Interview: Thomas Tuchel, FC Bayern München

Image Credit (Bundesliga Content Hub Images)

What will you remember about Franz Beckenbauer?

“He was so humble, the very few occasions we met, and we met very briefly, this stood out, it was very striking to me that he was so humble, being this extraordinary person, this extraordinary player, German national team coach, and coach here at Bayern. Winning all the titles that you can win, and still being that humble and low-key personality was outstanding, always. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, which was sad, of course, when the news came in, everybody felt sad, everybody felt involved in it. That’s the greatest gift that he had, everybody felt close to him, even if they weren’t close.”

Can his achievements be repeated?

“No, no one’s going to do that again; the way he played, but not only that. He won every title, it was a revolution, how he played: the elegance, the commitment, then going overseas to New York. All of these things which are now fashionable he did decades ago. He paved the way for a lot of generations to come, and he’s still a role model in so many things that he did. There are no words for this career.”

Would there be an FC Bayern without Beckenbauer?

“No, without him there wouldn’t be a Bayern in this way, in this modern football, in this shape, and of this importance. There’d be no FC Bayern München without Franz Beckenbauer.”

What have you learned about Harry Kane this season – what is it like for you to train him?

“It’s just a gift, I feel very privileged to be his coach. The guy is super humble, he’s the first out there on the pitch every single day, anything you ask of him, he will do it, he’s a huge personality who is so humble but becomes a shark on the field because he wants to score, he wants to win, and he does it daily. He doesn’t only score daily, he trains well, he does what is needed, and he shows his quality. He calms everyone down around him and makes everyone better by his pure presence. It’s the highest level, I can put it like this, as a human being but also as a footballer, the highest level.”

You haven’t necessarily worked with many players of his profile, if I look back at the players at PSG, at Dortmund. How has it been for you to adapt?

“He’s a very different profile to all of my other players because he can play as a nine, he’s a fox in the box like no other, outstanding finishing but he also assists. Great skills in playing the last pass and second-to-last pass, great link-up play with our fast wingers, so it’s amazing. I always say that you learn from your players if you have the privilege to be a coach. To be a coach at this level, you must learn from your players and you certainly learn a lot from Harry. We find positions where he feels comfortable, we find the links where he likes to link up and can release our speed around him. This is what we try to do, and when we have training sessions as I have just come from, it’s always amazing to see because he does what he does so regularly, it’s astonishing because any finishing chance he has, he hits it on goal, he hits it precisely on goal, the goalkeepers know what’s coming but they still can’t do anything about it.”

How astonishing are 21 goals this season so far?

“It’s a result of the process, it’s a result of what he’s doing that should make him very proud, and that makes me proud. He does not play for the goals, but the goals come to him because he plays for the process, he plays to make the teamwork, he plays to make the offensive play work. He’s not a selfish guy and that’s so nice to see, that even he as a total team player gets his goals every year. To start in a new league, new environment, new language, new culture, with a bit of a delay bringing his family here because they had another child, it’s an outstanding achievement.”

How many (of the top players) played for the process – in your experience – even at this level?

“More and more, more and more are interested in the process, more and more believe in the process, but don’t get me wrong, Harry plays for the product in the end, he wants to be at the end, but it’s very special that he acts like a team player. He’s an outstanding number nine, and normally these number nines represent a certain type of character, and it’s also allowed that, if we draw 2-2 at home and he scores twice, he’s a bit satisfied. In my young days, when I trained the youth, if we drew 2-2 or 3-3 and the striker scored three goals, he was allowed to go off the field with a smile, but he’s the only one. They tick like this, but Harry’s a special guy, he’s a total team player, he’s not happy not to win, he’s a winner. He makes sure he does everything for us to win, not only by scoring, and the goals come to him as a result of the process, but he focuses on this, of course, and this is good.”

Is that Robert Lewandowski’s record of 41 goals in danger?

“It is in danger, and no one could ever believe that it would be in danger, but it is. We need a bit of luck, we need the team to keep going, Harry needs to be fit, then we’ll see what happens. I am very focused on the process, but I think that, for Harry, there are no limits.”

You have managed to release the potential of Leroy Sane. What clicked?

“I think we clicked, this is just by chance because we like each other, and I think it helps Leroy to feel calm. He knows very well what I demand from him, and I demand a lot. I saw live on the pitch the physical power that he has is simply incredible. I said very early, with this physicality, you have to dominate the league, there’s no other way you can be happy without dominating, and being an outstanding player for us. Then we saw that his best numbers came from the left, also at Manchester City, so we swapped sides with Kingsley Coman during the season. I think this helped a lot, even if he did not like it so much in the beginning, maybe. The link-up play with Harry is very good, and we have Jamal, we have Kingsley Coman too, who have the same attributes, the same skills and speed, and can accelerate our game. It’s a good fit and there’s good link-up play between all of them and Harry.”

When you say: “We like each other”, do you mean on a personal level?

“On a personal level; he listens to me, he believes me, we have affection for each other, that helps. Then, the big thing Leroy has to do, it’s always like this, we can help, we can try to motivate him, try to find a connection to him, but he has to step up, keep on going, he cannot be happy. He has some outstanding numbers now, but the numbers could be higher if he were more precise. This is the thing for Leroy, to keep this going. This is why it’s good for Harry to be by his side, because then he sees how it’s done, because Harry does it daily, no matter what training session we do, he’s doing it. This is the next step for Leroy, to be consistent. The potential, the decisiveness is outstanding so far, but we’re only halfway through the season and we have to keep going and produce these numbers in the decisive moments of the season now.”

Another player who has made an impact this season is Mathys Tel. What are the next steps in his development?

“Sometimes it felt very unfair towards him to not get a chance to start: sometimes we kept him on the bench because he had a huge impact and he was so decisive for us so we kept him there. There were some moments where he deserved to start, where decisions went against him. Later in the season I felt he took it a bit harder than in the beginning, which is very normal, because you have a certain status, you do your job, you do your job, you do your job, you want the reward, and still the four guys who mainly started for us were also very good and deserved to stay on the pitch, so he struggled a bit, and it did not come so easy to him in the end of the first half of the season. I hope he finds this mojo again, he finds the right attitude, I like it when they are impatient, but not so impatient that it affects their mood their lightness on the pitch and their creativity. Hopefully, he can find his flow again and we can find the moments to bring him on because he has this raw type of energy as a striker that you find very rarely, he’s like a dog, a puppy, he has this raw physicality, this huge power in his body that is good, the finishing is outstanding for his age, so it’s our job to keep him going.”

But are there any other qualities you see in him?

“He’s finding his style, he’s finding his position with us, it’s not 100% there yet. What stands out for me is his physicality, his speed, his body. His self-confidence and finishing are outstanding for his age.”

After Manuel Neuer has been written off so many times due to injuries, were you surprised that he came back the way he did?

“I am still surprised, even though I saw him train. When he told me his story about how he got injured and how bad the injury was, I was kind of in shock, in doubt, I doubted he could come back at this level. I hoped he could, and I’m so happy for him that he made it, and he was right, that he could do it, he was always very focused. I’m happy that we trusted him, and I’m happy that we believed in him, because from the first moments that he felt free of pain, he showed another level of goalkeeping straight away in training, and now, the winter break has helped him a lot and he’s happy to be on the pitch, and this is so good. There’s kind of an attitude, kind of an aura around him that you cannot learn, it’s not written in a book, you have to experience it. To come back after such a long time, and to come back in that way tells its own story, it’s a fantastic achievement.”

As a legend of the club, Thomas Müller is used to playing a lot more than you let him play at the moment. How is that for you?

“It’s painful, for me too, it’s hard for me because I understand how big it is for the club and for the fans that players like Thomas play, and that they are in the club. They make the club a special club, and I’m the first person to agree that these kinds of guys make it special. You’re always looking for that mix to have guys from around Munich, guys from Germany, guys from the youth academy mixed with superstars like Harry Kane, and that makes a mixture which means the team is loved and is something special. Thomas is one of the outstanding guys in FC Bayern München’s history, he has won everything. It’s very hard to tell him week by week that it’s maybe him who isn’t starting. I can only speak very highly about him. The attitude he trains with is the attitude of a young player. He doesn’t have the body of a young player, of course, he doesn’t have the speed of a young player anymore, but he has the attitude and the mindset of a young player, and that’s so beautiful to see. He is there in every training session, even if he maybe doesn’t start and trains the next day with the young guys. He will do everything to win a four against four or a five against five, and the next day he will be there. He doesn’t take days off, which would also be ok for me. I know he wishes for more minutes; I wish sometimes that I had one or two places more to be able to give the guys the minutes they deserve, but I’m very happy with him and will never doubt the legend that he is.”

How do you see the team’s progress so far this season?

“Bayer 04 Leverkusen are the only team in Europe who are still unbeaten, they have won all of their Euro League games, all of their cup games, they haven’t lost any games in the league and we are still only one point behind. We have also had a lot of problems with injuries, In most of our games we have had only four or five players on the bench, and that has become normal. We have brought in guys from the youth academy who weren’t on anyone’s list before the season, they played very regularly coming off the bench, they were starters, we played Leon Goretzka with a broken hand, and we moved him in one match in Dortmund from left to right central defender, we played Noussair Mazraoui in central defence, we played Konni Laimer as full-back. Once you look from the perspective of what we have done this half a year, you realise ‘Wow, this was the starting line-up, and we had only four players on the bench.’ It became normal and we kept the results going. In all of that, we had some top matches as well as some phases that didn’t come so easy for us, which is not a problem, but there is room for improvement, of course. If you drop out of the cup, no one is happy, I’m the first person to be worried, to be angry and to be disappointed. This is the environment we live in, it brings out the best in us. I hope that we are a bit more lucky with injuries in the second half of the season. We were very good in transition, we were very good at defending as a unit, we can improve the rhythm of our game, and we can improve our counter-pressing. There is still room for improvement, which is a good thing, but we also managed a group stage in the Champions League, in a very tight group, and we were well ahead, we won five out of six games. There are things we can be happy with, but at Bayern München you are never satisfied and you’re never finished.”

In this environment, just a win might not be enough, how do you work with that?

“That’s a German thing! Having been out of the country for five or six years, it strikes me as very German, this mentality, and I’m surprised sometimes! The positive vibe that you get in England after winning a match, even if you’re the favourite, is much stronger and lifts you higher than you get here. It’s maybe a German characteristic to look for the one thing, the two things [that weren’t right], and you have to make sure that you don’t get caught up in it, or you’re constantly looking at the glass as being half empty, and this helps no one. It’s the environment, the culture that your club has, and it brings out the best in me personally but also the players, and you adapt to it. Every culture is different, in Paris, it’s different from London, and here it’s very different. It’s a bit difficult because the club has won the league 11 times in a row so things can become normal. If you go with five players on the bench instead of seven, if you constantly do it, it becomes normal, and, if you’re constantly champions, you can reach a point where that becomes normal. Normality in being first is not a good approach to getting better, so sometimes it’s difficult to constantly revive this fire in yourself, because, if you do it, they say we’re FC Bayern München, it’s normal that we do it, but if we don’t do it, it’s the biggest surprise in the world, so this is a bit of an unfair perception, but that’s the way it is.”

Is there a part of you that’s always just that extra bit nervous, just having to be worried about how sensitive every situation can be here?

“The focus is on FC Bayern München in this country, it’s the biggest club, and it’s the club in Europe that represents the German league more than any other club. That’s the way it is, and that’s why the spotlight is on us. Look at our training ground, everybody can have a look at our training, everybody can see what we are doing, so there is stuff to write about us, and that makes little things seem big here. Sometimes things seem even bigger, like a draw or a defeat in particular, but even little things can be in the press for two or three days when there’s nothing to them. That’s the environment, it is the club in Germany, that’s why it’s a particular situation, that’s why it’s different from my environment in Mainz.”

Talking about the final of last season, what was going through your mind?

“First of all, I thought we had lost it in the last home match against Leipzig, I thought Dortmund had done their homework and would win this match in Mainz. Then, very quickly, Thomas Müller stepped up in the dressing room and said ‘This is not finished’. It did not convince me fully at this moment, but I was still impressed, it made me think, at least, and I think that was his aim. He reached his objective by standing up in the dressing room and said ‘This is not finished, it’s finished when it’s finished, and today it’s not finished. Today was shit but there is one more match to play. After this big disappointment, we stood up again, we showed our reaction during the week, stepped up, we found a way to approach this game. We scored the first goal and we heard, of course, from our fans, from the bench, that things were going our way. It was a crazy match though, we conceded a penalty for handball and suddenly we let the game slip out of our hands. I was sitting on the bench, and I wondered whether this was the summary of the whole season, the constant up and down like a rollercoaster. This match, from being champions to giving it away while Mainz was helping us, can’t be. Luckily, we found this one spark with Jamal Musiala to get it over the line. The last minutes were just pure anxiety, hoping that Dortmund wouldn’t score and take it out of our hands. It was a strange feeling, a big relief, it was pure joy because it was not done, it must have been perfect for the spectators.”

How is the experience from last season playing into the feelings for the away game in Leverkusen?

“We want to arrive there in a good position to overtake them, at least in that match, and that’s why we have to do our homework. Like we said before, the situation is very clear, we have everything to lose, they have everything to win, it’s like this all season. Everyone outside as a neutral spectator is waiting for at least one team to get the title finally, after last season it didn’t happen, but now there is a title race where they are extraordinary, and don’t forget how good Stuttgart are, and Leipzig can also catch a run at any moment, so the title race is on and we’re in the middle of it. We always play against the perception that ‘you should be in front, you should have done this, you shouldn’t have lost this game, you should be better here and better there, and it should be easy for you’, but it’s never easy. It helps us, of course, to sharpen our minds, I hope that it doesn’t block us because there is no shame in being one point behind Leverkusen at the moment and being the hunters, this is no problem, and at one point in the second leg of the season we want to overtake them and keep that position, but it will be a difficult task. I think they are a strong team, a solid team, they are a unit with an excellent coach so it will be a race until the end.”

How do you see this Champions League season, are you satisfied with the performances in the group stage so far?

“Very satisfied with the results, they were difficult matches. We had very good results, performance-wise we can still step up, we can still do better, and we are very aware. We made it to the top of the group, which gave us the slight advantage of playing Lazio, who were second in the group, and we had the slight advantage of being at home in the second leg. The bottom line is that we want to make it to the quarter-final, this is the minimum goal at Bayern München, and from there, let’s be honest, you then need a good draw, you need your players to be ready, you need them to be in shape, you need them not injured and you need a bit of luck in the decision making and in the game itself. For me, anyone who is in the quarter-final can win this tournament but similar to the match in Leverkusen, we have to make it to the quarter-final. This is the big target, and from there we’ll take it step by step, but of course, the dream is alive.”

Are you feeling the excitement in Germany for the upcoming Euro 2024?

“I felt it as well, and I felt the difference between the excitement in England about the World Cup in Qatar and the strange mood around the team, and the World Cup in Germany, and I hope the mood will lift. I feel it is very different from the World Cup that we hosted, everyone was super excited before, and I felt it very early in the country. The atmosphere was different, the results and the atmosphere around the results in the latest tournament were not great, so it’s maybe a bit understandable that the excitement is not full on, but I think, especially this team now, especially after a dry spell in terms of results, we need this extra spark in the country to take advantage. I agree with you, there is still some time to go, and I hope we have a turnaround in the general atmosphere.”

You used to have a different image than other professionals when leaving the football bubble: doing yoga, reading books, etc. Why do you emphasize that?

“I very rarely talk about it, but it’s just what makes me happy, I find my happy place when I do sports with friends, I’m happy when I spend time with my family, I’m happy when I spend time with my children and do stuff like swimming in a lake, and do stuff that you’d also do as a child, as a young man, it keeps me young and is nice. I’m into meditation, I’m very bad at yoga, I’m very stiff and it makes me angry all the time when I do it, so I try a bit of other stuff. When I keep my routine going I feel better, I’m not the most disciplined person in doing it, I don’t know why, it’s a bit on and off. I love to read books and it distracts me, it’s as simple as that, to read a good book, to read my Kindle in the evening is a very good hour, or it could be two hours, and I can get lost in books. Otherwise, I watch football matches on TV, this is pretty much it.”

I think the HBO series Succession was a thing for you as well?

“Succession was the thing, I was in love with Slow Horses. For me, the humour, the interacting, the acting, the actors, it was very nice to watch, it was a good distraction.”

Who’s your favourite character in the HBO series Succession?

“I will not answer that, I will not answer that! They are all a handful, and they all have a dark side, I don’t want any association with that! This is a big trap you will not make me step in!”