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Lothar Matthäus praises the competition in Bundesliga and the rise of Union Berlin

As a European champion and a World Cup-winning captain with Germany, a FIFA World Player of the Year and a seven-time Bundesliga winner, Lothar Matthäus did it all. He was the “best rival” the late Diego Maradona ever had, and is remembered simultaneously as one of the best box-to-box midfielders, deep-lying playmakers and most intelligent sweepers to ever play the game.

Read in this interview script what he has to say about the top contenders for the Meisterschale this season, and his thoughts about some of the most outstanding players.

How would you currently assess FC Bayern?

“Despite their lead in the table, it’s maybe not the lead that Bayern normally expect because their dominance in the last 10 years speaks for itself. On the other hand, it’s good that Bayern have not run away with the league and that they have gone through some weaker phases. There were a few weeks where they didn’t pick up many points. Thank God there were other teams who made the most of these weak phases and not just one or two, but four or five teams who are hot on their heels. It’s great for the Bundesliga and the fans are enjoying it. There’s excitement and there are top games at the weekend.”

What is your opinion on Union Berlin?

“Union Berlin are putting in great performances not only in the Bundesliga but also in the cup and European competitions. It’s unbelievable how this club has developed, and it goes to show what can be achieved in such a short period of time if all of those responsible do their jobs. I think everyone from the cleaner right up to the president are doing everything right at Union Berlin. Four years ago, they were bringing in free agents and now they are significantly in the green and can invest a few million in new players which they earned through the outgoing transfers of some other players.

Union Berlin has got a foothold near the top of the table, and they have worked their way up after having been promoted and then achieving 12th place and then 7th place. This has not come from nowhere and it’s not just down to luck, but rather it’s been a lot of hard and disciplined work and a lot of intuition. They play out from the back, they are quick on the counter, and they are strong on set pieces with the most headed goals in the Bundesliga. It is therefore not a surprise to me that Union Berlin are very stable in their performances and are achieving success with this coach, who fits perfectly to the club.”

How would you currently assess Borussia Dortmund?

“A lot of players have returned from injury and it’s a tough competition for places. Almost every position has at least two players competing for it, especially when you see that Mats Hummels is on the bench and Marco Reus was also out for a long time. His absence was hardly noticeable because his replacements have recently done a good job after struggling at the start. Adeyemi is performing significantly better than three or four months ago, Süle has found his form, and Schlotterbeck is an aggressive defender, and aggression is maybe something that Dortmund has been lacking in the last few years. They are now winning the tight games and that is why they are back in the title race. I think Dortmund has a squad that can be dangerous for Bayern.”

RB Leipzig are looking to potentially close the gap. How do you see RB at the moment?

“They have also had injury problems. However, similarly to Dortmund, Leipzig has a very deep squad and they play with what’s available to them. It’s a bit reminiscent of the old RB style which Marco Rose seems to have brought back to the team, and this is why Leipzig are a team that can not only be dangerous for Bayern but also a team that belongs at the top.”

What is your opinion on Eintracht Frankfurt?

“Frankfurt now has their finger in several pies. They used to only have to contend with the league, but last year when they won the Europa League, they were only average in the Bundesliga. This year, they have progressed further in the Champions League. It’s a different story to the one at Union Berlin, but they have also worked their way to the top with the support of the fans and a lot of great work.

They have great players and did some excellent transfer business and they have one main advantage – a world-class goalkeeper and a world-class center-forward, which not every team has. Mario Götze and Kolo Muani were great transfers and they have a coach in Glasner who always sets the team up brilliantly. They are stable, have pace in attack, and the coach always knows which player to bring in for every situation. He knows when to play a bit more defensively and when to bring on uncompromising players such as Sebastian Rode in place of Kamada, for example, who is more of an artist. He has the options needed as a coach, but the most important thing for me is that there is someone up front who scores the goals and someone at the back who prevents them, and I think Kevin Trapp is one of the best goalkeepers in the world.”

SC Freiburg is also sticking around at the top. What do you like about the team from Breisgau?

“SC Freiburg has stuttered a little in 2023, but they will stay calm because they know where they have come from. Just like Union Berlin, they are still in three competitions. Apart from Leipzig, all of the top six are in the quarter-finals of the DFB Pokal and I don’t think that has happened in a long time. Freiburg is not only stable in the league, but also in the national and European competitions they are taking part in. Freiburg’s performance is always steady, and their route has been similar to Union Berlin’s.

A few years ago, they didn’t make any big transfers and they just sold players, but now Freiburg has a lot of depth to their squad and is able to compete in three competitions at once. In Streich, they have a coach who knows the club inside out and the players have developed well under him. The fans are just as much of a force in the new stadium as in the old stadium and you can see this in the home record because I think they have only conceded seven goals at home.

This shows that Freiburg has grown just as quickly and consistently as Union Berlin in the last few years. The successes in the Bundesliga and the cup final appearance last season show that it’s not just a flash in the pan, but that the quality is really there to keep competing at the top of the table in the coming years. Freiburg has become a destination for players whom the club may have only dreamed about a few years ago. You can see that a lot is possible at Freiburg, just like at Union Berlin. Union was in negotiations with

Isco, which is something that was not conceivable two or three years ago, even if the transfer did not pan out in the end. Freiburg and Union have become destinations for players with big ambitions.”

Which of the top six has the best chance to win the title?

“Bayern München is very clearly the favourite, but the biggest competition lies in Dortmund and Leipzig because, in my opinion, they have the squads with the most depth and they also have the biggest financial possibilities in comparison to Frankfurt, Union Berlin, and Freiburg. As previously mentioned, most of the teams are still in three competitions, so a bit of experience comes into it about how to get into the rhythm of playing Wednesdays and Saturdays.

A few years ago, Freiburg and Union could prepare the whole week for the Bundesliga and now they suddenly have these international games to contend with. Of course, the teams all enjoy these occasions, but it’s been a normal routine for Bayern and the team knows how to deal with it and there is experience in the team about how to win titles. This is a clear advantage when it comes to dealing with these situations in the business end of the season. Bayern have repeatedly shown that they can deal with pressure on both a national and international level and even when they have gone through weaker phases, they have then followed it up with a positive run of form.”

The Bundesliga is the league with the most goals in Europe. How would you assess this development?

“The Bundesliga is attractive. We have great stadiums, and a fantastic atmosphere, and most games that are sold out. I am at a game every Saturday evening and it’s just enjoyable to watch the Bundesliga, even after the 43 years I’ve been involved professionally since 1979. It’s good fun to go to the stadium on a Saturday and not only in München or Dortmund, but also in Köln, Frankfurt, Bremen, Berlin, or Freiburg. It’s a great atmosphere everywhere, which still continues to fascinate me.

The Bundesliga is a family experience and there are a lot of families who spend time together in stadiums at the weekend. Boys and girls wear the shirts of their favourite players and it’s simply great. I am a father myself and I often bring my son and several of his friends to the stadium when Bayern has a home game. I think the Bundesliga is advertised very well and I think the cooperation between the clubs and the DFL is very good, although there is always room for improvement.

The international marketing is excellent, and the Bundesliga has a lot of young and talented players. We have a lot of international players in our ranks, especially from France, Austria, and Switzerland, and not just players from the German national team. Other nationalities are now also interested in playing in the Bundesliga, such as the transfer of Mané from Liverpool to Bayern München or de Ligt from Juventus to Bayern München. The Bundesliga is a league that a lot of international stars want to be a part of.”

What do you think of Jamal Musiala and where can his career go from here?

“I have been a fan of Musiala for over two and a half years, ever since he started playing in the Bundesliga. He has become a national team player and it’s the ease and joy in his play

and the passion in his football that makes him special. He is humble and he always wants to improve, which I know from my time at FC Bayern. [Jamal Musiala] always looks to have conversations and he stays back longer at training, and it’s enjoyable to watch him play. He is someone who already knows what to do with the ball before he has received it and he has a radar which means he always knows what is happening around him. He knows what options are available to him and he almost always makes the right decision in my opinion. I like going to watch games just for Musiala alone because he brings me great joy and I think he does everything right. Even when he loses the ball, he doesn’t give up and he keeps trying even when things don’t go his way.

You can only score these types of goals if you have this self-confidence and this is what he has because everything comes naturally to him. It is a matter of course for him to dribble against two or three opponents in a tight space and this is something I have previously only seen in Messi in the last two decades and in Maradona before that. For me, Musiala has this quality, and not only because he has now become a fixture at Bayern München and is the top goal scorer who scores the best goals and provides the nicest assists.

He knows how to work his way through the tightest of spaces and he was impressive at the World Cup even though the German team did not deliver the results. He had his moments in every game, which is what we have come to expect from him and he is still only 20. I think Musiala has a great career ahead of him.”

How important is Musiala to Bayern München?

“I think he is a difference-maker and he is a leading player. He doesn’t have the experience of Thomas Müller or Joshua Kimmich, but he is player who makes a difference. He needs a bit more time to become a leader, but he helps the players around him. He’s not a conductor like Müller who says what the team has to do, but he is the key player at Bayern München at the age of 20. The leadership role will develop automatically, and I think he exhibits these qualities within the team when things are going well. He is at a club in Bayern which has big domestic and international goals and when you achieve these goals with the team, then I think Musiala will become a candidate to be World Footballer of the Year.”

What do you think of Kolo Muani?

“I think he is the top scorer with ten goals and ten assists, and he is also near the top of the ranking for quickest players. He has confidence, has no fear, goes into the tackles, and uses his pace well. The coach makes the most of the pace of Lindstrøm and Kolo Muani by letting the opposition have the ball and using the space in behind.

They do this very well and Kolo Muani can score goals, is strong in the air, technically strong, and is also someone who lays the ball off well to his teammates. He came to the Bundesliga as a free agent in the summer and his performance has been exceptional, regardless of what his transfer value is now or what his potential is. Nobody in Frankfurt would have imagined this in their wildest dreams and I think he just proved us all wrong. He has become one of the faces of the Bundesliga in the last seven months.

Did the World Cup give him confidence or is it due to the team tactics of Eintracht Frankfurt?

“He’s scoring more goals now when he was previously more the assist provider. He is now scoring and assisting, and he is scoring in the cup as well, so it’s simply amazing. When you go on such a good run, especially as a striker, then you gain a lot of self-confidence and then everything goes your way and shots go in that maybe didn’t previously go in. He worked hard to get himself into this position, but he also profits from Frankfurt’s system, which is somewhat catered towards him. [Kolo] has teammates that set him up well, especially Mario Götze and Daichi Kamada, who give him the ball in such a way that he can play to his strengths. He has a lot of paces and when he gets going, he is very difficult to stop.

During the World Cup, he came on in almost every game for France and he had the big chance in the final in the 117th minute. I was there in the stadium, and he had the chance to win the World Cup for France, but the Argentine goalkeeper pulled off a world- class save. Kolo Muani had a very good World Cup and it is very significant for a player if a World Cup goes well, which is something I experienced myself. Nobody knew who he was eight months ago and suddenly he found himself in a World Cup Final. Self-confidence is important and I can say from personal experience that a World Cup helps you take a huge step forward.”