Mats Hummels is a vital pillar in the Germany defence. With his partner Jerome Boateng, and national goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, the 27-year-old has formed a triangle that is seen by many as the best in the world. In an interview at DFB.de, Mats Hummels speaks to Steffen Lüdeke about the Germany defence, ambition amongst professional footballers, and the quarter final against Italy on Saturday (21:00 CEST, live on ARD and Fan-Club-Radio).
DFB.de: The EUROs are going well, your results have been almost flawless, and Germany haven’t conceded a goal. How does it compare in other sports?
Mats Hummels: The results are definitely not flawless there, but it is reasonably good. We have played a few different things here: boules, basketball, billiards, beach volleyball. I think that I have been reasonably successful, but the competition is very high.
DFB.de: How competitive are you away from the football pitch?
Hummels: It is all good fun, but it is always the same with everyone here: you are playing against very competitive sportsmen. None of us like losing, and no one gives anything away. I find it fascinating, seeing how everyone has this unconditional desire to win, and how it is exactly the same in every sport. I am no exception.
DFB.de: Do you demand this from your teammates as well, when you compete against them?
Hummels: Yes. I always want the other person to give 100 percent to try to win. Then the victory tastes a lot sweeter.
DFB.de: The team have been together for more than five weeks. Has anyone experienced a touch of cabin fever?
Hummels: No, and I don’t see any danger of that happening. With the many facilities that the DFB have provided for us, with the different sports, the small cinema, the huge outdoor area – that all helps us to keep cabin fever at bay.
DFB.de: How important is the team’s headquarters in your sporting success?
Hummels: It is sometimes sneered at from the outside – the debate about the levels of luxury. But it plays a big role, creating an atmosphere like this at big tournaments. We are all highly professional and motivated athletes, and you can’t get away from the fact that monotony can really effect your performance. But here we are a long way away from monotony. Like I said, there is a lot to do here, and that is why everyone is in such a good mood – and that helps the team dynamics. In Campo Bahia (the team headquarters during the 2014 World Cup), it was just the same.
DFB.de: You must watch television here as well. Did you watch the game between Italy and Spain?
Hummels: Of course.
DFB.de: Were you surprised at how good the Italians looked?
Hummels: Not about their mentality. And not about their strong, compact defence. But they were also a bit stronger going forward than expected. We have seen how dangerous they can be. They deservedly beat Spain, and dumped one of the favourites out of the tournament.
DFB.de: Playing Italy in a knockout match of a European Championship must bring back a few painful memories, as well as a few good ones. On your way to the title at the U21 EUROs in 2009, Germany won against Italy in the semi final. How clearly do you remember this game?
Hummels: I remember it very well. I was speaking about the game with a couple of players yesterday. We won 1-0, from a long-range shot by Andi Beck. We also had a little bit of luck, but you need that – the Italians were definitely not the weaker team. I was only brought on in the 89th minute. The players who were sitting on the bench with me still laugh about it today. I jumped off the bench, eager to play, before the manager had even said my name. I was desperate to get on the pitch (laughs). Some great things happened back then that we still look back upon very fondly.
DFB.de: The core of the team have played together since then. How important to the team are all your shared experiences?
Hummels: It brings us together. In particular, the memories of the 2009 title. Whenever we talk about it, it puts a smile on our faces. I am convinced that the many experiences we have already shared together, have an influence on what we will experience together in the future.
DFB.de: Negative experiences too?
Hummels: Yes of course.
DFB.de: So also the defeat to Italy in the 2012 semi final?
Hummels: Yes. In as much that we can draw lessons from it. The Italians played very similarly then to how they play today. Obviously the personnel were slightly different. At the time, they had in Ántonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli, two strikers who made life very difficult for us. In Graziano Pellé and Eder, they currently have a similar combination. They will play a bit differently on Saturday, but we will nevertheless be able to carry some things over from that match. DFB.de: Will a jubilant Italy motivate you more? Hummels: That less. More probably analysing mistakes. We will also look at clips from other games against Italy, not just 2012. The Italians are a team that operate with a very disciplined style of play. Where one pass can dictate the movement of three players, and where the next pass will go.
DFB.de: A real treat for match analysts.
Hummels: There are two ways to look at it. Yes, you can analyse well, and know what to expect. However, they are very well practised, and they know what they are doing. If you allow them to make the first pass, then it becomes very difficult to defend what comes next. It is no coincidence that Italy are in the quarter final, although many teams know what they are all about. But obviously there are ways that we can exploit their style of play.
DFB.de: Has Germany used this knowledge in their last few games against Italy?
Hummels: We did for sure in March, and almost more so three years ago. The manager showed us the typical Italian style of play before the match, and so we knew exactly how to counteract it. It worked brilliantly. Throughout the whole game, the Italian tactics didn’t work once. These are the small things that I really enjoy.
DFB.de: There is a lovely quote on your homepage: "In every match I play, I expect from myself that I won’t make a single mistake. That has never happened." Have you ever come close?
Hummels: I have had several games, where the small mistakes I have made have not been punished. But to play a completely perfect match, where everything comes off exactly as planned – that will never happen.
DFB.de: How close did you come against Slovakia?
Hummels: I have watched the game back again. It was definitely a good performance, as a team, and as individuals. I was happy with myself, but it definitely wasn’t a flawless performance. During my analysis, I saw a few things. There were times when I left too much space, or where my passes weren’t precise enough. There were many small mistakes, and one in particular that I was very disappointed with. At one point, I played an unnecessarily risky pass, purely because I wasn’t flexible enough. I had considered making the pass five seconds earlier, and then I committed to it, even though it was no longer on.
DFB.de: You received a very undeserved yellow card. Do you think that you could have dealt with the situation differently however?
Hummels: I have watched that back as well. At the time, I was sure that it was not a foul. That has now been confirmed. I was nearly a metre in front of the man on the ball. We slid into each other, but I didn’t stretch my leg out. There was no reason to give the foul, and it definitely was not a yellow card.
DFB.de: How difficult is it to accept something like that?
Hummels: It obviously annoys me a bit – that is clear to see. But I also realise that there is no way that I can change the decision now.
DFB.de: How much more difficult has the yellow card made your task in the Italy game? You now have it hanging over you, that if you get another yellow card, you will be watching your possible semi final from the stands.
Hummels: That has no influence on my game. I will be trying not to give away any stupid fouls, irrelevant of the yellow card. I can’t imagine a situation where I would pull out of a tackle, just because of this hanging over me. The team conceding a goal is a lot worse than my personal penalty. Therefore, I won’t be playing any differently than I usually do.
DFB.de: Does it help to know that if you were to miss the next match, in Shkodran Mustafi, Benedikt Höwedes and Jonathan Tah, you have three players that you can rely on 100 percent?
Hummels: Absolutely. It is a good feeling to know that the quality would still be very high, even if I did miss out. That gives us a lot of security, and is definitely one of the strengths of our team.
DFB.de: The media coverage has been heavily dominated for a number of reasons by your centre back partner Jerome Boateng. The headlines belong to him. Do you ever get a little bit jealous?
Hummels: No. I don’t begrudge him that at all. He has absolutely earned it, very simply, because he plays outstanding football.
DFB.de: From playing at Dortmund, you are used to being the centre of focus. Is it sometimes quite nice to not be right at the forefront?
Hummels: I think so, yes. I play my part and do my service for the team. I am able to simply play football. It is quite nice.
DFB.de: In the group stage of this tournament, defence was talked about a lot, especially with regard to the tactics of the “small” teams. Now the big matches are coming up. Will the tournament become a lot more attacking now?
Hummels: That is no sure thing, but it could happen, yes. There are very few teams left who are limited in attack, and therefore rely completely on their defence. Most of the teams, who are still in the tournament, have a lot of quality – in attack as well as defence.
DFB.de: Italy versus Germany also means the oldest team of the tournament versus the youngest team.
Hummels: Is that right?
DFB.de: Yes. On average, the Italians are five years older. Could that be a factor in the match?
Hummels: I don’t think so. We also have a very experienced team. We may well be younger as a squad, but if you look at the team on the field, then you will see a team in which many players have already played in a few tournaments, and there are many players in their mid-twenties – the ideal age for a footballer. I don’t think that a lack of experience will be a problem.
DFB.de: And vice-versa? Will Germany be able to exploit the youth in the Italian team?
Hummels: Again, no. And for the same reason. I also don’t think that the Italians will fall short physically. That would be great, but I can’t see it being the case.
DFB.de: What do Germany need to do to win the game against Italy? What type of game do you expect?
Hummels: It could be, that it will be one of those games, where the first mistake or the first goal will decide it all. If one team takes the lead, then the whole game will change. If we go 1-0 up, then the Italians will have to take the game to us, and we will be able to counter. But that works the other way too. I can imagine a game where both teams are considering taking measured risks, in order to try and cause the decisive mistake.
DFB.de: Joachim Löw has said, that in this game, the two best teams in the tournament are going up against each other. Do you see it the same way?
Hummels: Yes – the manager is probably right there.