Every player has a style and I have mine. It’s based on impact and attacking play – and I’m also a finisher. So I’ve got several strings to my bow and I think that that’s my main characteristic. It’s important to create your own style because that’s how you stay true to yourself. That’s how your name goes down in history: not as the copy of someone else but as the original.
You can divide the pitch into three sections. There’s the defensive position, there’s the position in the midfield – where you can’t take any risks and you have to anticipate and play the ball quickly – and the last part is for the attackers, where you have to express your creativity and trust your instincts. There’s nothing wrong with messing up in the final third because scoring is the most difficult thing to do, so you just let your creativity roam free. You can’t plan it, you just have to read it in the moment.
I’ve always been told that the most important thing in football is to score goals. When I was young, watching games on TV and seeing players who scored loads of goals in a year, I wondered, “What kind of feeling do they experience? When you score hundreds of goals, what difference does the300th make?” Well, you know, it’s always special. There’s always a new context that gives you a new source of motivation and new expectations. For each goal that I’ve scored, the joy that I felt was different.
Some things are innate; others I had to work on. I’m someone who wants to improve all the time; someone who was talented from a young age but has always wanted to get better. You never achieve perfection but you try to get as close as possible. So it’s a nice mix of both, which is important in football. There are millions of ways to succeed – but that’s how Idid it.
It’s great to have this quality but the aim is to show it throughout games – and to exploit it as much as possible. That’s what I work on, on a daily basis. In football you have to reach your maximum speed very quickly because they’re very short runs. They’re ten metres, maybe 20. It’s rare for you to run 40 or 50 metres, as that would mean that it was a very open game. You have to be on the ball very quickly and it’s also a question of reflexes, as you don’t know where the ball might go. It’s instantaneous.
I could mention billions of players who can head the ball better than me, but I’m trying to work on it. Also, I must admit that I was afraid of the ball for a long time. I suffered several concussions and other health issues, but I’m really trying to improve my heading because it can give you five to seven goals in a season. You can’t neglect it. It really is an area of improvement for me because I couldn’t be any worse at it.
Every time I step onto the pitch I tell myself that I’m the best. Yet I’ve played on the same pitch as [Lionel] Messi and Cristiano[Ronaldo], and they’re better players than me! They’ve done a billion more things than me but in my head, I always tell myself that I’m the best because then you’re not putting limits on yourself. When you’re in a tough spot, no one else will push you but yourself, and you have to convince yourself that you’re capable of moving mountains. There’s only you and your mindset. Never let anyone else limit you. No one can if you have the determination to achieve great things. You’re in charge of your own destiny and that’s how it is.
Especially now, being older, maybe I’m more of a leader; maybe more people look up to me than before. They say, “If you do it then I have to do it.” It’s been an unbelievable ride. I’ve been here six years and what I enjoy the most [is that] I’m a winner. I hate losing. I’ve found a club that is fighting for every prize every year and I think this is really important. It’s a really tough ask – mentally especially – to go again, go again, go again, go again and never stop, with every cup: League Cup to FA Cup,Premier League to Champions League. To always be there. When Pep came in he gave me confidence, saying, “You can be one of the best in the world.”
I try to look up and get a picture as quickly as possible and as many times as possible. Even if the ball is far away you look around you. You try to see what spaces there are or what is going to happen in a couple of seconds if the ball goes there or there; when you receive the ball, you do the same. If your control is good you get that little second to look up and then you can make another picture.
If you play at an elite level, everything hangs in the balance of details. So that little quarter-turn of body shape where you can get the ball just past the midfielder or defender, where they get in a situation where they’re in difficulty. That’s the little advantage you get. Everybody can play good football, everybody can kick a ball, everybody’s unbelievably physical – it’s these little details that make the difference in a game.
When I was younger I didn’t have that range of passing, I didn’t have a lot of power so I had to train that little bit more. But now I don’t think everything is about power: it’s about the way you strike the ball. It’s the way I hit the ball, the cleanness I try to get into it, that makes me able to get it where I need to get it. Short or long, I think I can do both now. The best I can give with my pass is to make it the easiest for my teammate.
[Goals and assists] give me the same buzz. Sometimes I like assists more because it’s just the way that I am; I see myself as a creator of opportunities. It’s not even
the assist itself: sometimes you can give good balls in a game, where you know you had [great] importance in a goal that [your team] scored, but you don’t see
it on a stats sheet. Like the goal against Dortmund by Phil [Foden]: [my pass is] nowhere to be seen because it’s not a goal, it’s not an assist, but it’s really important.
People sometimes look at the wrong things in football.One of the only things that I never look at is my pass completion. I don’t find it important. I know you can have a bad game and they look at pass completion, but then you play a brilliant game and your pass completion is pretty bad but nobody cares because these days people only look, I think, at goals and assists. There’s so much more to football than just that. In the position thatI play, there’s a lot of things going on, and you can be brilliant without having statistics. Sometimes it gets looked [at] way beyond that, because now it’s all about data.
Players are still happiest when they’re on the pitch. We know we have a lot to do off the pitch, but actually the time that you play with this ball with your team is the time when there’s nothing on your mind andI think that’s still a good thing.
Positioning for a centre-back at RealMadrid requires a lot of concentration –a lot of effort too, because we often play very high up the pitch, which means we have a lot of space behind us. We have to find the right balance between whether we come out and press the striker to stop them turning and playing forward, or whether we anticipate and run backwards to cover the space. It involves a lot of communication with your team-mates.
I’m able to run fast but I try to use that as little as possible, which means thatI’m well positioned and I don’t have to exert myself as much. That’s experience and it’s something that you work on.With experience it’s easier to anticipate strikers playing in behind. Often, when you defend those types of situations, the striker gets disheartened and feels as though they’re out of ideas. It’s a part of my game that I’ve improved a lot in recent years. For me, a good defence is about disarming the striker. It’s about the striker saying to himself, “If I go long, I won’t get the ball; if I drop off and ask for it to feet, I won’t be able to turn around. I’m trapped.” I like it when the striker feels kind of imprisoned.
Obviously physical impact is important in our position, but it’s not just that. For me, tackling is a last resort. It’s the last option when you’ve been beaten for pace or you want to intercept a pass, but it’s no longer the most common way of stopping the striker, at least not in my style of play. If you’re well positioned, if there are no mismatches and if you’re organised, there’s no need to tackle; anticipation and reading of the game can make more of a difference. Football is played very quickly, so going to ground is a disadvantage and can put your team in danger, because the referee might interpret it as a foul. It’s a very delicate zone in which we play and there’s no room for error. Tackling means taking a risk and we try to take as few of them as possible. It’s something that I try to analyse before I intervene and when I go in [for a tackle],I go in at full throttle. I try to be as surgically precise as possible.
It constantly changes between zonal and man-to-man defending during a match. It’s really rare to see a team that just defends man-to-man or just zonal; it changes depending on the situation. Sometimes, when we press high up the pitch, it’s man-to-man; sometimes, when we sit deeper, it’s zonal. But we’re also close to our own
goal so everyone has to cover for a team-mate – or even more than one, depending on the area of the pitch.Often it’s a decision that you make in a split second. You need to know whether to cover your man or whether to cover an re to protect your team-mates, and sometimes you’ve got to do both, you’ve got to alternate. I like to position myself so that my team-mates feel more comfortable, so that they have fewer areas to cover and can concentrate on smaller areas of the pitch.
I don’t think that my playing style immediately makes you think that I’m a warrior. That’s not what stands out first about me. However, I do think thatI have a warrior mentality. I quite like challenges. The harder the challenge, the more I enjoy it; the less you believe in me, the more motivated I am. That’s my way of being and thinking, and I think that is what’s helped me get to the highest level and stay there for several years. I’m always trying to stretch my limits and aim even higher.
When I started playing at the beginning of the 1990s there was the back-pass rule, so I had to get used to working with my feet. Asa youngster I also tried to play as an outfield player during my free time orin training, when we did positional games or rondos – five versus two or what have you. Later on we had a lot of indoor tournaments with Schalke in the winter and they always chose me to be the open man as the goalkeeper. It wasn’t four-plus-one versus four-plus-one but rather five versus four-plus-one. It was always a pleasure for me being regarded as a fifth outfield player and not only as a goalkeeper. I wouldn’t say that I’m the one who revolutionised the game, but I do see an attacking role in my position and I always try to bring that onto the pitch. Of course, it sounds very good, and I’m also a little proud of it, but in the past there have been goalkeepers who played with their feet and played offensively.
I’m able to forget most mistakes and carry on. A coach once said to me, “You always start at zero, no matter what the score is.” The referee doesn’t stop the game after a mistake, it always carries on and you have to help the team. That’s always been decisive for me. Yes, of course we have a high risk. We know we’re the last man and we know that we have to cope with a lot of pressure. But as time goes by you get used to that as an experienced goalkeeper. We also need that pressure to be decisive and to give our best for the team.
Analysis is always decisive. Of course, you know the biggest names and you know their skills. Who you’re up against is crucial and I think they also think about how the goalkeepers act. It’s fun to seek this confrontation, this one-on- one. It’s surely also fun for the attacking players to have a one-on-one against a Manuel Neuer, for example, and to try to score past him. The same goes for me when I play against the world’s best and try to keep a clean sheet. I always want to come across as dominant and convinced thatI can save every ball. I don’t show weakness towards the opponent; I try to radiate strength so that I come out on top.
I’m focused by communicating a lot. I speak with my team-mates in front of me when we are in possession. I say things like, “You have time,” or, “He’s free.” I call by name who’s free, on the right or on the left side, or if one has an opponent behind him and has no time. These things keep me in the game and keep me alert. That’s why communicating is very important and I try to be as close as possible to the defence to anticipate certain things and solve them in advance, so that we can take advantage of it as a team.
You take something from every situation in life, in your career. You can particularly take a lot from defeats. And when you’re injured and then get back on your feet, you realise how lucky you are to do what you do: the fact that I have a lot of fun playing football and playing a team sport with the lads here. Being successful is just the best thing. We’ve always got new challenges. Just like how you start at zero after conceding a goal as a goalkeeper, you start a new season with a clean slate. There’s always something to win but you can also lose a lot, so there are so many chances and possibilities. You only have one career and I want to make mine as successful as possible. It’s difficult to say how much is talent and how much is hard work. But without the sweat, the daily work, the improvement, the drive to get better every day, it wouldn’t have happened.