Want to know the best way to figure out what a defender does? First, become a striker. Seriously. At least thatís the method that worked out best for me. Letís call it a happy accident.
When I was 14, I played on the left wing for a Berlin youth team Ö Well, right up until our team showed up for a match in Sweden with our entire defensive line out with injuries.
ďOkay, JťrŰme, youíre playing defense,Ē my coach said.
Sure. Why not? Iíd been playing offense since I was six years old, so it was like having the top-secret plans. The codes. I had infiltrated the mainframe. I knew where the strikers wanted to go, what they wanted to do and how they were going to do it, because I was one of them. That experience still serves as the foundation for my play as a defender today.
But for those who donít have the secret codes, allow me to share with you what Iíve learned on the pitch.
You know the obvious: I have to stop the other team from scoring. But what exactly does that look like? Itís not just about being part of an actual wall front of the ball (even though that does happen, which weíll get into). Rather every movement, every pass, every tackle, every clear, every time I cover man-to-man ó everything I do on the field is a factor. Every decision is one small part of my teamís overall strategy to make sure the other team does not score.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL HEIMKEN/AP IMAGES
It starts with talking to guys around me. Communication ó it probably comes as no surprise ó is crucial for our defense. Usually at Bayern weíll play with three or four guys in the defensive line, and whatever the formation I play center back. This means I have to speak a lot to the guys next to me and to the midfielders in front of us about which direction we want to send the ball up. The vibe changes if Iím playing with the German national team. With the national team, I only see my teammates a handful of times every couple of months, so we need to talk more. I work every day with my guys at Bayern, so I know exactly what theyíre going to do, or what they donít do, what they like, where they run on offense and defense, and whether I should play them on the right or left foot. Weíre just technically in sync on the pitch, so we donít need to say too much to each other.
And our mission to prevent a goal never ends. As soon as we stop one attack it pretty much starts all over again. Iím the first one with the ball after our goalkeeper, so itís my job to space out the other team and to open the game up. A big part of that is setting up our offense for a quick attack. So for me, whether I win the ball or get it from a teammate, Iím looking immediately for our striker. Heís the guy who is furthest up the field, and if I can get the ball to him, it will open up the field and start a counterattack. That can be a lot more difficult than it seems, because teams in the Bundesliga often play heavy on defense. Most times when I get the ball at my feet there are already eight or nine guys from the opposing team back up the field. So Iím trying to get off a perfectly timed and perfectly placed kick through a minefield. No big deal, right?
If I do make that connection, I hardly have time to rest, because once the ball goes through, Iím already thinking about the oppositionís counterattack. At our level there are a lot of touches and changes of possession, so even if our team is taking shots on goal youíre constantly getting ready for their strikers to come bearing down on you. And it wonít be long before they do, especially against teams like Barcelona and Madrid, who are, without a doubt, the toughest offenses we face. Each has a solid line of three strikers up front, and they all work together seamlessly.
So what do you do when a player like Messi, Ronaldo or Neymar is coming at you full speed?
You have to assess the tactical situation. Quickly.
Am I covered, with my other defenders on my back? If I have cover, I can risk going for the ball in a duel or tackle. But if Iím the last man on the line, I canít risk a tackle. I need to do whatever I can to slow the ball down by using my positioning, hoping I can buy time for my teammates to track back.
With Ronaldo or Messi, whatever option you choose is difficult if they come at you with open space. Theyíre just so fast. Neymar and Messi are low to the ground and can turn quickly, so itís difficult for defenders like me, who are tall centerbacks (Iím 6-foot-3). Ronaldo, heís got the height, but heís also got incredible speed, strength and a good header. You canít be lazy or caught on your heels with those players, because they will win and they will score. They are just too good for you to make even a little mistake. More than speed or technique though, as a defender you need confidence. Ronaldo, Messi, SuŠrez, Neymar ó they can all smell if youíre afraid to duel with them. One whiff and then they destroy you. So you gotta show up.
PHOTOGRAPH BY IAN MACNICOL/GETTY IMAGES
Confidence is a huge part of my job.
Thatís the biggest growth in my game over time: Iím more confident, Iím more calm. I know when I have to tackle or duel or just try to slow down a break. When I was younger, if my team lost the ball I wanted to get it back as quickly as possible, and then Iíd make stupid mistakes. That doesnít work in the Champions League. The speed of the game is so quick that any stupid a mistake can cost you a goal.
And if we do give up a goal, this is my one rule: I canít lose my mind. I canít think, Oh, my God! Come, come! Quick, quick! We have to score a goal! Thereís 90 minutes in a match. Even if the clock is at 80 minutes, you still have time and extra minutes to get it back.
Now letís talk about everyoneís favorite part of my job ó tackling.
Tackling all comes down to timing. Before I go in for a tackle, I have to be 100 percent sure I can get the ball. If Iím not, then I just stay close to the striker. Itís not worth the risk of getting a red card and setting my team back. Of course, the difficult part is you have all of two seconds before you have to decide. You start sprinting asking yourself, Are you gonna tackle? Are you sure? Or do you keep running and make time for other players to get back? But nothing feels better when weíre under pressure than when a tackle goes well and I can clear for my team.
In the World Cup matches against France and Brazil in 2014, I had a couple of good tackles, plus a few more in the final against Argentina. It was a huge step up from my debut with the German national team when I was 20 years old. I got both a yellow and a red card. I was nervous and eager to earn my place on the field and made poor plays.
Which brings me to another point: So much about being a defender is about whatís going on in your head, and that varies from player to player. Some guys may have a tweak, a small injury or arenít 100 percent fit, and they are totally fine. But for me, I have to be completely focused. Like if my knee hurts, or even if thereís something going on in my own life off the pitch, then I know Iím not going to be fully there. Honestly, itís like any other person who has a job and is sitting at their desk worrying about something else that might be going on. And thatís when things can fall apart: I make a bad tackle, Iím a little late to the ball. Iím not playing the best I can.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOERG SARBACH/AP IMAGES
All of this so far has been about defending when the ball is rolling. But letís talk about the other 50 percent of my job ó set pieces.
Iím sure youíve all seen the small group of defenders who line up before a free kick. Our faces probably look all twisted, preparing for one of the hardest kickers in the world to launch a ball directly at us. Whatís going through my head? Take one for the team.
Itís a human reaction to want to turn away. One time in a match, the ball came straight at my face. I just turned a little bit to take the hit on my shoulder instead ó and the referee called handball. (It wasnít, by the way.) But you gotta learn to stand there and just take it. And it sucks, but thereís the other guys who are right out there with you.
Especially the goalkeeper. If you are defender, thereís probably no one more important to you than that guy. That free-kick line? Heís telling you how to form the wall. You can see him screaming on TV. The same goes for corner kicks. Heíll yell out instructions:
Whatís going through my head? Take one for the team.
Heís running things back there, and you better listen.
For us back there, set pieces are the most technical aspect of our game. For those, weíre always moving so weíre not too concentrated or leaving too much space between us. Then, when the ball comes, the nearest player jumps to it and tries to and clear it away.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIAS SCHRADER/AP IMAGES
With Madrid and Barcelona it can be pretty difficult to get a good clear (are you seeing a pattern here?). Theyíre quick on the ball and relentless. So if Iím in the box, I canít just swat the ball away up the pitch. Theyíll get it and keeping coming back and keep pressuring us.
Which is why clearing, like most things on defense, is another time where you need to assess the situation pretty quickly. Youíve seen defenders who kick the ball out, giving up another corner kick. Youíre probably asking why weíd set up the other team again. The only answer I can give you is that itís usually the lesser of two evils.
Obviously, the first thing I hope I can do is clear the ball up the field to my teammates. But sometimes the ball pops up, and you just need to get it out of there without taking the risk of handling it and turning it around right in front of your own goal. It may seem like a haphazard move, but thereís actually a lot of strategizing behind it. Iíd rather take my chances with another corner than give a player like Messi or Neymar even one more second with the ball right in front of the net.
And when youíre on the pitch, seconds become luxuries. If Iím guarding a striker, Iím feeling where he is, trying to sense where heís going. I try to be one second before him on the ball. Just one second is what I want against a guy. A second is my biggest weapon.
That, and my early days as a striker. I know whatís going on in their heads. When you watch them play often enough, you know their movements and think, O.K., most of the times heís going to cut inside and try to shoot with his left foot.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARTIN MEISSNER/AP
Itís almost like poker. Every striker in the world has their signature move, their tell. But when youíre facing the really good ones, thereís no secret plans on how to stop them. What makes Ronaldo so difficult is he can shoot so brilliantly with both his right and left foot. You donít know where heís going most of the time.
Thatís why, as good as I try to be at my job, I am thankful for the one guy who will always be behind me. My keeper.
What You Donít Know About
: Being a Midfielder