Florian, you've established yourself as a regular starter and a key performer since you moved to TSG Hoffenheim in the summer of 2017. Do you like setting an example?
"Since I arrived here, I've developed in lots of areas − both in footballing and personal terms. I see it as my role to take on responsibility. I consider myself to be a leader and I want to continue in this role."
Has Julian Nagelsmann demanded that of you?
"He demands that everyone takes on responsibility, sets an example and becomes a leader. When I joined the club from Bremen, I was still quite young. Now I have 100 Bundesliga appearances under my belt and I'm no longer the newest in this business. I know how we do things and I want to take on this leadership role. There are now even younger players than me who I can help along the way."
Was there a moment for you when you suddenly thought: now I've really arrived?
"It was tough at the outset, mentally too. Julian demands a lot from the players. When you're new in the team, it takes a while to adapt. Then there was the fact I got an early injury. That was tough, as I was new and wanted to soak it all up and show what I could do. But I had to watch from the sidelines. But in the second half of last season, I began to recognise what was required of me and what was needed. We then had some really strong displays and started a run that led to the Champions League."
"We get on very well here"
Do you have team-mates who you can look to for guidance too?
"Absolutely, there's something you can learn from everyone and we even have a few young lads in the squad who have already played several hundred games. In addition, we all get on very well here and help each other out. That's important for me too. I play in a central position and I'm reliant on the lads feeding me the ball (laughs)."
You show various different qualities when you're on the pitch – elegant ball distribution at times and uncompromising tackling at others. What role suits you the best?
"I'm an attacking player by trade and so I've had to learn a few things defensively. When I joined the Werder U19s from the academy at St. Pölten, I scored nine goals in my first four matches and set up many more. My favourite player and role model used to be Ronaldinho. I was a real No. 10 and I played a very offensive role. Although I did play in a defensive midfield role for the Bremen senior team too, that was a big switch for me at the time and my tackle win rate was not overly impressive. Nowadays it's reasonably good, but I can still improve it even further. As I'm not the most robust player there is, I sometimes need to be a bit clever too and recognise where the opponent wants to go and where can he go, so I can nick the ball off him. But even though I'm not built like a tank, I don't hold back."
During the second half of the season, you've even played in a back three…
"I've moved further and further back until reaching central defence. That's made a few people back home wonder and they've written to me saying: 'Strange, you always used to play up top.' Players dropping further back usually happens when they get older (laughs). At 23, I don't feel too old yet, but I do like playing at the back too. However, I hope I don't have to go in goal at any point; I'm happy to do without that. I'm a versatile player, that's definitely not a disadvantage. What now benefits me is the fact that I've always been a little bit weaker in physical terms and as a result I've always had to find solutions with the ball. That really helped me, starting at youth level when I always played with the older age groups."
"I want to improve going forward too"
Have you sometimes had to listen to negative comments about your style of play?
"When I joined the Werder Bremen U19s, I was often called a 'fair weather player' by the others. It was simply a big move to make: everything was much more intense – in terms of physicality, running and scope. But I quickly adapted and modified my game. However, I still feel at home in central midfield. I also want to improve going forward too, develop more of a goal threat, have more of an influence on the attacking play and get into situations where I can be dangerous. I'm going to work on that."
Your career has always gone from strength to strength, but you've also made courageous decisions and put all your eggs in the professional football basket early on...
"I also used to be a skier but I certainly was not a world-class talent like Marcel Hirscher. It was fun for me but – fortunately – I didn't pursue it and turned my full focus to football. When I was just 13 years old in 2008, I moved from my hometown club of SVSF Pottschach to the St. Pölten academy and boarded there. That was a big step at the time, but it was one that was thought-through well and at length. I had several offers and I'd already trained at several clubs, including RB Salzburg, and taken a look at everything there, but I liked St. Pölten and in retrospect it was exactly the right step."
Can the same be said of the move to Bremen?
"Looking back on it, I have to say that I did everything right. I always wanted to become a professional, I never considered doing another job and even as a small child I always watched the Bundesliga via Premiere. In Austria, I only went to the stadium two or three times and never had a favourite club. Bremen was a big club in my youth with players such as Mesut Özil, Torsten Frings and Clemens Fritz – whom I even played alongside at one point. With that in mind, the move to Bremen was a big and important step. Werder was a huge club for me, it was a dream come true at the time."
Are there new dreams that you want to fulfil?
"Like probably every other footballer, I'd like to play for a top international club at some stage. Let's see whether – and if/when – I get there. But TSG is a wonderful club too and is not very far behind the giants of the game who have historically competed at the top, like Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal. They are clubs that are known worldwide and obviously they're a different calibre."
"TSG is an ideal club to develop further
Was TSG the ideal next step for you after Bremen?
"Hoffenheim have become a really great club over the course of the past few years. That's why I made the decision to join TSG back then. It's the ideal club to continue my development. I don't believe that there are too many better training centres than the one here. In terms of innovation and training practices too, TSG Hoffenheim is at Champions League level."
You've now been in Germany for almost six years. What kind of connection do you have to your sporting homeland?
"I'm still a very proud Austrian (laughs). If the choice was mine, I'd prefer to be there. But I'm very content to be here too, Germany is an incredibly beautiful country. My girlfriend, my dog and I all feel very happy in Heidelberg. What would be ideal is if I could somehow transport TSG to Austria (laughs)."
Perhaps one way to return to Austria would be to do so in European competition.
"What we achieved last season was incredible. The matches in the Champions League were a super experience, we all want to get back into the competition – especially as we've seen that we can compete there both on a collective and an individual basis. But like we did in the Champions League, we've also often failed to take the decisive steps in our matches in the Bundesliga. We've often not received our reward for good performances, that's been a feature across the whole season. We've recently started to improve in that respect and we're in a good position heading into the final games. But it still frustrates me how easily we've given away victories and conceded late goals. If we'd taken all of our chances, we'd probably be top of the table. I hope that we can qualify for Europe. We have enough quality in the team. That's our objective and we believe we can get there."
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