What can you take away from your last game in Frankfurt?
“Mixed feelings. There are a lot of positives and a lot of negatives, they are what usually defines how you feel. If you only take positives from the game, then you have usually won it. I think it was a game which both teams weren’t satisfied with. Frankfurt would have wanted to win the game because they had taken the lead, we wanted to win it because we had been on a good run in the last few weeks, and we deserved it after coming back from behind so much. We just conceded too many goals, unfortunately, though.”
You are enjoying a lot of success, but you’re still facing some criticism, why is that?
“I think there are a few reasons. When you have success, you start getting used to it, then you look more at the smaller details and you’re less satisfied with certain things. It could also be a bit of a German thing, to look at certain things and think they are good, but could still be better. A lot of people in the Bundesliga also compare themselves with others. There are a lot of teams who are playing very attractive football, something BVB aren’t usually known for, and maybe people have a problem with that. They want to play like Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, RB Leipzig, whoever, Stuttgart.
From that, you can maybe get some dissatisfaction, which isn’t justified because we are in a results-driven sport, and the results are good. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to improve our game, we’re self-critical in the changing room as well, and we’re saying that 1-0 wins are extremely important, and they’re good because you don’t concede and you pick up the same three points you would if you win 8-0. In a three-game week, though, if you’re winning 2-0 or 3-0 at half-time, you have that feeling in these weeks that you can rotate a bit, you aren’t nervous right until the end of the game, you don’t have to kill yourselves out there. That’s the way it is at the moment, it’s improved though, compared to the first two or three weeks, which was harsher.”
It’s going well for you personally, why is that?
“I don’t know. I think I’m managing to create chances in the final third at the moment, but also when I have a chance, I’m managing to be clinical with my finishing. I don’t remember having many chances in the last few weeks, it’s not like I’ve had three or four big chances every game, more like only one or two. I’m just finding it pretty easy at the moment. That happens when you get into a run like this, you have momentum on your side. Last season, when I was injured for a while, I managed to find my form relatively quickly again.”
You’re one of the youngest players with 300 Bundesliga appearances. Do you know who else is in this club?
“I don’t know, but I’ve read who is around me, who is better than me, and it seems like I’m at a good age, there aren’t many players, at least from the players I’m playing with now or have played with before. It’s brutal, notwithstanding the number of games, it’s crazy how quickly the years go by. I’ve been a professional for 10 years, but it still feels like it did when I was playing my first games at 17, 18, and 19 at Leverkusen. It’s a nice feeling, but a strange one. Time flies.”
You scored the deciding goal in Bremen in your milestone game. That was a perfect day, wasn’t it?
“Yes, also when you win 1-0 it’s great. The situation was a bit tricky with the national team and the travel. I’d had very little sleep before the game, you wonder how ready you are to perform. I even managed to play almost 90 minutes though, which maybe caused my problems in the Champions League. It was worth it on the whole though. It feels good when you celebrate a milestone, but it’s also great to help your team to a win, to pick up an important three points, especially on a Friday. To draw or lose on a Friday is probably the worst feeling that there is.”
What was the celebration all about? Do you only do that against Bremen?
“No, I also did it when we played against Sevilla last year, but it was picked up against Bremen. I have tried to explain it once or twice, but it’s not easy. To break it down, I’m known for being a big fan of anime, it’s something that’s been there since I was a kid. I’m not a Netflix fan, I’m more of an anime fan.
It’s a series which is on at the moment, with a few characters who you can start to identify with. That’s a sign from a character who I find quite good. In the past, I’ve posted a few things on Instagram, so people could see how it looks in a few videos. That’s the story, and it’s established itself now so that we have found a subject within the team. We now have a lot who have taken up this anime, who are starting a bit of community, even though it has nothing to do with football. It’s a lot of fun, it’s something which is a good counter to the everyday football day.”
You don’t always celebrate like that though, you didn’t against Frankfurt, so why not?
“I thought the seconds were important and could count for us in the end, so I didn’t want to start a show. I thought it was better to get back. It always depends on the moment, in Bremen, it was predestined. If you have a tense game, and the fans are waiting for the deadlock to finally be broken and you manage it then you’re in front of the south stand, then the stage is set. It fits the moment well. In Bremen too, it was also a tight game. There are also situations when it’s better to leave it, though.”
Looking ahead to Der Klassiker, does the final game of last season add some spice to this game?
“The 34th matchday last season wasn’t anything that Bayern did to us, they just won their game. It was fair enough. I think there’s enough spice already in this game. The people of Dortmund look forward to Bayern coming here, it’s always a heated game. Last season it was particularly special because we equalised at the last minute. We have played well in a lot of games without managing to reward ourselves, that’s what you can think of when you think of our games against Bayern.
I think there has to come a time when you reward yourselves for the effort you put in, not only when you play against these teams, but also against teams below us. That’s a big task, as it always has been, they are playing well at the moment, have won a lot of games, and we have been unbeaten for a few months now, and we want to keep it that way. In the end, form on the day will be decisive. If you have one or two lads who don’t push themselves to their limits, that’s the same for Bayern too, then that will be decisive for the result, we have to be aware of that.”
How do see Bayern at the moment?
“There are parallels to our situation, maybe not to the full extent, but a bit. You always want more; you always find something to criticise. From a distance or a neutral point of view, it’s impressive what they deliver every three days. They play extremely effective football, they are always in a position to score, even from nothing. You saw against Darmstadt, the first half was a bit wild because of the red cards, but when they find their rhythm, they can turn you over.
They score a lot of goals, they have a lot of players who can get into positions to score goals. That’s kind of how it is in Munich though. It seems you can never really fully satisfy the people there. That’s not my problem though, I’m concerned with Borussia Dortmund, that’s the most important thing for me. The most important thing on Saturday is who is the bravest, who turns up on the day. It could be a tight game. The advantage for us is that we’re at home.”
Has it surprised you how well Harry Kane has started in the Bundesliga?
“It hasn’t surprised me. When I watched the first few games, I thought maybe he would need a bit of time to settle into the team. He scored in most games, but you still thought maybe he would need to adapt, now you can see that he is getting better week after week, his teammates understand him, and he understands them. I have to say, there is a lot of focus on Harry Kane at the moment, but for me, and I can judge this because I played with him, Leroy’s development is sensational. He’s so strong at the moment. I don’t want to say he’s showing what he can do, but he’s extremely efficient, and for me the player at Bayern who is playing the best and who we should be focussing on the most. I don’t want to talk Harry Kane down, given how many goals he has scored, but I think Leroy is their key player.”
The goalkeeper is crucial in Der Klassiker, how’s Gregor Kobel doing after his knock to the head against Frankfurt?
“He looked good today [Monday]! He’ll manage.”
Manuel Neuer is back for Bayern, is he back to his top level again?
“He is very professional. I don’t think he will play immediately unless he knows he can play to the best of his ability. Footballers are all ambitious and sometimes want it all too quickly, but I think he has a good feeling for his own body and knows when he is ready to play again and give everything for the team. What will be interesting will be how he gets back into the rhythm of a game, and you can’t prepare yourself for that.
He won’t get that by the time we play, but he has got so much experience, so much football behind him, that he will be okay. We will be trying to put one or two past him though, which he can’t stop. It won’t be a disadvantage for Bayern though, I think. I also think Sven Ulreich has done very well. He is sometimes overshadowed by Manuel Neuer, but I have seen one or two of his saves in the last few games, and they were sensational, so he doesn’t need to do himself a disservice.”
Ulreich, for example, played very well against Mainz, can you remember?
“Yes, and he also made some saves in Istanbul, it was a difficult game for them. He’s an important player for them.”
After almost 10 years as a professional, do you still think back to your time starting out at SC Borgfeld?
“I generally really like looking back, I’m often reminded of my past or my childhood because a lot of lads who I played with back then are still my friends, my best friends. Funnily enough, because you mentioned it, I was back there two weeks ago and watched a game, some of my friends were playing. It was a difficult game to watch but that’s not what it was about, I just wanted to go there.
That’s what I meant before, as a child you go and play football and you have fun. You’re not worried about what could go badly, or will I eventually play 300 games and be a professional for 10 years? It’s just about having fun. Now, when you are in that situation, it gives me the feeling of how transient this time is, and how much you should enjoy it. You hear from players who have finished their career about how quickly it goes, and they should have done this or that, and I think sometimes, especially after the Werder game, maybe I should reflect once or twice a day, to enjoy what I am doing, that will do me good.
The next ten years will be over pretty quickly, and it’s great to be in this situation, in the football world, with the good and the negative things which are associated with it.”
You seem very mature when you talk like that, is that accurate?
“Yes, I got older, I was a bit different seven years ago, but that’s all part and parcel of it! You don’t stay the same, time affects you. I’m talking like a 35-year-old now, but when you hang around with Mats Hummels then you feel old. He ages you, that guy!”
Marco Reus also said that the clock is ticking, do you take that seriously?
“When I was in school you went to school Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and you had the feeling that time was going so slowly. It’s ages until the weekend and it’s never going to arrive! When you do something fun though, especially in a three-game week, it flies by. Then suddenly you’re in a new week, then another new week, you have a national team trip for a week, then another three or four weeks here in Dortmund, and then it feels like you’re away with the national team again, suddenly it’s the winter break. You notice that it feels a lot quicker than if you’re doing something you don’t enjoy. That’s how time flies by.”
Was football always your number one topic as a child?
“It’s been a common topic for me my whole life. I don’t like to be forced into things. If someone says, ‘do that’, then I don’t work very well. If I do things that I want to do, then it tends to go well. At the start it didn’t come from me, we thought ‘let’s try some sport’, and it didn’t work out. Then after a few months, and a bit of discussion with my parents, I decided for myself that I wanted to do it, that’s where it came from. That means that if it had gone terribly, I’d probably have dropped out and done something else. On the whole, everything developed well into where I am now. My drive was the key for me to stick with it, and to have a lot of fun doing sport. With some luck and few injuries I managed to become a professional.”
When did you first realise you were exceptionally talented?
“I played for the club in my neighbourhood until I was 15 because I didn’t really fancy going to a Bundesliga club when I was a youth player, I had more fun playing with my friends. They were good though, we weren’t just messing about, and we could play. When I played for the youth national team for the first time at 15 years old, I realised I had to go for it, if I wanted to take it seriously, because what these Bundesliga clubs can offer you, you don’t get from neighbourhood teams.
I then went to Wolfsburg, which was the right decision for me, and I realised I was establishing myself, I was adapting, getting success, everything was going well, and joined the professionals relatively early. Things were progressing relatively quickly, and then I realised the chance was there, the step from the youth team to the professional team was the biggest, and I realised it could work out. The move to Leverkusen was something I had to make work, that was the key, it had to work out.
I came on against Schalke, had a few good moments in the game, and then played a half against PSG in the Champions League three days later on the back of that. The first impression is usually the most important and that seemingly worked out well, so I could come into the professional team. That’s a summary of the story but I managed, thankfully, to be in the right places at the right times and that helped to set me on my way.”
You were a youth national player at 15 when you played for SC Oberneuland, weren’t you?
“Yes, I was, and I scored in one of the games. I was with Timo Werner who was at Stuttgart at the time. Some so many talented players sadly didn’t manage to make it, there was Bilal Kamerieh who was at Hertha Berlin, and Marc Brasnic who is now at Alemannia Aachen but was at Leverkusen. There was a lot of talent there at 15 years old, then injuries came, maybe some bad luck, and it didn’t work out for some. I managed to slalom through those issues and find my way, and that worked for me.”