The FC Bayern München midfielder and Germany international celebrated his long-awaited comeback after injury with a goal against SC Freiburg. In this week’s interview, he shares his excitement ahead of Der Klassiker, his new role under Julian Nagelsmann as well as his biggest challenges this season.
How is the mood in training ahead of Der Klassiker?
The mood is still not fully back to where it was, getting knocked out of the Champions League really hit us hard. The training week will be spent preparing well for the Dortmund game, and using the time to keep working hard, so we can show a good performance at the weekend.
You recently returned to action after an injury and scored in the win against Freiburg in your comeback game. How that for you, coming back in that fashion?
If you are out for such a long time then make your comeback, in my case in the starting XI, then it’s really nice to be able to help the team with a goal. I scored to make it 1-0, it couldn’t have gone better. We won the game; it was an important game against an exceptionally good Freiburg side. That’s the comeback you imagine and the comeback you hope for. You think about it every day when you’re working on coming back. I didn’t know when I would be back. That made it very difficult, but it is great now, knowing it’s behind me. Since coming back, I started in all three games, that helps me get back into the rhythm. All in all, given I was out for such a long time, I am doing well.
Your last game before the injury was der Klassiker against Dortmund, which was especially emotional. How do you remember that game?
That was the last game, and I already had problems with my knee. A long time before the game, we already discussed internally if I could play. We agreed that I should play, because it was the game of the season, and I really wanted to play. We won the game in front of an incredible audience, as is always the case in Dortmund. It was an emotional game; we played well and won the game. It’s a positive memory.
There have been several special games against Dortmund. You scored in the 88th minute last year in the 4-2 win to make it 3-2 after being 2-0 behind. How emotional was this moment for you, especially a former Schalke player?
At Bayern, the games against Dortmund are always special because they are our biggest competitor, and it’s always an exciting game. For me, because of my past, maybe even more so. It started for me when I was seven or eight as a player at Bochum and Schalke. It’s always been a derby for me, so I am getting excited in the week before.
Bayern can win the championship in the against Dortmund. How special would that be? Winning the title at home against Bayern at a full house?
We are on track to win the championship, but we have missed out on the other two trophies. We had bigger goals this season. The stage is still set, though, to become champions at home, against Dortmund. It’s an even bigger highlight for us this year. Everyone associated with FC Bayern can trust that we will give everything in the game and make sure that we bring home the championship.
For you personally it will be a fourth title. For Thomas Müller, it would be the 11th Bundesliga championship making him the record holder. What do you make of that number and what do you think of Thomas Müller as a teammate and as a role model?
Incredible, 11 championships are unbelievable. He has won every title there is to win, has spent his whole life at Bayern, and that’s why his trophy cabinet is full. He is one of the most important faces of this era. He has been a key player for over a decade, and that’s special. He deserves his place in history. He’s a phenomenon, his physical attributes, you wonder sometimes how he can keep that up, but anyone who doubts him is proved wrong by his performances. You can say that he’s a role model for a lot of us. He still has this this desire to win titles. He really is the personification of FC Bayern München.
You are playing at a full house this weekend. How excited are you about that?
It’s completely different when you play in a full stadium, you remember what makes football so special. The fans in the stadium feel that too. It’s about having this magic back. The team can really be spurred on by this atmosphere from the stands. The atmosphere in the stadium against Villarreal was the best I’ve experienced at Bayern, and that’s exactly where we want to be next season, and on Saturday of course too
What were the biggest challenges this season?
We lost some important players and there were also some new additions in key positions. A new coach came in and we adapted to a partly new system after we had specialised in one system for two years. That all comes with risks, and we wanted to minimise them. We did that well in the first half of the season, we made good progress in our defence and how we played tactically. The second half of the season has been a little difficult. These periods can be decisive. In previous seasons we always performed really well in the important matches. We didn’t manage that this year. We will analyse this more intensively in the coming weeks and find out what went wrong, but for now we are fully focussed on Saturday.
Has your role changed at all under Julian Nagelsmann? Where does he see your value to the team?
The things I’m being asked to do have changed a bit, that’s the same for a lot of other players too. We had a plan before which didn’t change much depending on the opposition. We’re now at a point where we do change things up, we’re more flexible and not as predictable for our opponents. That changes my job description from game to game. It’s interesting, you learn a lot of new things, and we are not at the end of this road.
As spectators, we only see the last few steps when the teams onto field. Can you tell us what happens in the changing room before such an important game as Der Klassiker? How do you prepare and is it more emotional before a game like this?
I think everyone has their own routine. I always listen to music on the way to the stadium, which puts me in the right state of mind. When I get to the stadium I walk the same route, get to the dressing room, and then the tension slowly starts to build. I usually go onto the pitch with Joshua Kimmich and talk about a few things relating to the opponent. That’s our ritual. We then go in for the warmup and shortly before we go out, we huddle up in the dressing room and the coach gives us the last instructions before we go out. Then the ref blows his whistle and the fun starts.