Interview: Alexander Zickler Gives his Thoughts on the Bundesliga Battle

As a former FC Bayern München player and now assistant coach at Borussia Dortmund, Alexander Zickler gives his thoughts on the championship battle and also answers questions about Erling Haaland, Youssoufa Moukoko and Robert Lewandowski.

The Interview

Question: How was it getting to know Erling Haaland for the first time when you were the assistant coach at Salzburg?

Alexander Zickler (AZ): He was still extremely young. We had seen a bit of him on DVD and had a picture of his quality then. He was already a Viking in his size and stature but a cool guy, very funny and you could tell he had a vision of his goals.” What were his aims back then? “To get into the team as quickly as possible, you could feel that in training. He didn’t require any time to settle in, he simply gave it his all immediately. You could tell he was really ambitious, for every missed chance he had, he would be on the ground like a small child and smash his fist against the grass, too often sometimes, but I preferred that somebody did that in training rather than not care about it – you could tell he wanted to develop as quickly as possible and didn’t require much time to get going.”

Haaland’s debut hat-trick vs Augsburg

Erling Haaland made some impact on the Bundesliga in his first game, scoring a hat-trick against Augsburg. Check it out here.

Q: What made him stand out even back then as a young player?

AZ: How dynamic he was, he was very agile despite his size, quick, robust in challenges. He suffered an injury and had to be a bit careful but you could see how dynamic he was.”

Q: How did he take it when he sometimes sat on the bench?

AZ: Erling has his vision and in his vision, he is not sitting on the bench for any team. At his previous club, he was a regular, despite his young age, so it was a new situation for him, also his injury, so we had to weigh the risk, was he already ready for the new playing system and philosophy in a well-rehearsed team but he worked well on this. As I said, you noticed in training that he wanted to make it happen as quickly as possible but there were also times where things didn’t go so well for him at training and he had another small injury, so it wasn’t plain sailing for him, there were obstacles here and there.

Q: How would you describe his physical build then?

AZ: I think he was 17 when he arrived and wasn’t quite done with his physical development, so he may have added a couple more centimetres but he already had that appearance of strength and pure athleticism.

Q: It is difficult for you as a trainer to work with a 17-year-old, as you are still developing physically at that age, right?

AZ: Absolutely. Me, Marko and others have started with youth teams, where at 14, 15, 16 it is more of a topic, where the physical development is rapid and you have to take care, working with the medical department and strength and conditioning. It goes hand in hand, noting that a player has something with his knee, noticing weaknesses in the physical development, then making sure that is reflected in training, to reduce the risk.

Q: Then he went to BVB, how did you rate his start from the outside looking in?

AZ: For me, it was no question that he would succeed in the Bundesliga and he would go his way and, I hope it might last a bit longer, as a step towards the next thing but preferably staying here for the next 5, 6, 7 years, but it was clear. In Salzburg, with the departure of the coaching team, players moved to bigger clubs in the Bundesliga and his path was clear. He played brilliantly from the first minute for Salzburg and internationally, and drew attention to himself, leading to BVB. It was clear to me that he would succeed in the Bundesliga by seeing the way he worked day in, day out, not only at training but he did everything he could to ensure he would be successful, to develop, make a name for himself and play for titles with his team. I don’t know exactly when but he won his place at BVB quite quickly and became a sure source of goals and developed from there.

Q: He scored a hat trick on his debut, not bad, right?

AZ: Yeah, exactly, he is a goal machine, we followed that of course and when you look at the results lists or goalscorer lists, his name emerges.

Q: How would you describe his personality now?

AZ: It is difficult to know back then, at 16 or 17, how to talk about personality but I think he already showed his self-confidence, which was fairly high and that has grown since then with the goals and success he has had here. He is a leader, an integral part of the team and you notice that he has both feet on the ground.

Q: How would you describe his physical build now?

AZ: From what I’ve noticed, he has become more stable, also when it comes to injuries, toi toi toi, rarely injured. And I think he has become more robust and dynamic, he has become a real athlete.” Erling says he’s gotten faster at Dortmund. Is that surprising? “Ok, cool. Super, though he was also quick back then.”

Q: As a former top striker yourself, is it particularly fun to work with such a jewel as a coach?

AZ: Absolutely. When you have so much potential in front of you but also shows in training that he is not satisfied with something, he wants to work on the few weaknesses he has every day. He wants to make his strengths even stronger and become even more secure. He is the kind of striker who brings a lot and does things at a high tempo, so he needs to train in a different way. He has become quicker and attempts with his deep runs or his dynamism to do things at a high tempo and you need to be able, for example, to be able to deliver the ball at this tempo, finish with your left, your right, try to work on his weaker foot, which in the meantime is not so weak. It is fun as a trainer team to see him come here with that quality and potential and see how much he has improved and become consistent in what he produces.

Q: Is it a coincidence that he is beginning to score with his head?

AZ: No, it is absolutely no coincidence, he is working on these things. At the moment, we don’t have a lot of time, because of the English weeks, so we have to be careful there, but in the training camp and in sessions, he wants the ball flat and with pace, he wants balls on his head. You talk about movement in the box, running to the near post, going back to the far post behind his man, like he did in the last match and then the heading technique. He knew there was room to improve because it helps him, then he is more flexible, has more strengths and is more difficult to defend against.

Q: What has he still got to learn?

AZ: When you observe Erling, you get the impression that the ball has to be hit at 120 km/h into the top left or top right, he has to do it with extreme power, but when you watch other players like Robert Lewandowski or Messi, who is at another level and a different type of player, but they don’t work much with power, it is all about precision, technique and accuracy and that is something Erling could take on board. Not everything has to be pure power, sometimes less is more, less power, more precision.”

Q: Looking back at it, how would you describe your own career?

AZ: I am extremely grateful that I got to experience so much, many beautiful moments. There was also the dark side of the professional life with sporting losses, like 1999, but also personal losses like serious injuries. But overall, very thankful that I got to experience so much, in Munich and then Salzburg, where I also noticed the certain calmness I had in front of goal in Salzburg.

Q: Do strikers get better with age?

AZ: Absolutely. Of course, there is a particular experience that you collect and develop over the years, a calmness you develop, not overthinking things. That is certainly something I was developing during my time with Bayern.

Q: Strikers can always be subject to dry spells, where does that come from?

AZ: Of course, it happens to everyone, Lewandowski might not have it for a particularly long time, maybe there is a penalty in between, but many great strikers have landed in these dry spells, where things don’t work for them. Of course, you can pass it on and with Erling and other offensive players, because at the end of the day, that is how strikers are measured and how they can help the team, with goals, whereby nowadays we attack as a team and defend as a team. However, it is always nice for a striker to score goals. You can support strikers mentally, talk to them, give them confidence in training by working on simple things, supporting them and helping them to find the goals again.

Q: How is Erling as a person?

AZ: Extremely cool and relaxed, very open. You have to bear in mind, this is already a figure who is young and has brought a lot on upon himself, also when he leaves the training pitch or in the stadium, the opposition team, not just the players but the staff – everyone wants something from him, everyone wants his jersey after the match, there is never a quiet moment and that fascinates me a bit. There was something in a newspaper about his arrogance but you have to be considerate about what is happening to the young man and everyone who wants something from the club, they usually want it from him, ideally an interview or an advertisement shoot every day and it is a lot. I think his carry-on here is very good and is very open and fun, but when it comes to the training pitch, he is fully focused and wants to improve himself.

Q: Did it surprise you to see Lewandowski break the 40-goal record?

AZ: Yeah, there are few who can achieve this. Robert is one, I think Erling is another who can do that one day. It shows the class of Lewandowski and the fascinating thing is the superstars like Robert, like Messi or Ronaldo is that is not just a season, it’s eight, nine, ten years when they play at an extremely high level and every opponent know what is coming but they are still unstoppable. This is something Erling still has to work towards. Players like Robert, who through his positioning and flexibility cannot be figured out and can always do something special, which the opponent is not prepared for, with calm and confidence, this is something Erling can still learn but he has time.”

Q: How is Youssoufa Moukoko doing right now?

AZ: I don’t know how it is, internally, at the moment but I like him, I like him a lot. We talk about it a lot and the situation is not easy for him but his time will come. I tell him that a lot and it will come here. It is difficult for him at the moment and it is going fairly quickly for him, the development, getting better and better, scoring 58 goals for the under 19s at 15, there was huge hype around him. Eventually, you’re in with the pros and it is different, the game moves differently. There was a certain period when the pressure wasn’t as big, which showed in the early games as he was present and busy in front of goal, then there was a period when it wasn’t going so well and then you expect a lot from him which he cannot regularly deliver, because he is not in that position yet. And I’ve said to him, your time will come here, 100% because you have so much quality, you must believe in this quality and these minutes on the pitch you get to come with a lot of consideration, you need to make use of it, then you will eventually find your way into the team.