What were the reasons for your move to Bayer Leverkusen?
“There were several, firstly because of European football, that’s a huge draw for me, especially since I play for the national team. It’s important to play in Europe and that possibility was there at Leverkusen. The conversations I had with Simon (Rolfes), and the coach as well, were good. They were very authentic, and they convinced me to take the step. You can have a look at the team ahead of a move too, there is huge potential and huge talent. The new arrivals bring a good mix of young and old, they have experience and can lead the team a bit. All of that is taken together, as well as my motivation to see something different, experience something new, go in a new direction, and get to know new people. I know that can sometimes sound like a cliché but everyone who has been in a situation like this knows that it is a huge challenge.”
Are you aware you have a very long contract for a player of your age?
“Yes, I’m 31 now, I’ll be 35, which is a good age for an attacking player. I hope I can perform in the same way in the next four years as I have performed in the past. I feel fit, I feel really good. Last season was the first season I played 31 or 32 Bundesliga games. Before that I always had an injury to contend with, so I’m very confident.”
What were your favourite Bundesliga moments?
“Of course, my first minutes were special, I was subbed on for Mario Götze when I was a young player at Hoffenheim. You never forget that. The first Bundesliga goal is also something you never forget, that was at home, at the Signal Iduna Park against Braunschweig. My hat trick for Gladbach against Mainz was a special moment. I could name a few others, but they are the ones that spring to mind.”
What was your first experience of the Bundesliga?
“The first time I went to a stadium with my dad. I think it was in Munich or Stuttgart. Stuttgart wasn’t too far from my home, and I went to Munich with a fan club from my village. Karlsruhe was close by too. Hoffenheim came later when I played for their youth team. You always looked out for the players you looked up to as a kid. You dreamed of being in their place. I worked a lot, of course, I think I realised I could turn my talent into ambition from an early age. But it is not only talent, some players were far more talented than me who didn’t make it as far as I did. It was my ambition which drove me on. I noticed that from an early age, I didn’t want to lose even the simplest board game!”
Who were your Bundesliga idols as a child?
“I had Claudio Pizarro’s and Mehmet Scholl’s shirts, I remember that. I also liked the big international stars, like Zinedine Zidane, and Ronaldinho, I remember having their shirts at home.”
What did you find so special about these players?
“They inspired me because they were such clever players. I remember watching a moment on TV when Mehmet Scholl got an assist when you thought he had to shoot, but he found a player in a better position than him. Things like that stuck with me, maybe because I try to be similar on the pitch, and find my way of doing that.”
Did you speak to Xabi Alonso personally before your transfer?
“I didn’t speak to him, but of course, you then get to the stage where you have a Facetime call with him, and Xabi Alonso is sitting in front of you – it’s inspirational and cool because I knew him from my time when I was a bit younger. I even played against him in 2014/2015. I also think the football he played was inspiring and cool, it’s just a cool thing when he’s sitting in front of you, he could be your coach, and you’re talking about football. The type of conversation we had, about our aims, plans, where he sees me, it was inspiring.”
Where does the coach see you playing?
“Of course, in an attacking position, that’s clear, because of the last three or four seasons when my attacking statistics were high. They are my strengths. I can, however, play on the right of a five if I need to, I have done this for the national team. The focus is more of an attacking one though.”
Can you benefit from Florian Wirtz’s qualities?
“Yes. Flo is a player I can identify with because he wants the ball in key areas, he can turn well, and he can often get the ball in behind in only two or three touches. That’s something someone like me needs, as I can run in behind.”
In that case, you and Florian Wirtz can shine in midfield in the home European Championships?
“Of course! I wouldn’t say no to that! There’s still a long way to go before then though, the main aim is to make sure we perform here for Leverkusen, that we prepare well together, get to know each other’s game, and then perform well, both in the Bundesliga and in Europe, when it all starts up again.”
Do you notice how much the national coach values you?
“Yes. It’s not a given for a national coach to speak like that, although it was a few months ago so I hope he still sees it the same way! My international career has taken off under Hansi Flick. I think I have started 13 of the 15 games under him and come on as a substitute in the other two. That makes me grateful that he trusts me like that. I always make sure I give my all when I’m playing for my national team, to repay the trust he has in me.”
How was the contact between you and Granit Xhaka when you were both at Gladbach together?
“I was a new player back then and we only had half a year together, but we got on well with each other quickly. There’s a Swiss connection there, and I generally get on well with Swiss players, also with players like Yann Sommer, Nico Elvedi, and Breel Embolo, I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone. That always worked well, and I tried my best to practise my Swiss German! That’s why I was really happy when I found out Granit was coming here, We get on well but he also hugely strengthens us on the pitch.”
Like you, Granit Xhaka is also a 1992 vintage.
“Like a good wine, right?!”
Are you impressed by the 3 million Instagram followers Granit Xhaka has?
“I hope he’s a football player primarily, and that he impresses by doing that! I think he’s first and foremost a good guy, Off the pitch he’s a leader, he makes jokes, he has a switch between being serious and relaxed. On the pitch you don’t need to say much, he was at Arsenal for four years, was captain there, almost won the title, and that shows that he has such a lot of quality on the pitch.”