In summer 2018, the board of management of Borussia Dortmund identified a lack of mental strength as a problem among the first team squad. The board started to pick out names they thought could be the solution to this problem. And there was one name in particular that stood out: Thomas Delaney. Interviewed for the club's member magazine Borussia, the Dane talked at length about himself and the club's current situation.
The sky over the training ground is grey as grey can be, but there's a decent chance that things might clear up. In a way, the weather seems to reflect the mood at black-and-yellow headquarters. It's the Friday before the showdown with Bayer Leverkusen. BVB have gone five matches in a row without a win. In the Bundesliga, they've drawn 1-1 in Frankfurt, 3-3 against Hoffenheim and 0-0 in Nuremberg. They've been knocked out of the DFB-Cup after penalty shoot-out drama against Bremen, and the first leg of their Champions League tie against Tottenham Hotspur has left their chances of progression hanging by a thread. That most-dreaded of words - C-R-I-S-I-S - has started to do the rounds in the media. Just 50 hours later, a 3-2 win over Bayern means that Borussia have ''found their way back on track in spectacular fashion.''
All of this bluster in the media seems to leave Thomas Delaney unmoved. The 27-year-old midfielder only appears to get truly worked up in the 90 plus minutes separating kick-off from the full-time whistle - that's when the Irish genes inherited from his American father truly come to the fore. In the much longer time period between matches, Delaney is a deeply laid-back individual: his sense of calm and tranquility in some way a reflection of the Danish countryside in which he was raised. Danes, after all, are renowned for their sense of composure.
Thomas, your birthday falls on 3 September, meaning you're a Virgo. They say that Virgo are analytical, disciplined and logical in their thinking. Is this true or false?
To be honest, I'm a double-faced character. If you were to apply these particular character traits to my private life, then I would say it's more or less true. I need a clearly-defined structure, I like having set routines. I like it when things follow a plan. A certain longing for a sense of stability is always there. Of course I'm also disciplined when it comes to the sporting side of things. Otherwise it would be impossible to play at this level. As to whether or not I'm always analytical and logical out on the pitch, well...
...those with Virgo as a star sign are also supposed to be overly-critical, opinionated and perfectionist - all traits which others may find somewhat difficult in an individual. Is this true or false?
I have absolutely no idea. I guess there are two sides to me. I'm a restless player. I constantly want to sort things out. I want to get stuck into tackles, jump into aerial duels. I talk to the referee and opposition players and I try to motivate my teammates. Sometimes I take things a bit too far. Sometimes I raise my voice. I'm never like this in private. I'm actually quite a quiet person in private. I don't think I'm a particularly difficult person to be around, but you'd be best off asking my girlfriend about that. As a football player, I expect an awful lot of myself as well as of those around me. There was a time when I didn't always go about things in a particularly diplomatic way...
...I've learned new ways. I've grown more mature, and I try to respond to the individual character traits of my teammates. That's why it's so important to try and get to know them as quickly as possible and as well as possible. But it's also true that football isn't a panel discussion. Sometimes you have to be frank, you have to take a clear stance. For me, it's important that I can be myself and that I can be honest. As a younger player, sometimes I didn't always have my emotions in check out on the pitch, I wasn't always able to hide it when I was feeling angry. Then one of my coaches taught me a valuable lesson: that it's best not to let others know that you're angry, because it just makes you a target, and that leads to your concentration slipping from the things that really matter. This advice has worked really well for me.
Borussia Dortmund recruited you in the summer of 2018 because it was felt that there was a lack of ''players with mental strength'' in the squad. Others talk about ''aggressive leaders,'' or even ''bad guys.'' To put it respectfully, you don't really seem like a ''bad guy.'' Everyone who knows you seems to say: ''Thomas Delaney is the nicest guy in the world.''
(smirks) I don't really think it's about being nasty. It's the opposite in fact: I always do my best to make sure I'm under control. After I'd just arrived in Bremen, the coach subbed me off after I'd been given a yellow card. He was clearly worried that I'd go and get myself a red shortly afterwards. But if you actually have a look at my career statistics, you'll notice that although I've been given plenty of warnings, not once have I actually had to take an early bath.
If it's not about being a mean and nasty ''enforcer'' figure, then what exactly is it that marks out a ''player with mental strength''?
It's about taking on responsibility as a leader. I spoke about this in depth with Michael Zorc and Sebastian Kehl when I was on the brink of moving to BVB. Of course I knew I had what it takes to be this kind of player. I have the fundamental qualities required. But could I do it at this level? I come from a small country, from a club whose name doesn't carry all that much weight in Europe. It wasn't too hard for me in Bremen because the club really had its back against the wall when I first arrived in 2017. But Borussia Dortmund is different, it's a big club with big ambitions. From the very start, there was one thing that was clear in my mind: the only way to become a leader at BVB is through top-level performance. It didn't necessarily mean that I had to be the very best player. But I knew I had to be really good and I had to give my absolute all. This was the only way I could lay a claim to being one of the leaders of this team. Acceptance is also really important. A leader needs to be accepted as such by those around him - and if you don't perform, you won't be accepted.
How would you define your style of leadership?
It's about having a strong physical presence. Not shying away when the going gets tough. Supporting and guiding your teammates. Giving the youngsters support and a sense of security. Having their backs. Making yourself available to receive the ball. Being strong in the tackle. I'm not the kind of player who appears much in the highlights reel. Other people are there to do that. I don't talk to every teammate about every aspect of the game. What would I have to tell Jadon Sancho about dribbling? I have absolutely no idea about that. I'll never be able to get my head around the things Jadon can do with the ball. It's a whole different game to the one I play. It's more like dancing than football.
So what do you talk to Jadon about?
I could talk about tackles for example. He isn't particularly keen on them - which I can completely understand given that for a lot of his opponents, fouls are the only means of defense they have against him. Or it could be headers too. He has a lot to learn in that regard. So I feel there are a few things that I can help him with.
You line up in central midfield alongside someone else who has a lot of lessons to give: Axel Witsel. From the very first day, there's been a real chemistry between the two of you, almost as if you'd never played with anyone else. How do you explain that? It's not like you can just put two excellent football players alongside one another and then expect it to work automatically...
I think we complement one another so well because we're so different. Axel actually says very little out on the pitch. At least not with his mouth. He lets his feet do the talking. He's unbelievably assured on the ball, but he also has an incredible sense of self-assurance too. That's where the tranquility and dominance in his game comes from. He always intuitively makes the right decisions and is never scared of a tackle. I find that incredibly impressive. I bring completely different traits and qualities to the table. We learn from one and other.
Thomas Joseph Delaney, to give him his full name, learned how to play football in his native Denmark. He comes from Frederiksberg, a small town near Copenhagen. He played 172 matches in the Danish Superliga for capital city outfit FC Copenhagen, winning four league titles and three Danish cups. He earned his first cap for the Danish national side in 2013 at the age of 22. He's since represented his country a total of 34 times, scoring four goals in the process. He was part of the team that reached the last 16 of the World Cup in Russia last year.
As a star player at the most well-known football club in Denmark, many foreign clubs must have had an eye on you at a young age. English and German clubs are known for buying players from the Danish league. Despite this, you didn't move abroad until you turned 25. Why did it take you so long?
I never planned my career in such a way that moving abroad to a big club as early as possible was top of the agenda. I had different goals. I wanted to establish myself at Copenhagen, I wanted to captain the side and lead the club to the league title. Copenhagen had always been my club. I wanted to be the best player there - that was my goal. I honestly don't know if things would have worked out if I'd moved to the Premier League or the Bundesliga as a 19-year-old. Maybe I wouldn't be where I am today. When I moved to Werder Bremen at the start of 2017, I was really well prepared and felt ready for the challenge.
It seems like you waited for just the right moment.
We'd already arranged the contractual side of things back in the summer of 2016 - but the transfer itself wasn't until the 2016/17 winter break. When I moved to Bremen, the team were placed 15th in the table. The first opponent we faced was Bayern Munich, then Borussia Mönchengladbach not long afterwards. After those games, we were third from bottom. Nonetheless, I'd say it was the perfect start for me as I've always found I do particularly well in the games against big teams. I love the challenge. Something in me is set free by it.
It also hasn't taken long for Thomas Delaney to find his place at Borussia Dortmund. From a sporting perspective, it's in the middle of the park, connecting defense and attack. But beyond that, he's also established himself in the squad hierarchy, which changed dramatically this summer due to the upheaval in personnel. He's demonstrated his presence in big games, none more so than the Ruhr derby. In the 2-1 win over Schalke on 8 December, Delaney scored his first ever Bundesliga goal for BVB. It seems he knows exactly how to go about making friends in Dortmund.
The first half of the season was almost perfect for BVB. The second half got off to a flawless start too: a 1-0 win in Leipzig, a 5-1 triumph over Hannover, a 1-1 draw in Frankfurt. Then suddenly this sense of effortlessness seemed to evaporate. Against Hoffenheim, the team surrendered a 3-0 lead in the last 15 minutes. How do you explain that?
Every season has its ups and downs. No team is able to perform at the same level from August to May. There's never a single reason as to why things might not go so well. One of our problems was that several important players got injured and then all of a sudden processes which had seemed automatic were no longer functioning. There's also the fact that our opponents analysed our style of play and started to figure out more effective ways of lining up against us. A lot of teams have been sitting extremely deep. They're perfectly happy if they can fight their way to a 0-0 draw. That's their main priority. When that happens, as it did in Nuremberg, it feels more like you're playing handball for 90 minutes than football. It was different against Hoffenheim. Against them, we completely dominated the first-half. Then we even went and built on our advantage, taking a 3-0 lead, it could have even been 4-0 - but then we were naive in the defensive aspect of play. Maybe we were lacking a certain experience at that point. I don't mean individual players were lacking experience, but rather the team as a whole was lacking a certain experience, perhaps because we hadn't been through a situation like that before.
Do you think the fans have any reason to be worried at the moment?
I can't lie: right now, things feel a little bit more difficult than they did during large parts of the first round of fixtures. But I'm not really worried. Not at all in fact, because there's one thing that sets us apart, and it's what I like most about us as a team: we always want to win. When we were 2-0 down away to Leverkusen earlier in the season, we wanted to win. And we did win. When we got a late equaliser at home to Augsburg, we wanted to push on and win. And we did win. And when we went behind twice against Bayern Munich, we didn't let it faze us, we wanted to win. And we did win. Our team has a remarkable desire to win.
BVB have a newfound mental strength: it's hard to think of higher praise that can be given to this team, especially given that just ten months have passed since the end of the 2017/18 season, which, although ultimately slightly cathartic from a sporting perspective, will be remembered as a sobering one for the club. Now, the team spirit is there for all to see. There is a sense that things are clicking. Everyone wants to roll up their sleeves and get down to work. A player like Thomas Delaney embodies this sense of renewal. There's one other thing that has to be mentioned: the thick clouds over the training ground have cleared. The sun has taken its place at the centre of a bright-blue spring sky.
You once said in an interview that you'd like to play in the Premier League, in Japan, in the States - and then come back to FC Copenhagen to bring things to a close. But a footballing career can only go on for so long. How many of these ambitions still form part of your career plans?
Back when I was at Bremen, I always used to respond to questions about my hopes and dreams for the future by saying that the Premier League has a certain appeal. I haven't ended up moving to Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester. Instead, I ended up here at BVB. Back when I said the Premier League interested me, I just meant it as a single example of one of many things that interested me. The same goes for Japan, America too. I have at least 100 other wishes, and it's highly likely that none of them will come true. But there's nothing wrong with that. None of those things have to happen to make me happy. To be completely honest, if my career were to end here in Dortmund, I would have absolutely no problem with that!
We don't want to go through every single one of your 100 wishes with you. But let's do at least one...
When my playing days are over, I'd like to be able to look at myself in the mirror and say: Thomas, you made the right decisions for the most part. You did a good job all things considered. You went about things in an intelligent way and made the most of the many privileges that come with being a professional footballer. That's one of my wishes. And it might just come true.
Interview: Frank Fligge