How do you take the world’s best soccer team and make it better?
That’s the challenge facing Bayern Munich this season under new manager Pep Guardiola, who took over from Jupp Heynckes after Bayern’s Incredible Treble in 2012-13, winning the UEFA Champions League, the German Bundesliga (by 25 points!) and the DFB Pokal (Germany's national knockout cup competition).
“That’s a good question,” Bayern defender Jérôme Boateng said when I put the challenge to him in an interview for SI.com. “[Guardiola] came and he is training already a really good team, because we know each other for a long time and we played well together last year, so we have confidence and a good team spirit.”
“And now he brings these new ideas. For a couple weeks it wasn’t easy because it was a lot new tactically for us, but now we improve and from game to game you see we’re playing much better.”
People are already talking about the possibility of Bayern going undefeated in the Bundesliga this season — Die Roten are at 9-0-2 with a big rivalry game at Dortmund coming on Nov. 23 — and if Bayern beats Viktoria Plzen in Champions League action on Tuesday (2:45 p.m. ET, FoxSoccer2Go) the Bavarians will win their ninth straight Champions League game to equal the record set by Barcelona in 2003.
How has Bayern changed the most tactically under Guardiola? The 25-year-old Boateng, a terrific centerback for Bayern and the German national team, says Bayern is pressing even more than it did last season.
“He wants to win the ball back quicker when we lose it,” Boateng said. “We attack straightaway to get it back. That’s why this season we’re on the ball more than last year. We’re always over 65 or 70 percent [possession].”
What’s more, Boateng said, defenders like him are encouraged to trust goalkeeper Manuel Neuer more with the ball at his feet; in other words, to treat the goalie as an outfield player who starts the attack.
“We have a very special goalkeeper because he’s so good with his feet and his head,” Boateng said. “He’s like a defender. I know [Neuer] a long time because I played with him in the Under-21 German national team. I think he’s the best with his feet along with [Gladbach’s Marc-André ter Stegen]. I don’t see so many goalkeepers with the talent to play with time on the ball and play the ball directly to the players.”
When asked if this Bayern team *right now* is better than last year’s team, Boateng said he won’t go that far yet, but he does contend that this Bayern team has more weapons — including new signings Mario Götze and Thiago Alcântara — and “more opportunities to change positions,” he explained. “I think it’s difficult for the opponent to read our game, because we change every time.”
That includes Guardiola’s choice to use Philipp Lahm, normally a fullback, often in the central midfield this season.
“We had a lot of injuries in the midfield, but Philipp played there in the national team a few years ago,” Boateng said, “So it was not completely new for him. But with how he’s playing now, it’s unbelievable how good he is.”
The same goes for Bayern winger Franck Ribéry, who Boateng says should win the FIFA Ballon d’Or as the world player of the year ahead of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Born in West Berlin to a Ghanaian father and a German mother, Boateng hails from a talented family that includes half-brother Kevin-Prince Boateng, who plays for Ghana and Schalke, and sister Avelina Boateng, a professional dancer who Jérôme says is moving to New York City in the next couple months to take the next step in her career.
Jérôme and Kevin-Prince grew up in different houses in Berlin—they have the same father—but they spent a lot of time playing soccer together as kids. “We would meet each other after school and go out and play football together,” said Jérôme, who was developed at Hertha Berlin. “Then we played against each other with younger teams, because he was at a different club first. Then he changed clubs and we played together. We have so many good memories from when we were younger.”
Kevin-Prince elected to play for Ghana while Jérôme chose Germany, and at World Cup 2010 they became the first brothers ever to play against each other in a World Cup game, which was won by Germany. “That was a special day for our family, because this was history,” Jérôme said. “Our parents were there. They said may the better one win, and so I was better that match!” (Not that Kevin-Prince had a bad tournament, as U.S. fans will remember, considering he scored against the Yanks in Ghana’s Round of 16 victory.)
Unlike his brother, Jérôme is a defender, but he hasn’t always been one. Until age 14, in fact he was a striker. But he says he switched to the defense during a youth tournament with Hertha when several of his teammates who were defenders got injured. “So they put in me the back and I really enjoyed playing there,” Boateng said. “Because as a striker I read the ideas of the strikers very easily. So I stayed there.”
Boateng has become a mainstay starter for the German national team as well, and after coming close at World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, he thinks World Cup 2014 could finally be the time this German team breaks through and wins the trophy.
“I think we are one step higher than before, because now our players have been to the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, and they have more experience,” he said. “So maybe now is a good time for us, and we have a strong team to go to Brazil. Also you need sometimes a good day and a little bit of luck, but I think we have the opportunity to win this tournament.” If that happens, you can be sure that Boateng will hold on tightly to his winner’s medal. After Bayern won the Champions League final, his medal fell off the ribbon, only to be found that night by SI.com’s Nick Zaccardi. Boateng says he’s thankful he got the winner’s medal back, and now he’s hoping for more.