From Wolfsburg to Westphalia: Marin Pongracic is hitting his prime at age 24. The ambitious centre-back wants to develop and take the next step at BVB. He brings everything with him: technique, speed, strength, and robustness.
He couldn't have made a better start than on his BVB debut in Leverkusen. In the first half, the centre-back - just like his partner Manuel Akanji - didn't miss a single tackle. At the end of the day, he had very strong statistics: an 83% tackle success rate, and an 86% pass completion rate.
These values underline what the 1.93m tall model athlete stands for: uncompromising defensive work and strong build-up play. It stands him in good stead that he was once trained as a central midfielder, until a certain Breel Embolo crossed his path. But more on that later.
Back to his BVB debut in Leverkusen. While the team was celebrated for its great morale for winning 4-3 after trailing three times, Marin Pongracic was annoyed about the three ("humiliating") goals that they conceded, even though the centre-backs would get a first-class acquittal in any court of law. Especially since the two had only met in person for the first time the day before, as Akanji had been away on international duty with Switzerland.
"I'm self-critical enough to ask myself what I can do to stop us conceding any goals," he said, even after a few days and the impression of multiple video studies - both with the team, and in front of his own TV. "I could have attacked the man a bit more aggressively. I can do that better in the future."
How can people picture getting to know Manuel Akanji the day before? "Hi, I'm Marin. It's possible that we'll play together in defence tomorrow..."?!
(Laughs) It wasn't quite like that. But we had in fact only trained once together before that. Then on match day I asked him a few more things that we agreed on.
You were born in Landshut and grew up there. When I think about Landshut, I think about Wolfgang Stark and EV Landshut. You either become a referee or play ice hockey...
Ice hockey still actually has more emphasis put on it than football in Landshut. I hope that this will change - and that people will talk about Marin Pongracic in the distant future when they talk about Landshut. I love where I come from, and always enjoy going home.
"34 is definitely my lucky number"
This closeness to home is also expressed through his choice of number. "34" is the last two digits of his postcode 84034. "My lucky number!" In the town with a population of 70,000 in south-eastern Bavaria, Marin Pongracic grew up as the son of Croatian parents who registered him at the local football team at an early age, fearing for their flower vases in the living room. As a boy, he cycled to training and enjoyed a "wonderful time with great tournaments abroad," then switching to the FC Bayern youth setup shortly before his 13th birthday. In Munich, he was retrained as a central midfielder after previously being a striker, playing as both a "10" and a "6."
When a defender was injured at a tournament in Salzburg, the coach moved the astonished (and protesting) Pongracic to the back line. FC Basel were the opponents. "I played my first game as a centre-back against Breel Embolo. Physically, he was far superior to anyone else back then." The current Gladbach pro, however, couldn't make a stab at Pongracic. "Since then, I've never gotten away from this position."
During this time for FC Bayern U15s, however, he had an increasing number of injury problems. "I grew quickly, 20cm in two years." As a result, his playing time suffered. "I was no longer satisfied with my situation, and I needed minutes, so I decided to take a step back and go to Ingolstadt. Looking back at it, that was the right decision."
Three years later, in summer 2016, he returned to Munich, but not to Bayern. Instead, he went to the "Lions," where the then 19-year-old first played in TSV 1860's second team. He then made his second division debut on 16 April 2017 and continuously played over 90 minutes in the final six matches. However, he was sent off shortly before the end of their first relegation play-off match against Regensburg (1-1) through a second yellow, therefore missing the return match, meaning he had to experience their relegation from the stands, as well as their fall into the Regionalliga after they were unable to obtain a licence for the third division. "I then decided to join Salzburg because I knew it was one of the best places for young players."
Under coach Marco Rose, Marin Pongracic experienced "a time that you'll never forget," as well as defining moments such as the UEFA Europa League semi-final second leg against Olympique Marseille. "I was subbed on for the last 25 minutes of extra time, then slipped over unfortunately - but we won 2-1."
"Erling is still the same guy as in Salzburg"
After three Austrian championships and two cup victories, he moved to VfL Wolfsburg in January 2020. Pongracic established himself in central defence (with 11 out of a possible 14 appearances), but things didn't go so well for him after summer 2020. "I was ill during a decisive phase, also due to corona, and before that I had glandular fever too. The other defenders played well. When they don't concede for seven or eight games, it's understandable to be on the bench. I understood that completely." He was also on the bench for the opening game of the season against Bochum, and he wasn't even in coach Mark van Bommel's squad for the second and third games. Instead, a door opened in Dortmund...
... where there's no postcode ending in "34." Is that not a dealbreaker?
(Laughs) 34 is a number I associate with a lot, but it's certainly no reason to not come to this big club.
How close was your contact with Marco Rose in the past few years?
Since our birthdays are on the same day, we always heard from each other or texted every so often. When the move was due, we spoke on the phone for a while, and he made me feel very positive.
And how was your reunion with Erling Haaland?
Great! We were happy to be playing in the same team again. Personally, he hasn't changed at all, even though he has become a star. Erling is still the same guy that he was when we played together in Salzburg: positively crazy. It's unbelievable how far he's come.
You also started as a striker. Is it an advantage for you now as a defender that you know how attackers tick?
That's an interesting question, and something I hadn't really considered before. When I was moved from central midfield to centre-back, the aspect that helped me was that I'm secure on the ball and have relatively good build-up play, which is nowadays becoming more and more important. My forward drive, which used to be extreme, is now under control.
How do you deal with your mistakes?
In the past, it was destructive if the first pass wasn't received, or the first tackle wasn't won. I'd quickly become insecure and not very approachable after the game. Since then, I've become more relaxed and try to come into the game more confidently, making as few mistakes as possible. If I do make a mistake, I try to shake it off as quickly as possible and simply keep playing. I think that's the right way.
Do you have any footballing role models?
From day one I have always admired Lionel Messi. As a little boy, I was a big Barcelona fan. As a centre-back, Virgil van Dijk and Kalidou Koulibaly are my role models. They have everything! They are physically strong, fast, and top footballers. I watch their games and Youtube videos, to learn from both of them. It's fascinating what they can do.
Have you already met them?
I have played against Koulibaly once, on my Champions League debut against Napoli. When we played against Liverpool with Salzburg, I was out through injury, but I was at the stadium for both games.
"I work on my weaknesses, but also on my strengths"
How important was your strong debut in Leverkusen to you?
It was a weight off my mind. I wanted to justify the trust that was placed in me and show what I can do. Yet there is still room for improvement. When I watched the game again, I saw a lot of things that I could improve.
And how did it feel to play at the SIGNAL IDUNA PARK for the first time?
Even though only 25,000 fans could be there compared to the usual 81,000, it was a great experience. I can't wait for the next home game with our fans.
You're initially on loan for a season. What goals would you like to achieve with BVB by then?
I want to play as many games as possible and develop myself further into this team, with its extremely high quality. To do that, I have to work on myself: on my weaknesses, but also on my strengths - I also want to take the next steps in my personal development.