Editor's note: This article was originally published on 24 October.
"I see that they are playing football that doesn't look promising right now," remarks Jens Lehmann drily when asked about what's going on with the German national football team of which he was a crucial member until a little over a decade ago. "We've lost, I don't know how many games this year, but too many. And that's something we weren't expecting," he adds. Sure enough, Die Mannschaft have lost six games in this calendar year — the most-ever in the country's history — and two of those came against Mexico and South Korea in the FIFA World Cup held earlier this year.
Firstpost caught up with Laureus Sports ambassador Lehmann, who plied his trade in goal for his country's national team — aside from Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, VfB Stuttgart, Schalke and AC Milan (briefly) — and most notably, represented Germany in World Cup 2006 and Euro 2008. So naturally, the present state of German football was a matter that had to be discussed, especially amidst all the obituaries already being written in the press for the present setup. "Well, I don't really follow what the media and pundits are saying," he points out, adding, "The approach to German football right now seems to be a little bit without responsibility and accountability."
The solution, Lehmann notes, lies in a change in personnel. "Everybody keeps saying we need better strikers or we need better full-backs. I think you need to have different people to do different things. Whether it will be players or management, I don't know. Normally, changes come with different personnel," he observes. Among the most news-grabbing 'changes' — in rather unconventional circumstances — in the the German lineup after the abject performance in the World Cup was Mesut Özil's decision to stop playing for the national side.
Comments? "I don't actually know if that [his decision] was intended when he started the [World Cup] campaign. Then there was his photo with the Turkish president and then after the World Cup, I have to say, undeservedly, he has been named as the only player responsible for [Germany] getting knocked out of the World Cup," Lehmann reasons. It may be recalled that Özil and compatriot Ilkay Gundogan, alongside Turkey international Cenk Tosun, posed for a photograph with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the weeks leading up to the international tournament. However, while Gundogan received some backlash, it was the Arsenal midfielder who copped most of the flak for the photograph... and by unfair association, for Germany's ignominious World Cup exit.
"I can understand that he felt betrayed or felt let down, because it wasn't his fault that we got knocked out of the World Cup," he says, adding, "As I said, sometimes in football, some small words make a difference and then it starts to become bigger and bigger, and all of a sudden the impression is that one player did not do well. And that's probably why Mesut quit the German national team."
Before the start of the 2017-18 English Premier League season, it was announced that Lehmann would be returning to Arsenal (having first left the club for Stuttgart in 2008, and then coming out of retirement to play for the club in 2011) for the second time. This time, he would be returning in a coaching capacity. The stint lasted a year with the assistant coach being among those shown the door when newly-appointed Gunners head coach Unai Emery arrived with his own coaching staff. Unsurprisingly, the German did not take too kindly to this.
"I had a life before [that job], you know," deadpans Lehmann, "I was involved in a couple of companies and projects, a bit on the business side. And then I'm trying to get back into the [coaching] job. Every now and again, linking up with my former boss Arsène Wenger to see what he is upto."
Hold your horses, does anybody know what Wenger is upto?
"Yeah, I know... a little bit," admits Lehmann, "But in football sometimes, opportunities come around the corner that you didn't expect the day before."
Back to Wenger, and you don't have to venture too far or wide to find players on whom Le Professeur has had a positive impact over and beyond his 22 years in North London. And the Invincibles' goalkeeper is no different. "He found out how to put me under absolute pressure and maximise my performance. And that was a little bit hard sometimes emotionally, but in the end it worked out really well. So it was good. But I wasn't the only player with whom he did that."
What Lehmann makes of post-Wenger Arsenal, however, is something that remains a mystery... at least for the time being. "As I am not a member of the coaching staff anymore, it's not for me to comment on Arsenal right now," he responds to a query about the fortunes of the club that is enjoying a nice little unbeaten run of 10 matches. "Probably [comment] later, but not now," he says firmly. A bit soon perhaps, but surely the man with the slips of paper tucked in his socks ahead of a World Cup penalty shootout against Argentina in 2006, has a view on present-day Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno: Is the man ready to step into Lehmann's shoes?
"No," comes the reply.
"But he is a very good goalkeeper," swiftly follows.
Life between the posts
One of the worst-kept secrets in football is that Lehmann began footballing life wanting to be a striker. "Well, I played in goal and as a striker at the same time," he clarifies, "For my school team, I played in outfield and for the club team, I played in goal. And then I realised that in goal, I was quite good as well. I thought it was a mistake to go in goal, but it didn't turn out to be that bad in the end."
Not that bad in the end? Eight hundred and fifty-three minutes without conceding a goal in the Champions League for Arsenal is a little better than 'not that bad' (!)
In the national setup, Lehmann shared something of a famous rivalry with fellow goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, with the duo jostling for the No 1 jersey for many years with the former missing out on the big tournaments. Until, that is, the 2006 World Cup, for which then manager Jürgen Klinsmann picked the Gunner over the Bayern Munich man. It's hard not to imagine this rivalry contributing to Lehmann's growth and prowess as a goalkeeper for club and country.
"I cannot say how much [it contributed], but a little bit definitely," he offers, but clarifies that it was actually his club scenario that contributed more to his ability to compete with Kahn. "My situation in my club was always different. Normally in my club, they were playing other goalkeepers who were very ambitious and who tried to compete with me and that situation helped me compete with Oliver at that time. And in the end, it always comes to pressure and how you can cope with pressure and how you can actually call up your qualities and skills under pressure," says Lehmann, adding that that made the biggest difference to him as a goalkeeper.
The 'ambitious' goalkeepers to whom Lehmann refers make for a formidable list indeed. But which of them pushed him hardest? "I think they all had a good level," he says generously, and adds, "But in a certain way, they were all similar [with] very good qualities; my advantage was always that I was a little bit older and more experienced, and so I could handle the pressure a little bit more than they could." He goes on to note that after leaving those clubs, "they themselves became great goalkeepers, for example, Roman Weidenfeller at Borussia Dortmund or Manuel Almunia at Arsenal, so it was a win-win situation for both the sides."
And not for the first time during the course of this conversation comes a 'wait a minute' moment. Are we talking about the same player and does Lehmann actually think Almunia became a great goalkeeper for Arsenal?
"I am not here to talk about things that are 12 years in the past," says Lehmann bluntly, putting an end to that line of questioning, before determinedly adding,"He was a great goalkeeper, in my opinion."
Let's move on.
The game today
With the exception of the colour combination of the home kit, the lightning-quick striker, the magician in midfield and a German in goal, there's very little in common between the Arsenal of today and the Arsenal in its pomp in the early 2000s, particularly the 2003-04 season. An area that seems to have deteriorated almost unrecognisably in the intervening years is the club's defensive game. How has it come to this? Lehmann has a theory — an ever-so-slightly philosophical one, it must be said.
"In football and in life, you have some lighthouses that everyone looks to. And they act like role models," explains Lehmann, "In football, our team [Arsenal of 2003-04] was probably the best team and the others looked at us and [adopted] a bit of copy and paste. They tried to pick out how we did certain things and they tried to get some players from us and all of a sudden, it's very difficult to maintain a position of competitive superiority, because the others are quick to adjust."
"That happens everywhere, in football and in life. If you are No 1, the No 2 wants to become as good and then better. It's a normal way of life. We had a period in 10 years at Arsenal where the personnel was different and normally it is down to the personnel and [football] education. And when that is different, obviously, there will be different results. And our group was quite special in that respect. We knew how to organise, we knew how to win football games," he says.
Perhaps the Arsenal of today — having picked up 10 wins on the trot after beating Leicester City 3-1 on Monday night — also know how to win, but that's a topic for another day and another time. Staying with the topic of organising and knowing how to win, a key cog in the wheel of such a machine is the goalkeeper. And while the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr and to a relatively lesser extent, Kylian Mbappé have been reinventing the attacking game, how has the art of goalkeeping progressed since his time between the 'posts? "In my opinion the whole concept of goalkeeping didn't really progress," says Lehmann and points to the Bundesliga to make his point.
It's worth noting at this point that Germany has for the longest time been home to some of the sport's finest goalkeepers. Harald Schumacher, Sepp Maier, Manuel Neuer, Kahn and the subject of this particular article are just a handful of names that come to mind. "We were a country where it was hard for a foreign goalkeeper to play [for any club]. Now we have more foreign goalkeepers than German goalkeepers," he says to illustrate what he notes as a drop in quality in one of German football's finest exports.
"Across the world, there's always a need for great goalkeepers. You saw in the recent transfer period how much money clubs paid for certain goalkeepers. The education [of goalkeepers] has to be better. Sometimes they are doing things I don't really understand," Lehmann laments.
Another aspect of modern day football that merits discussion is refereeing, particularly in the finals of major events like the Champions League, for instance. And it was a refereeing decision made in the final of this tournament over a decade ago that has not stopped rankling in the minds of Arsenal fans the world over. On 17 May, 2006 at the Stade de France, Arsenal took on Barcelona in the London club's first-ever appearance in a Champions League final. It was in the 19th minute that Lehmann was sent off for a foul on opposition striker Samuel Eto'o — inadvertently, bringing the curtains down on Robert Pires' Arsenal career, as he was the one to be hooked in place of replacement goalkeeper Almunia in what would be the Frenchman's last match for the club.
"I thought I could get the ball before [Eto'o]," reflects Lehmann on his effort to thwart the Cameroonian's advance on the Arsenal goal, "Did I deserve the red card? Technically, the referee wasn't wrong, but he could have waited a little bit longer to actually give them a goal. I think he felt sorry for it as well."
"And do you know what happened after [that match]?" he continues, "If you watch all the Champions League finals since then, do you know what happened? Nobody [except one player] has ever been sent off during the course of the game. I think there was one, one or two years ago, [Juan Cuadrado in the 2016-17 final] was the first player who was sent off in the final [since Lehmann], but it was in the last few minutes of the game. After [the 2005-06 final], people could kill each other and nobody is being sent off anymore." The rationale, Lehmann, says is that people realised that in front of a massive audience, the game had become far too unidimensional and tame.
Recalling Arturo Vidal's dangerous play in the 2014-2015 final between Juventus and Barcelona and Sergio Ramos' MMA-style tackle on Mohamed Salah in the most recent final, he says, "[This] makes it more dangerous for players."
Off the pitch
It's been a few years since Lehmann was asked to become an ambassador for Laureus, and it was around the same time that he got involved with a project that is clearly close to his heart: Kicking Girls. "Kicking Girls was a good match because I was a kicker [on one hand], and on the other, I have a daughter and they said that it could be actually good for me to represent the project. First of all, you don't really know what to do and then you visit a project and then you become attached to it because you see girls mostly [immigrants] to Germany of different cultures playing football," he says.
Pointing to the fact that fathers from certain cultures don't like their daughters to be coached by men with "all that dressing room stuff and whatever it comes with", he elaborates, "So the project had the idea of having girls and women as coaches within the group of girls who find it difficult to actually adapt to the German culture. This project is helping them to improve their language, the proximity to the German way of life, to get integrated or included and girls have the chance to become coaches themselves, which teaches them a better approach to education and life."
The idea, he states, has even taken flight in Germany's neighbouring countries as a way to integrate girls from different backgrounds.
And as someone who played in one of world football's most iconic squads that included members of over 15 different countries, you'd best believe Lehmann knows what he's talking about when it comes to integration.
Jens Lehmann spoke to Firspost as part of the Laureus Sport for Good Global Summit in partnership with Allianz. Laureus Sport for Good uses the "power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage".
Updated Date: Nov 28, 2018 16:15:29 IST