Interview: Exequiel Palacios, Bayer 04 Leverkusen

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How much did you practise the goal that Alejandro Grimaldo scored from a corner against Hoffenheim?

“It was all rehearsed during the week. Coach Sebastian [Parrilla] oversees set pieces. It wasn’t the first time we scored from a set piece. There was also a prepared move against Gladbach from a free-kick. But my job was to shield Grimaldo, make a bit of a curtain, three players and me. The move was actually with Jonas Hofmann from the other side, but Grimaldo stayed in that position and the ball was played to him. But I held out as long as I could because If I’d done any more, I think it would’ve been a foul. At the time, Grimaldo told me we should cover and the pass would be for him. But yes, it was practised during the week.”

How have you developed a new possession-based style this season?

“The players who came in have changed how we play and how we’ve trained. The coach has had quite a bit of time with more practice and has brought in a lot of passing into training, lots of possession, and one or two touches. I think if you train it all week, then it comes out in games. I think every player is fulfilling what the coach is asking of him. Altogether, each of us is contributing a little bit, and it’s working out very well.”

How quickly have you adapted to playing alongside Granit Xhaka in midfield?

“When you’ve got good players alongside you, in this case, Granit, it makes things easier for you because you know if you give him the ball, he’ll pass it back well or even better. I think there was a connection between the first few games, the first few training sessions. If he steps out of position, I know I need to move in. If I go, he comes. Or we pass between ourselves. And the coach is saying all week that we need to be together, need to combine passes, that the ball and the play need to go through us a lot. Without even talking much to Granit, I think it just takes a glance; we know each other well. Playing alongside a player with such a big career, it always makes you better.”

How does it feel to be competing for the title this year?

“I arrived from River Plate having won a lot of titles, and what you want when you come here is titles. But we’re doing well, we’re on track. We know it’s a long one, a tough one. We’re still unbeaten in the league and the cup, but we have to take things one game at a time. The coach makes sure we know we need to play every game and focus on what comes each week. We need to keep working with humility, with respect, and trying to play our game.”

Do you feel you are at the peak of your career?

“I don’t know if it’s the best moment, but I feel good, feel I have more confidence with every passing game and training session. I’m playing consistently, which gives me confidence. I get that from the coach, my teammates and the people here at the club. It makes me feel happy. I recently renewed my contract. I’m happy here. I want to get out and play and enjoy the moments. I’m someone who takes things a day at a time, and who tries to remain calm. I’m focused on what’s happening here at Leverkusen. My mind is here.”

In what ways have you improved as a player since your arrival at Leverkusen from Argentina?

“I think I’ve improved here… Football is very different in South America compared to Europe. I found it hard in the first years, the first year and a half, because of injuries and the lack of consistency. That annoys and frustrates you because I was used to playing almost all the time at River, and then I came here and wasn’t playing because of injuries. It’s a test to see if you’re ready.

I feel I’ve improved physically. When I arrived, it would get to the 50th or 60th minute and I was very tired and couldn’t finish the game. Then a new coach came, and I started playing consistently. There was greater personal and physical care. I think I’ve improved there, but also on the pitch. I’ve improved: thinking more quickly, and deciding better in the moments where you have to decide whether to take a touch or keep the ball a bit more. I think I’m improving every day. I’m open to listening to the coach, and to players in my position. I try to learn every day.”

Do you feel any extra pressure given your coach Xabi Alonso also played in your position?

“Not pressure. Like I said, I’m ready to listen to every piece of advice, every lesson. It’s a bonus to have a coach who played in my position, and who had a great career. I’m ready to listen to him at any moment, for every move, pass or play to keep learning.”

Is Alonso obsessed with tactics?

“Yes, he’s an obsessed coach. He always wants more. You see in every training session that if he sees you’re switched off or relaxed, he quickly tries to switch you on, so you focus on what’s going on in training. I think he’s a coach with a lot of potential. He’s only just started but I think he has a big future as a coach, and he’s making everyone aware of that here.”

Does having possession of the ball allow your team to conserve energy?

“Obviously when you have the ball you can rest some more. We’re a team that has the majority of possession every game. At times when we don’t have it… We suffer in those moments because we’re up against an opponent who is always tough in the Bundesliga. But we also have the resources to counter-attack. We’ve got very quick players who can make a difference in attack. But we’re a team that feels better with the ball.”

Is it very demanding to play almost every three days?

“In my case, I’ve gotten used to playing every three days. You always want to play and be available for the coach. When we have a whole week, the training sessions are more intense. But everyone who plays knows what role they have. The coach has shown us that nobody is a certain starter. There’s healthy competition. If you relax and aren’t prepared, then you obviously won’t play. The coach has made that known. Every player makes it tough for him to pick the team.”

How have you adapted to life in Germany?

“You never lose your Argentinian roots. At home, I live like I did in Argentina. I eat at 9 pm, drink with some mates in the evening, and have a siesta. I also talk to my family. But you feel welcome here, with lots of love from the German people and the club. I always like to go back to Argentina. Argentina is my home, Argentina is my place, but I feel very comfortable here. Life here is very relaxed, very safe. But I wouldn’t swap Argentina for anything.”

How would you describe Bayer Leverkusen as a club?

“I think it’s a very familial club. People come as families to watch the games. People ultimately come to watch because they follow us all over, filling the stadiums. And that helps us a lot. We know the people will follow us and will support us. It’s very good in every regard. It’s a top club in the sense it’s one of the best in Germany. You have all the facilities you need to work; you feel comfortable. The club has everything. You just have to do your bit as a player on the pitch. In my case, I feel very happy and very comfortable. I’m enjoying every moment, every game, every training session. I didn’t really when I arrived because of the situation, but I feel I’m enjoying everything right now at Leverkusen.”

Do fans often come up to you in public?

“Maybe more so here in Leverkusen. But I’m also not someone who goes out for a walk much. The people here are more respectful, and calmer. It’s not like in South America where you’re out having a coffee and people come up to you saying, ‘We’re going to win on Sunday, it’s important’. Obviously at this stage of the season, when you arrive at the stadium or training, people let you know that they’re more enthusiastic and that they have some hope of winning something. Like I said, one step at a time, doing it all with humility, and keeping going like this.”

Is it good that so many people in the club speak Spanish?

“Yes. When I hear Spanish voices, it makes me happy. At this club, it’s a bonus that the president and more people speak Spanish. For me, for us from South America, it’s very important because it helps us feel more at home. The people here are lovely, they help you with what you need at all times. It makes you happy hearing people speak Spanish. It helps. The club has a lot of experience with people and players from South America. It’s good to have people in the club who speak Spanish.”

Do you manage to speak German when you go out with Piero Hincapie?

“We normally have dinner at home on Saturdays. I usually invite him. He has a barbecue but doesn’t really use it. We don’t have much time between games right now, but if we meet up on a Saturday, we watch the games. But no, I don’t try asking for things in Spanish or German. I do it more in English [laughs].”

How would you persuade someone to follow the Bundesliga?

“First of all, the stadiums are always full. Every stadium I’ve played in, you feel a wonderful atmosphere, with people singing all the time. And the games are very intense. Over the past few years, apart from Bayern where there’s always a difference, it’s all been a lot more so even. But ultimately, every team can beat the other. If I can say anything for coming here, it’s to experience a stadium, a very strong league where there’s always competition, and it’s healthy.”

How would you persuade someone to follow Bayer Leverkusen?

“A team that’s always going to try and play good football, keep the ball on the ground. We’re not going to stop playing our game of always moving the ball, stringing passes together and playing to win every game. All one step at a time. We’ve got big ambitions. The club needs a title, and we know we’re on a good path. We hope to keep going.”

Exequiel Palacios during the Bundesliga match between Bayer 04 Leverkusen and 1. FC Union Berlin at BayArena on 12 November 2023.