As we go into 2024, do you look back at the end of the year or just forward?
“In terms of my private life, I look ahead and keep going. In terms of sport, you have to analyse and improve on the past, especially when things are not going so well. There are a few things for us to look back on, to draw conclusions and to do it better in future.”
How eventful was last year?
“I was at three clubs so there was a lot of change of scenery and a lot of stress as well. But it was always a new challenge and this motivates me and has made me who I am today. I feel good here and I am in the right place, so I want to develop and improve. We want to be successful and I can identify with this.”
You’ve travelled a lot in your career, haven’t you?
“Yes, I have travelled around a bit in the first few years of my professional career, but there were places such as Leipzig where I stayed longer. I think I was there for six or seven years as we came up from the second division. After that came three clubs in two years so I’ve experienced both extremes, but I think I will be here longer this time.”
Travelling is not new for you – you also did it as a child?
“I lived in a few different cities because my father was a footballer, which meant that I always had to go along and establish a new circle of friends and go into a new school or kindergarten. Some people can deal with this better than others, but it always suited me because I was close to football and had an exciting childhood. From very early on, it was clear to me what my path would be.”
Did your father’s life as a professional footballer have a big impact on you?
“Definitely. I was often at training or at games and played football myself, so there was not anything else in my childhood. School was an obligation that I had to fulfil, but as soon as I had achieved that, I was able to concentrate on football. It was not always easy at home because my mum thought I should do something else besides just football, but I became a professional at 16, so it paid off relatively early on. If I look back at my journey, I was fortunate that everything worked out and I am in a very good position in which I feel very comfortable.”
When did you start to feel the pressure of becoming a professional footballer?
“For a long time, I didn’t think about my football future and just enjoyed playing without thinking about where I wanted to end up or when. I just enjoyed the moment and always tried to be the best. Things escalated pretty quickly with bigger transfers, first to Rapid Wien and then to Salzburg. Things went pretty quickly from just being a young talent to my football career starting. There were times when things went better or worse, but now I am at a stage where I have to deliver performances at a consistent level. I managed to do this very well in Salzburg and then it progressed at Leipzig. This was a bit different because it was my first time away from home and I was playing in the German second division for the first time. It was not that easy to accept at the beginning, but it got easier from game to game and I began to feel more at home. The promotion was very good for us.”
How much influence did your father have in giving you tips as a child?
“It took a while for him to let me off the leash because he was very careful and wanted to be involved. He was my youth trainer, which was a blessing and a curse because it wasn’t always that easy. At some point, he learned to take a step back and allow others to lead from the front. He still follows my progress and is proud of me.”
It’s not easy having your father as a coach, is it?
“I think a few people have had to go through this, so there are probably good and bad examples.”
Why are there so many father-son duos who became Austrian national players?
“At some point, I saw a photo gallery which showed who did what and when. I think it’s something you’re born with, but then it depends on what you make out of it and how much you are willing to invest. I think those who make it have invested everything into getting to where they are.”
In your opinion, what are the factors that make a great footballer?
“There are a few factors, but everyone has to determine their path and how they want to go along that path. Some people need the freedom to do their own thing but with the knowledge that they need to be there when it counts. Others block everything out and just focus on football. I was always on the borderline. I sometimes wanted to break away, but I also knew that I had to be there in the decisive moments.”
“It was important for me to be involved in football, but also to take some time away from the whole business. I always think about those players who have a lot of quality but don’t quite make it. It’s then a nice feeling when you think about how good things are going for you and what you made of your situation, but there is a lot of work involved in the background and I think many people forget that. You need to believe in it, always work hard, and be able to perform when it matters. Mental strength and mental recovery are also very important, but I could keep going because there are many factors which are decisive and with which you are confronted throughout a footballing career.”
How much are you looking forward to EURO 2024?
“We had a decent EURO 2020, but we also realised how close we were to causing upsets. Ralf Rangnick then came in and gave new impetus to the whole of Austrian football. If you look at our journey over the last 18 months, then you can see how much we have developed and the quality that we bring to the pitch against very good opposition. We are very much looking forward to it because we aimed to qualify convincingly and we achieved this. We beat Germany towards the end of the campaign, which also gained some attention, so I think we are on a very good path and we are looking forward to the tournament.”
How would you assess BVB’s current situation?
“It’s mixed. If you look at our experiences in the league in the last few weeks of 2023, then it certainly wasn’t enough. We did not pick up enough points and I think we managed just one win in the last eight games. With the expectations and the quality that we have, this is simply not enough. As I previously said, we have to analyse and work through this to improve, but we also had a lot of very good games in which we beat difficult opposition. This is why the situation is a little strange, but we are certainly not satisfied.”
There were also good games, so does this make it a bit more difficult to understand, even for you?
“Yes, of course. For example, we played in the Champions League during the week and qualified top of a very difficult group. We played some very good games in which we were dominant and demonstrated what makes us so strong, and we deserved our wins. Then, three days later, we played in the league and it just didn’t click. Sometimes you can’t explain it when you’re standing on the pitch and you have the feeling that nothing is working today. We need to work through this as a team and stick together because there is a lot of noise coming from outside. We are a good team with a positive spirit and clear communication, so we want to be more successful in the league because our aim is definitely to play in the Champions League again.”
What do your new assistant coaches bring to the table?
“The processes on the pitch during training have changed a bit because Nuri and Sven take on half of the responsibility and lead some of the drills to try to teach us some new things. We try to then implement these ideas and it gives us new impetus, which can certainly help. They both have a lot of experience, so we are very happy to have them with us and we all want to work towards the same aim.”
Last year during the winter break, the topics surrounding BVB were very similar. Is this the same amongst the squad?
“You cannot avoid being confronted by this because we’ve been in this situation a few times now where we did not perform well enough in the first half of the season. Last season we worked very hard at a training camp in Marbella and laid the foundations for a good second half of the season. However, it’s not the case that we sit in the dining room and talk about the situation. We are here to prepare ourselves well and to discuss certain topics. We want to lay another good foundation so that we are well prepared and then it is down to us how many wins we can pick up in the second half of the season.”