The former FC Bayern München and Germany captain looks back at the season so far, highlights the Bundesliga’s best young talent, his favourite goals and the clubs that have caught his eye during the campaign.
Let’s take a look at the championship race. How close do you think it is?
I would say it was very close up until the Bayern-Dortmund game. Bayern won in Dortmund and then Dortmund dropped a few more points, so a bit of a gap has emerged. We know how good Bayern are when they are leading from the front, so they remain the absolute favourites, but only really because they won in Dortmund.
Apart from Lewandowski and Haaland, which players on both sides have particularly surprised or impressed you?
At Bayern, I would say Hernandez, who has had a good season so far and has luckily not been injured as often as he was last season. It is important for him to play regularly to find his rhythm and I think he looks very good. He is a good centre back – robust, fast, and a good passer of the ball, so he has been a bit of a surprise package this year. Leroy Sané is the other player I would highlight. I think it’s great how he has come back after he received so much criticism. He is not the oldest, but he has already got a lot of experience and he had to overcome a few challenges when things weren’t going his way after he changed clubs. Julian Nagelsmann has done a very good job with Leroy Sané. It is not really a surprise, but it is nice that he has come back after a season which did not necessarily go to plan for him. On the Dortmund side, I think that Bellingham is putting in great performances. He is a dynamic player who plays with a lot of passion and also shows a certain amount of maturity for his young age. He has really impressed me.
How would you compare Lewandowski and Haaland? Champion and successor? Or top dog and challenger? Which do you think applies most?
It is difficult because they are opponents, but you must not forget that it’s a team sport and it’s actually Bayern against Dortmund. If you want to talk about getting to the very top, then the benchmarks are still Messi and Ronaldo because they have done unbelievable things for the last 15 years. They have been the benchmark for everything during this period and this cannot be forgotten. Lewy has worked his way towards this and has got to the very top from year to year. He has been there for a few years now and Haaland is on this very path now. He has the qualities and I’m excited to see how it develops. You can certainly call it the master and his challenger.
To what extent do you think they pay attention to each other’s performances?
I am sure that they pay attention to one another. They are strikers and at the end of the season, they want to be champions and they want to be top goalscorer, so they will keep an eye on each other for that reason alone. I also think that Robert Lewandowski is the benchmark for young forwards in terms of how he has developed. He also went on a journey from coming to Germany and having a difficult start at Dortmund, to then being one of the top players here. He then transferred to Bayern, where it didn’t all go to plan at the start either, but he improved year after year until he became the player he is today. I think he can be a role model for many young forwards and definitely for Erling Haaland as well.
Which three words best describe Erling Haaland?
Dynamic, athletic, and ambitious. But I can only say this from a distance because I have never got to know him personally.
In which situations is it possible to defend against him and in which situations is it not possible?
I think he is difficult to defend against in a lot of situations because he is simply a very good player. He is dynamic, quick, and is an excellent finisher, which makes him difficult to defend against. You need to have good qualities as a defender and when two good players come up against each other, then it often depends on the day and how the teams react to individual players. It is always difficult to assess the specific situations where someone is easy or hard to defend against.
Another striker who is really making an impact is Taiwo Awoniyi. What were your first thoughts about him?
He is a robust and athletic player who fits perfectly to Union’s style of play. He has a great connection on the pitch with Max Kruse and it is nice to see how they complement one another. You get the impression that he feels at home in the Bundesliga and especially at Union Berlin.
So far this season, there have been an average of about 3 goals per game. Are there any goals that you have found particularly beautiful?
Niklas Dorsch’s goal springs to mind. It only happened recently, and he was even someone I trained and played with. It was an unbelievable shot, and the trajectory of the hit was amazing. Pantović’s goal for Bochum also comes to mind. It was a long distance shot from some way out. In fact, I think he scored two goals like this, with one coming in the DFB Pokal and one in the Bundesliga. I also played with him at FC Bayern. These are the two goals I can recall now, but there were definitely more great goals and also a lot of goals, as you just mentioned.
There are a lot of teams that have been a surprise package this season. Which team comes to mind first and why?
Definitely Freiburg because they are having a great season. They have managed to keep continuity in terms of their leadership team and their manager. They moved to a new stadium in the first half of the season and they are doing a fantastic job. When you talk about relegation, you no longer mention Freiburg because they have established themselves in the Bundesliga and you get the impression they are looking up the table a bit more. It is also good fun to watch Christian Streich’s team.
Köln are playing real power football and are doing a good job of taking the crowd with them. What role does the coach play in this development?
I would say the coach plays a big role. Steffen Baumgart achieved a similar thing in Paderborn and the playing style was always attacking and with a lot of passion. Everyone had a part to play and this is how you get the Köln fans on board. They want to see passion from the team, but also from the coach on the sidelines, so Steffen Baumgart’s move there definitely played a big role in their development.”
Union Berlin are currently reinforcing last year’s great season and are still the number one club in the capital. What makes Union stand out for you?
They have a clear playing style and follow the coach’s lead. You can see this very clearly because they don’t take too many risks in possession, but they have a clear idea of how they want to play and how they want to attack. A lot of teams in the Bundesliga take big risks when they are in possession, and this leads to a lot of goals being conceded. Union do very well to minimise the risks at the back and to play the ball forward in a direct and quick way in order to score goals. You can very clearly see what they want to do and this is certainly the trademark of the coach.
Bochum have fought their way out of the bottom three as a promoted team. What can we expect from them this season?
Their aim is to stay in the league and this is looking very promising. They always play as a team, create a lot of chances, and are always good for a goal. It is therefore not surprising that they are doing well and I think they can certainly achieve their goal of staying in the league.
Leipzig and Gladbach are experiencing a real rollercoaster season: Do you think that Leipzig have taken an important step towards success with the change of coach to Domenico Tedesco?
It was a bit surprising for me that Leipzig were not able to build on the success of the last few seasons and that they dropped a lot of points and gave away easy points. I don’t know if the change of manager will be a positive development because we will have to wait and see, but the balance between attack and defence was not there. They conceded too many easy goals and did not play well defensively. This makes life very difficult, especially if the expectation is that you will be near the top of the table, as is the case with Leipzig. Once you start losing games and dropping points, you can easily find yourself in the mid-table, which is not where you expect to be. I am interested to see how things will develop at Leipzig.
Gladbach are playing great in some games, e.g., against Bayern, but a relegation battle could still be looming. How can these varying performances be explained?
Firstly, I would say it is not down to the quality in the team because the quality is there. Once again, the goals are down to losing possession of the ball too easily. They are taking too many risks in areas where you try to minimise risk or not have any risk at all. I think it has become fashionable to take risks at the back in order to play the ball forward, but I don’t think this is necessary. The risk should be taken elsewhere on the pitch and not in the back line. This has been happening at Gladbach, which has led to them losing games and falling into a bit of a hole. They need to try to show their strengths again as quickly as possible because they certainly have the quality.
Jude Bellingham is 19 years old and an absolute leader. What are his best qualities?
He brings passion onto the pitch, he wants to win every game, and he always wants to prove that he is worthy of his place at Borussia Dortmund. He wants to show his qualities as a dynamic player who is very good at tackling and is a good passer of the ball. He also trusts himself to get involved in attacks and, even at the age of 19, he brings a certain maturity onto the pitch. I don’t know where this comes from, but it’s fun to watch him play.
It’s hard to imagine Leverkusen without Florian Wirtz. What sets him apart from other great talents? How great is his potential?
He has great potential and great quality because he is very technically strong. I also think he has a certain maturity when you see how he creates chances and how he plays in his teammates. He knows where he can and cannot afford to lose the ball, which is very important when you are young and when you are a technical player. You need to know where you can dribble and where you can and can’t lose the ball. This makes him stand out because he is technically gifted, but he can also judge the game situation. He is no longer playing youth football like many players of his age, but rather he is playing professional football.
Lukas Nmecha has come to the fore at Wolfsburg. What do you think of him?
I see him as a classic forward who is very strong in the box. He needs the team to help him because he gets the service from others. He is also quite quick, which means he can have balls passed to him behind the defensive line. He fits very well to Wolfsburg because Wolfsburg play this system and he is a classic striker, of which there are not too many anymore.
What are the stumbling blocks for young talents?
The most important thing with young players is that they actually play and gain experience. On the one hand, the club, the coach, and the team have to accept that there will be fluctuations, but I think that sometimes things happen too quickly and the players change clubs and go elsewhere. They want to take the next step, even if they have not continually shown a consistent performance at the club where they are currently at. I would advise young players to first get up to the right level and play well there, before then taking the next step after a certain amount of time to another club or to a better club. Then the same process has to happen again where they establish themselves, put in good performances, and get support from the club. We saw with Leroy Sané that there can be fluctuations after a change of club, but the club and the team and the coach have to go through this process if they are convinced of the qualities of the player. I would give the advice to every player to first continually put in good performances at a high level over a longer period of time in order to then take the next step with confidence.