The first minutes of a match make a big difference for the mindset of the players, says Philipp Lahm, Bundesliga, Champions League and World Cup winner.
Having retired in 2017 after a long and successful career, Lahm offers a unique and fascinating angle on football psychology and strategy, such as the differences between teams preferring an offensive vs. defensive style and what that means for the other side.
Nevertheless, he is as curious as the rest of us how the teams’ specific strengths and approaches will play out in the Klassiker match this weekend.
In the Champions League against Inter Milan and FC Barcelona, Bayern München showed a different face than in the Bundesliga. Why is that?
“A lot of times it is about how the teams play. In the Champions League, the opponents are a bit more offensive. That gives Bayern the space – when I think about Inter Milan. Against Barcelona, Bayern also had some luck that they didn’t fall behind in the first half. However, there are teams that like to play a bit more offensively. The teams in the Bundesliga first look to defend, to not concede goals so then they can get creative. That gives Bayern less space and one can’t really see the idea how they want to act offensively yet. That is what I am currently missing at the moment – that one doesn’t really know who has which role on the pitch and how they want to act offensively, especially, against defensive teams.”
Given this special initial situation: How heated will Der Klassiker be this time? And which players can make the difference?
“I don’t know if it will be that heated. If I look back into the recent past, it wasn’t really the heated duels in which the chips were down. For that, one has to look back further. Apart from this, they are both attractive teams. These are the two best teams in recent years that face each other. That’s why we can look forward to a good match. Who will make the difference? Like I said before, it will be exciting to see how Bayern’s offensive line will act. Regarding Dortmund, I am curious to see if they will play like they did against Manchester City in the Champions League for example; rather secluded, defensive and then counterattack with their fast offensive players. That could naturally hurt Bayern a lot. That is why I am curious about the balance from Dortmund, but also from FC Bayern – how they will manage if Dortmund plays defensively, how they will defend the transition game and how creative they will be in the offense. That will definitely be exciting to see.”
The duel will take place in front of a sold-out south stand for the first time in three years. How will that affect Bayern?
“It is always an amazing atmosphere. When the stadium is sold-out in Dortmund, when the yellow wall is there, then it is always a fantastic atmosphere, that’s very clear. Of course, this can be influential, for the away players and the Dortmund players. That can give them a boost. Nevertheless, it is also important what happens in the first minutes. A lot can happen very fast, in both ways. In that situation, Bayern can turn the stadium a bit silent, so it will be interesting to see. It is nice to see that the stadiums are open, that there are fans in the stadiums. I have to say, that then one doesn’t just play against Dortmund, but also against the Ruhr area, so very interesting, always an amazing atmosphere, it was always fun.”
It’s also Sadio Mane’s first Klassiker – what advice would you give him as a teammate?
“To have fun and enjoy the atmosphere. Of course, he knows amazing stadiums in England as well. Amazing stadiums, amazing games, top games as well with Liverpool, but that is the absolute highlight in Germany, in the Bundesliga.
Especially Dortmund, and Bayern as well. Also, it is not so easy for Bayern in Dortmund, although they won the last few times there. But, I would say to have fun, to enjoy the atmosphere, because it is always something special playing in Dortmund.”
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The whole world watches the Bundesliga when the Klassiker is on. What is your impression of the perception in the world?
“I think that it has developed towards this point. I don’t think that people were talking about the German Klassiker twenty years ago, but it was about the duels. Not only in the Bundesliga but also in the cup, in the Champions League, there were heated duels between the two teams. Of course, the whole world notices that as well, that here in Germany, the big duel is mainly between Bayern and Dortmund. I think that now a lot of people think that Dortmund is ready to stand up against Bayern. For that though, one has to win the direct duels and Dortmund missed that in the last years’ games. The gap, in the end, was also that big because they lost both direct duels of the season a lot of times in the last years. It is about having or not having three points and whether one can steal three points from the opponent. That’s why a lot of times it depends on the direct duels and lately, Bayern decided these in their favor.”
There are a lot of young British talents in the Bundesliga, like Bellingham and Hudson-Odoi, as well as Musiala who also grew up in the British system. How good are these players for the league?
“First of all, no matter where the players come from, young players who have quality are always good for the Bundesliga and often bring in a new element, because they are shaped differently due to their origin, their style of playing from the other leagues in which they were playing before. Of course, that helps. It makes the Bundesliga more attractive. The players have quality and as I said, the Bundesliga is one of the three best leagues in the world, so naturally, it absolutely attracts talented players. These are top players, so I’m just glad to see them play on the pitch.”
What makes Jamal Musiala so valuable for Bayern?
“He brings in a new element. He is light on his feet and strong in dribbling. What is important for him now, is to find the right position, so that he exactly knows what position he has on the pitch, and what his duties are. He is pretty young I must say. He is still in the developing stage, so now it is about defining a position for him and of course, giving him playing minutes; that is always the most important thing. More and more playing minutes. It is enormously important to gain experience. He is a player who is light on his feet, and technically versed. It is fun to watch him play.”
Callum Hudson-Odoi is the next youngster in Germany. What do you expect from him at Leverkusen?
“He will be an interesting player. He is physical, fast, has proper technique. We will see. Of course, he first has to find his way there, but he shouldn’t take too long as well and then I am curious. Leverkusen has definitely a very good offensive line with him, with (Moussa) Diaby, with (Patrick) Schick; a top offensive line. However, one has to always find one’s way first, but it shouldn’t take too long as well.”
During your active career, today’s high-flyers Union Berlin played no role in the Bundesliga. How did the team from Koepenick become so successful?
“They have a clear philosophy of playing. They have a clear idea – the club and the coach – and that’s what they are always working on. They always develop that further. Continuity is always important; one can see that in the coaching position but also at the club and that’s how one can develop something and it’s enormously important. One can see that now, they are very stable. They have departures from time to time, but that doesn’t play a big role, because they keep following their system, their idea of football and always try to develop it a bit more.”
Freiburg is also causing a furore. What are the reasons for the flight of fancy here?
“Actually, exactly the same thing as with Union. Continuity at the decisive positions in the club. Of course, also at the coaching position and there as well: a clear idea. How do we want to play? What is our club, what do we want to stand for as a club, and to work on that and develop it step by step? That’s why it looks similar for both of them. For Freiburg the longer way, always developed step by step until even international football now. No, really, great work that both clubs do. I always say, the keyword is continuity. I find it enormously important to be able to develop something together, also together with the coach and that is what both clubs are showing.”
Do underdog clubs like Union or Freiburg make the league more attractive? Or do you think only the top clubs like Bayern and Dortmund are needed?
“No. I find that we have a great mix, one has to say that very clearly. In the Bundesliga we have a lot of traditional clubs, we have some newcomers as well, we have the teams that have been high up in or part of the Champions League for decades. However, it is nice and refreshing for the Bundesliga that there are always some surprises, as well. For example, Cologne was a bit higher up for some time. That is also part of it and makes football so special.”
The World Cup in Qatar is coming up in winter. Who will be the world champion?
“Really simple question. I will answer it in this way. The favourites are the usual ones, and they will settle it among themselves. Of course, these are Brazil, Argentina and then the five European teams. Germany is of course also part of this. They will settle it among themselves, they have the most quality. One of them will become world champion.”
Since 1982, there has always been a Bayern player in a World Cup final – including you, of course – which Bayern player do you see in the final this time on the 20th of December?
“From a Bayern perspective, the most beautiful final would probably be Germany against France. Probably then most Bayern players would be in the final. Us Germans would be very happy because Germany would be in the final, then a lot of Bayern players would already be in the final. If it is against France, then probably ten, thirteen players could be in the starting lineup, so it would be really interesting. The possibility is definitely there for both, Germany as well as for France. They are both good teams. The possibility is definitely there that a Bayern player will be in the final once again.”