, Kim and Davies. And Kim has shown that he has potential for greatness. The basics are all there. He’s got pace and good positioning. He’s tall. He carries the ball well into midfield, his passing is at elite level and his rate of interceptions (2.18 per 90 minutes) is in the 99th percentile for players in his position in the top five leagues (according to fbref.com).

Other defensive qualities, like leadership and calmness under pressure, are harder to measure. They will become more relevant in his second season, when things will hopefully be more settled at Allianz Arena.


Kim was described as the best centre-back in the world last year (Photo: Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images)

Kim told the club magazine 51 that he used to idolise two of his predecessors, Franz Beckenbauer and Lucio. Bayern will hope that he takes more after the iconic “Kaiser” than the Brazilian, who never quite hit the heights consistently in Munich and had a tendency to lose his head in big matches.

“Both were exceptionally strong defenders and at the same time also had great qualities in building up play going forward,” Kim said. In interviews with South Korean media, he also cited Sergio Ramos as a role model — “Real Madrid is more tough, Barcelona is rather soft. I like the tough style of play” — and revealed that he’s watching Liverpool captain Virgil van Dijk as inspiration. Measured against those names, he’s got some room for growth.

But by establishing himself as first-choice centre-back this year, Kim will have a head start under the next manager. He’s the one defender who has come closest to having an okay-ish season so far and one of only a handful of players safe from major changes anticipated for this summer.

And unlike some big-name Bayern pros who seem to have lost their confidence since Hansi Flick’s departure in 2021, Kim embodies precisely the kind of resilience the club want to see in their players. Perhaps his less-than-straightforward journey to the top helps him put things into perspective.

Kim’s parents ran a small sushi restaurant in the port city of Tongyeong. Money was so tight that he had to borrow football boots that friends had outgrown, and when he was called up to the under-17s for the first time, his father drove him to the national football centre in a fish truck.

Kim told reporters at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar that he was a little embarrassed by his mode of transportation but credits his family for giving him the right upbringing. He dropped out of college early to help them financially, focusing on football. Later, he trained like Rocky Balboa, pulling a car tyre behind him for extra strength.

“I don’t know if it helped — but it probably didn’t hurt,” he said. “It’s important to me to this day that I’m always open to trying new things and testing my own methods.”

Against Lazio, a timely monster performance from him would go some way towards saving Bayern’s season.

(Photo: Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)





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