Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen has reason to smile as he sits down at the club’s training ground ahead of two huge games against Manchester United.
The German, 30, had just been described by his manager Xavi Hernandez as “an absolute hero of Barcelona, still young for a goalkeeper with a great level of maturity. He’s excellent with his feet. He’s at an extraordinary level. He’s confident, he’s happy, he carries a lot of weight within the team.”
Ter Stegen has conceded only seven goals in 21 league games so far this season and his side are 11 points clear of Real Madrid, while Xavi thinks they’re in their best moment since he became manager in November 2021. There have been problems in a turbulent financial period for the club with big names departing - Lionel Messi the biggest - while the summer of 2022 was spent with midfielder Frenkie de Jong linked to United. De Jong declined.
“I was hoping he would stay because this is the type of player that I want to have in my team,” explains Ter Stegen. “There were many rumours, discussions and whatever but I am just happy that he is here and I don’t want him to leave.”
Ter Stegen puts his hand around the chair on which he’s sitting as if to imitate a bicycle lock. “I think one day I will just put him here,” he says, “to just keep him here for always, for ever, and I hope he will be here for long.”
De Jong has been one of Barca’s best performers this season. Asked what he brings to the team, Ter Stegen states: “A lot. I have a super high opinion about him. But I also expect a lot from him because he has so much talent. He sees and feels football in a different way. He is someone that players like Gavi and Pedri for example can look up to and…”
“Well, I think he’s just a great player,” he smiles.
Barcelona long favoured a midfield three. It was hard to see how De Jong would fit in this season. Now they play with a midfield four.
“It is also something that benefits our game because he (De Jong) has a bit more freedom, because he is still covered by Busi (Busquets),” said Ter Stegen.
“It’s very interesting how they communicate also, and how they manage on the field, which is very important for us. He has that freedom and you see that sometimes he is moving somewhere else but always in communication with the other three midfielders. But it is working well. For him it is good to have this bit of freedom. And Busi - you can always rely on him to keep the position, keep the structure, and I think it’s very beneficial for both.”
The veteran Busquets is injured for the first leg. He’s one of the few players left who was around when Ter Stegen arrived at Camp Nou in 2014 from his hometown club of Borussia Monchengladbach for a fee of just €12 million. Restricted to goalkeeping appearances in European and Copa del Rey matches in his first season, he won the Copa and the Champions League as Luis Enrique’s side lifted the treble with a team full of established stars and a front three of Messi, Neymar and Suarez.
“When I came, it was a team ready: it was just there,” he grins again.
But his position has changed considerably. Eight years on he’s one of the few players left from Barcelona’s last Champions League triumph and now considered a leader of the team.
“I’m here during all these years and think I’m one of the players now who guides the direction. You have the other captains and also some of the other players. With the farewell of Gerard Pique, we had to have players stepping up and filling the gap because he left a big space in the locker room and on the field as a captain, as a leader. I think we are doing good. We found our place, also in the locker room which is important.”
How does that work in practical terms?
“It is more visible that you are one of the captains but it didn’t change a lot. I would say that I am really relaxed, (but) the same procedure. I am there for everybody who needs help, and for the young guys to keep them sharp which is important because there are so many games and sometimes you probably lose focus.”
What does losing focus mean?
“It’s a bit of a weird season with the World Cup. After the World Cup, some players came back, they were a bit sad because they probably missed an opportunity and you see it in England, in Germany, everywhere. That’s quite easy to explain because there was a lot of focus on this [the World Cup].
"Everybody wanted to get in perfect shape to the national team and to play a good tournament and afterwards things changed, the motivation drops, and I think it is good to have a few days more to recover, to start from zero. We had some time – probably more than in England, I think you started on the December 26 which is really tight. I think we had like five days more and even though it’s just five days, it feels like way more because we could also rest in between.”
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As Ter Stegen has matured, he has learnt the value of rest. Proper rest. Last summer, he took a complete break from football.
“It was good to just have a good break for more than two or three weeks because normally if you have three weeks off, then after ten days you think like ‘Ah, I need to be ready in 11 days again, let me see if I can do something’. No. Now I had time also to recover, to prepare myself and to get back into the season, the rhythm and I think this was key. I had a great time with my family and my friends.
“I had three years without being able to rest and it has an impact - mentally, physically, in many ways,” he explains. “In the end I am happy that I had the time and that the coach of the national team and here they understood the situation and they supported me to say: ‘Hey, look, it’s good to have a break sometimes’ and I think it was the right decision. I am happy that I was able to decide in the right moment when to take a break. This is difficult to find.”
It’s one reason why Barca are doing so well. Manager Xavi is also settled after arriving amid the turbulence of the changing club presidents and the Ronald Koeman era. Plus the pandemic.
“Many things changed, probably also mentality, the way we defend,” said Ter Stegen. “Everything got a different focus. I wouldn’t say that before was worse or better or whatever, just that focus shifted a bit and right now we are in a good moment.
"We are deciding games. We know how to suffer as well in complicated moments and I think that makes us very strong. We know that we always have the option to change a game, and we have the players to do that and so I am happy how things are going. And it’s always easier when it’s going well.”
Barcelona’s defence has been indomitable domestically, but poor in Europe where they failed to qualify from a Champions League group with Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Viktoria Plzen in the autumn. Why?
“Yeah, I was also asking myself that?” says Ter Stegen. “I had some time during the World Cup to think about that and, well, at a very important moment we had a few injuries that hurt us quite a lot, like Araujo, then Frenkie was sometimes not really available, and this type of players they make a lot of difference. And also with Ousmane [Dembele]. And it’s important to have them all aboard and even more if you play big games.
“If it’s Milan, Munich, or whoever and in the end it is about details in Europe. If you don't have the full squad you might suffer. We also weren’t really stable at the time. Many new players came and we had to find a bit of a structure. Since then I think we moved forward, we made the next step with the young players, the more experienced but also the intermediate [players] and I think the signings we made in the summer were really efficient.”
That will be put to the test again a Manchester United side who are going well under Erik ten Hag. Has Ter Stegen paid any attention to United and the Premier League?
“No, actually, I am not a crazy football watcher in general but of course I know who we’re playing,” he explains, outlining that while he watches out for his former club Borussia Monchengladbach, there isn’t enough time to play all the time, watch football and have a life. But he knows a bit.
“Since the new coach (Ten Hag) was there they made many changes. Before of course I saw some thing[s], because some of the players were watching the big games in England and they were always interested, so of course I got informed here and there. Maybe in the beginning (under Ten Hag) it was a bit of a struggle because it always takes a few months to create something, to inject a bit of your ideas. And now I think he is there, I think he had a great impact to the team but also to the fans, and the full club.”
Ter Stegen has a good relationship with his own boss, Xavi, whom he praises for listening and trusting his players.
“I think he [Xavi] is doing great on this because lately we had really little injuries,” he says. "And this is what it is about, knowing that we have three or four intense months ahead of us.
“You have to understand what he wants but it is always easier if you already understand him and you know how he wants to have everything on the field and what he sees. I think he came and he had a plan and he wanted to really get there as fast as possible, even though probably it took a bit longer than he expected. I think now you see results step by step, not only in trophies but you see that we are playing better, that we have a better idea of what to do on the field and what he expects us to do. I think this is key to being successful in the way of how he wants to play to understand his idea, to make sure you can win trophies and be there in the moments and win something, like the Super Cup (v Real Madrid, last month).
Did Ter Stegen think Xavi would be more radical? More like Pep Guardiola or more pragmatic - his own man with his own ideas?
“I think it’s also good for him that he saw many good coaches, no?” he says. “It is normal that you pick everything you like the most. You take out your ideas and you put them all together and your idea at the end is based on many things you saw in the past. He had a clear mindset, a clear plan, and he is different to Pep or whoever but it would be strange if they were all the same. It’s interesting how we can react on certain situations and knowing that we play Man United it might be very different to what we know from the league and that we have to adapt.”
Barcelona’s best young players are indeed enjoying a fine season. In front of Ter Stegen is the vocal Ronald Araujo, 23.
“Definitely,” says the German. “He is one of these players that I mentioned that had to step up to fill a gap Gerard left.”
At the other end is Robert Lewandowski.
“Lewy just arrived but there is also an expectation that he is there, right from the start,” he says. “But there’s also the topic of the language and I think he did great on this: right from the start, and now still, he was really interested in the language and that makes a big difference in terms of the conversations. Now he can talk to the younger players and of course if Lewandowski talks to you as a younger player, you will listen. You should listen. This gives a lot to the team.”
Attack-minded midfielders Pedri, 20, and Gavi, 18, are the standout youngsters performing with remarkable consistency given their age.
“It’s not just about performing, because you can play good, you can play bad; what I want is that they see that there is always space to improve and that even though people don’t see it, there are situations in which you can get better. This is what I want because in the end, it doesn’t matter if you are 30 or 18, you want to have progression in what you do. They are really focused. Things are really going well and I don’t want them to be relaxed about what they’re doing and what they’re achieving. I am happy for them. But they have a responsibility for the team and for themselves that they take care, that they sleep well. These are the little details. And I admit, it feels like they are in this business for a long time.”
Relaxed is not a word used to describe the tenacious, aggressive Gavi.
“Yeah…I think he gives us something very different. You can see in games, like Betis for example, when it’s minute 90 and he’s still jumping up and he doesn’t care if the guy next to him is two metres tall, he would just fight for every ball. This is what we need and therefore he is very different to the players we had before. He is very, very important for the team and for the group. He doesn’t worry a lot and this is what makes him really strong because he doesn’t think about the consequences. And this is what we needed.”
A full house of around 93,000 is expected at Camp Nou against United – an atmosphere very different from Barca’s last game in the Europa League when the stadium was taken over by 30,000 travelling Eintracht Frankfurt fans. Barca’s players were appalled that it could happen.
“This was tough,” admits Ter Stegen. “I have so much passion for the club and it didn’t feel like you were playing at home, which is a pity because it was a big game. Frankfurt wanted to really push it; they were excited to travel with the team. For us it was a pity the way it went but wasn't the reason we didn’t go through.”
A repeat won’t happen with interest in the game far higher from Barcelona fans who’ve helped give the club the highest average home attendances in world football this season.
“New signings and we’re more attractive,” is Ter Stegen’s explanation. “And I think the people now really enjoy seeing us play because we are playing good football. Even if we don’t win a game there is a lot of passion form the fans and from the inside of the team and that is connecting us right now. That is why we are so strong at home.”
Barca are unbeaten in 11 home league and cup games this season. Of those 12 opponents, only Espanyol managed to score at Camp Nou. In Europe, Bayern beat Barca 3-0 at Camp Nou while Inter Milan drew 3-3. Barcelona are in a much better place now, but how much better is a question their game against Manchester United will help answer.