"I still feel like a player from time to time, but I think like a manager." Sebastian Kehl, 42, rang in a number of changes when he was appointed to the position of sporting director. He often uses the phrase "performance culture." Our former captain explains in an interview what his plans are for the club, how he thinks – and how Sébastien Haller's serious illness has affected the club.
What needs to be achieved at the end of the 2022/23 season so that you can say: "My first year as BVB sporting director was a good one!"?
Many people would make such an answer purely dependent on success on the pitch, and it goes without saying that Borussia Dortmund – and this is also my great ambition – always want to qualify for the Champions League and compete for titles. However, this year we also have a number of other tasks and would like to work together as a group to tackle various challenges. For example, it would be nice if we could say in twelve months: "what we launched last year has worked". The hopes we have placed in the new players, the changes in backroom staff and the structure of our management team as a whole have worked. Above all, we want to be able to say after this season that we have improved. In general, we have always been strongest when we don't compare ourselves to other clubs, and just try to get the best out of ourselves. That is why I am not going to announce any specific targets now.
What a sporting director does in a summer break depends largely on the outcome of an analysis of the previous season. That covers football-specific, structural and group-dynamic aspects. What conclusions from this analysis can we already see?
It was a joint analysis that we conducted internally. And we came to our conclusions together. One approach was that we wanted to get our business on the transfer market done a little earlier here and there, so that we weren't constantly chasing our tails. We wanted to proactively make a big statement. We tackled the issues very consistently – whether they were football-specific, hierarchical or structural. That certainly made things a little easier over the past few weeks when it came to planning our squad in terms of new signings, even if we know that not everything will go perfectly right from the off. But we are very hopeful that what we have put in place – with a new coach and his team, which has triggered a lot of euphoria in and around the club – can bring about something really great this season. We are all aware that a massive change like this takes time. And it goes without saying that there are always new challenges to face, as is the case at this time with the serious illness of Sébastien Haller, which has shocked us all and will also have an impact on our options available on the pitch. But none of our opponents will go one percent easier on us because we are struggling with issues like that. That is why we need to learn to deal with it, to defend ourselves and to do our best every day.
Please give us an insight into your mind. What did you think when you first learned about Sébastien's diagnosis?
I was dismayed. We were sitting together at the training camp in Switzerland in a small group when the news reached us. At first, we had hoped that the diagnosis might not be confirmed after further examinations. Unfortunately, that wasn't to be.
You spoke about big changes. Does the scope of these changes represent a particular challenge for you as the new sporting director?
There had been plans to change the direction we were heading in some areas, and now is the right time to do that. However, we have also made a lot of progress in the licensed players division in recent years. We brought in a sports psychologist in Philipp Laux. We have highlighted the importance of nutrition, and Melf Carstensen is responsible for that. We have tried to focus more on the issue of integration, because we know that young players who are new to Dortmund, who may be living abroad for the first time in their lives, need stronger leadership and support when they are away from their families. They were some important steps. But the biggest change definitely came this summer, after a difficult season in which we were not happy with several of the games and results. I've emphasised the importance of performance culture often enough. You have to be consistent, to maintain the spirit of the club. I think we've been able to change the face of the team, the staff and the internal spirit through some transfers and changes.
Mats Hummels used similar words in an interview and highlighted the fact that performance culture at the club was not as pronounced as it had to be. What was lacking?
To be honest, although there are a number of complex reasons, the biggest problem was that we never had even close to the full squad available last season. If you have to change things around time and again, if you cannot even come close to settling on a formation, a group cannot grow together, and then it is difficult to be successful. Erling Haaland – our primary goalscorer – was out for several months, there was a similar situation in the full-back positions, and the injuries last season started as early as in pre-season. By the time we played the first round of the cup, we hadn't managed to field a first team centre-back. The issue of having players out injured was a constant theme throughout the entire season. Ultimately, we conceded too many goals last season – the most out of all the top teams in the league – and lost too many games. I am convinced that the changes in the squad and in the backroom staff will help us to bring performance culture into sharper focus again and also to bring a more uncompromising, winning spirit to the team. All of this can be supported, exemplified and demanded from the outside, but not dictated – that has to come from inside the club. The lads themselves are called upon to do that. There are some experienced players in the team who know exactly how success works and how to achieve it in the end. If we live by these the requirements in the interactions between the team, coach and the club, we will be successful.
Many clubs would be delighted to come second in the Bundesliga. However, you only gave the season a rating of "good", as we couldn't give the fans as much pleasure we should have. Is that one of the key tasks for the new season: to give the city and the region a bit more to cheer about?
People enjoy it most when you get good results and success. But if the approach is right, if the attitude is right, people can forgive the team for a lot. In that case, the people here in this region are prepared to suffer – and then, in the long term, great things can come about. After two years of Covid-19, the fans have the desire to come back to the stadium. I see it as our duty to repay the faith they have in us with passion on the pitch and, in the end, with positive results. Last season, I thought we were lacking the necessary resistance in some games. I can be quite honest about that. Of course, things can be a bit bumpy at the beginning of the season, we know that, but that absolute resistance is something we all and I want to feel at all times.
Borussia Dortmund have had a relatively large number of coaches in recent years, some of whom also had clear ideas of different playing styles. What type of football do we want here?
We want attacking, courageous, passionate, intense, perhaps sometimes a little wild football. That philosophy will not change. Edin Terzic is a great fit with his way of wanting to let the boys play.
Was it a paradigm shift to turn to a more mature striker instead of a very young one? And that you are not primarily looking for playmakers, but that you also get someone more robust for the midfield?
We thought a lot and looked at the qualities in the squad. Up front, we are still very, very young, with highly talented players like Karim Adeyemi, Donny Malen, Gio Reyna, Youssoufa Moukoko or Jamie Bynoe-Gittens. One or two of them still need a bit of time, guidance and support. That is precisely why we decided to bring in a 28-year-old centre-forward in Sébastien Haller, who is a big personality and has incredible professionalism. At the moment, it is of course tough to take that Sébastien will not be available for us at first because of his tumour. In light of that, football is clearly not the main priority. All that matters now is his health. But, back to your question: yes, we are tweaking our strategy here and there. Niklas Süle brings a lot of experience, Salih Özcan adds some physical strength and doesn't shy away from a challenge. I think he might surprise a few people, because he brings gives us attributes that we have been missing a bit until now. I am fascinated by his willingness to work hard and to put his body on the line. However, Salih has unfortunately missed a large part of the pre-season due to an injury. Hopefully, he will be able to fight his way into the team in the next few days.
Are you a bit proud of the fact that German internationals choose BVB and don't go abroad?
Many clubs – including some foreign ones – were very interested in all the players we picked up. There was a lot more money on the table for the lads, and yet they chose Borussia Dortmund and our way. They look at our fans, and at our stadium, and they feel that there is a lot going on here, that we want to start something new and that they can develop with us at the highest level. For us as a club, it is also important that we once again have a large number of German internationals and future internationals.
In the recent past, there have not been many German internationals from the BVB ranks. Marco Reus, Julian Brandt, Emre Can...
The boys have to work hard and earn it, but the principle has always been the same. Julian Brandt, for example, took a big step forward last season, Marco Reus was much more stable in terms of staying free from injuries and will remain an important part of the DFB team, and Mats Hummels and Emre Can want to show that they have not yet written off their chances of playing at the World Cup. Then we also have Niklas Süle, Nico Schlotterbeck and Karim Adeyemi. Hansi Flick has some of our guys on his radar, I know that. Then it is up to them to prove themselves and consistently perform well in order to get the call up. In the end, that can only be good for us at BVB.
Edin Terzic was able to complete his first pre-season as head coach and now does not have to jump in halfway through the season as he did in December 2020, when he was named interim head coach. What impression do you have of his work so far?
He is incredibly focused, committed and approaches the task with a clear plan. He has come up with several good ideas with his coaching team. And he made it clear from the start what kind of football he stands for. Edin is very communicative, has a lot of one-on-one discussions with the players and tries to convey to the team the spirit that we want to bring back to the club.
After the appointment of Peter Hermann, 70, as assistant coach alongside Sebastian Geppert, 38, Terzic jokingly said that this would increase the average age of the coaching team to around 50. Why was Peter Hermann specifically chosen?
Because he brings something completely different and has an incredible amount of experience. Peter adds something to us with his leadership and his calm nature and gives us something that we didn't have in the coaching team. He is a calming presence. His man-management is sensational.
Your previous position as the head of the licensed players division has not been filled. Are you doing both jobs now?
This summer, we had a change which was not planned, because the position of technical director is no longer filled – as you know, Edin Terzic is the new head coach. I need a good team and, of course, in future, people who take certain tasks off my hands. But for now, we're taking one step at a time...
Not only has our long-time sporting director Michael Zorc left, but Leverkusen's Rudi Völler has also left a similar role and before that one or two older executives moved on. There are relatively fresh faces in the front line, as alongside you, there is Simon Rolfes at Leverkusen and Marcel Schäfer at Wolfsburg. Is this generation of sporting leaders different?
This new generation will lead some clubs to adopt a different style of leadership. That goes without saying. Whether it will be successful in the end, we will have to wait and see. A lot of people in the club can make an important contribution on the way to making sporting decisions. Taking them with you and still developing a clear understanding of various roles is an important aspect.
We currently have the most successful U23s in German football, and we have had the most successful academy for a decade. What role does the youth performance centre play for you?
We win a title almost every year with the U19s and U17s and produce a lot of talented players. However, the balancing act we have to do due to the demands placed on us at the highest level is a huge challenge. That is why the U23s play an important role in our plans, because one or two of the young players simply need some time – and above all, match practice in senior football in the long-term. And even if the youngsters don't end up in our first team, they very often do make it as a professional footballer.
Michael Zorc spent 44 years at Borussia Dortmund, Lars Ricken has been with BVB for almost 30 years, Ingo Preuss – the manager of the U23s – has also been with us for decades. You are going into your 19th season at BVB. What is the fascination with our club?
Consistency in these positions is immensely important. If you constantly try to bring about changes here, you cannot be successful in the long term. Michael Zorc has strongly influenced Borussia Dortmund in various roles. Aki Watzke has been running this club for many, many years on an extraordinarily high level with expertise and foresight. I am glad and proud that the decision was made to once again put a Dortmund man in the position of sporting director and not give someone from outside the club the responsibility for matters on the pitch. I have been preparing for this for a long time and invested a lot in it. It is important that you are well connected within the club, you know the club, but above all you understand the people in the city and in the surrounding area, have a certain closeness with it and are willing to work hard. However, it is not in itself a sign of quality to simply stay at a club for a long time – that would not meet the demands and expectations of the club.
"My first years as a sporting director were still heavily influenced by the players' point of view. Then the great task was to reconcile these two perspectives." That was what Michael Zorc said. Is it an advantage that you have had seven years between the end of your playing career and the start of your career as a sporting director?
Yes. But the four years as head of the licensed players division also helped me to create that distance. I still feel like a player from time to time, but I think like a manager. Nevertheless, the experience as a player at the highest level is extremely helpful and is irreplaceable – you must not lose that feeling of how a team works and how a dressing room works!
How do you convince people and get them excited about Borussia Dortmund when you are in conversation with potential new players?
We try to have an intense, honest discussion with the players and want to give them a sense of what we're planning to do together with them. We show them the clear possibilities that exist for them at Borussia Dortmund: to prove themselves at the highest level in the Champions League, to play football and compete for titles in this fantastic stadium – and to earn good money at the same time. These general conditions are, in my view, difficult to beat. What will always make us stand out from the crowd is that we live by what we promise. You can see that on show every Saturday. In every match report. We give young players a chance time after time. In the end, of course, it is up to them to prove themselves.
What matters most when it comes to negotiations with other clubs or players: persuasion, nerve, patience, psychology?
I have been a part of a wide range of discussions over the past few years, in which Michael Zorc was also involved as a very experienced negotiator. No two negotiations are the same. Momentum plays a major role and of course, the holistic, sporting approach with the associated individual perspective plays a major role. As a rule, being someone the other person can trust is very important. We have built up a reputation for absolute reliability with many advisors over the years, and I am now also benefiting from that.
Next month, the midweek games will begin, which for the national players will go on every week from 2 September: two games a week, without a break until mid-November. What can you do to help manage this exceptional load?
By not thinking too much about it, but by preparing as much as possible for it. In recent years, too, the first half of the season has been packed with games. I am not complaining about the busy schedule, because we have prepared the lads for it and because of a number of factors, there's no other way to do it. We want to be in all three competitions until the end. And if you also have the honour of getting to play at a World Cup for your country – which you can discuss in principle – it is a privilege.
On the other hand, there is an exceptionally long winter break from 14 November to 19 January. Do you already have plans for how you will use this ten-week period? And if so, what are they?
We have already thought about that and will finalise the details in the coming weeks. There will certainly be phases in which we will put the players through their paces – at least the players who don't go to the World Cup, supplemented by players from the U23s and the U19s. There may also be an opportunity to go on a tour abroad to continue to grow the international reputation of the club.
The draw for the group phase of the UEFA Champions League will be held on 25 August. For the first time since the 2013/14 season, BVB are only in pot three. Does this dampen expectations?
It's going to be exciting. Pot three is an unfamiliar starting point, but we've made our own bed with two poor seasons in 2017/18 and last year. On the other hand, I remember it well – I was there myself – that we were once even in pot four and won a group with Manchester City, Real Madrid and Ajax. We will take it as it comes, and I think we are good enough. And one thing is also certain: no team from pot one or two want to be drawn with Borussia Dortmund …
Interview: Sascha Fligge, Daniel Stolpe
Photos: Alexandre Simoes
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