Jerome Boateng's journey to greatness with Bayern Munich was not easy
Bayern Munich's 4-1 win over BATE Borisov in the Champions League group stage in December 2012 didn't exactly leave a lasting impression in Munich. The result was somewhat overshadowed by subsequent events, culminating in a historic Treble a year later. But looking back on his five years at the Allianz Arena, Jerome Boateng considers that game an important turning point in his career.
The centre-back was then a promising but inconsistent defender following his €13.5 million move back to the Bundesliga from Manchester City in 2011, mixing moments of supreme athleticism with some disastrous lapses of concentration.
Against BATE, a fixture the Bavarians had to win to secure first spot in the group, Boateng's reckless side came to the fore as he needlessly chopped down Artem Kontsevoy to be shown a straight red card five minutes after the break, with the home side defending a narrow 1-0 lead. Ten-man Bayern still went on to win comfortably, but coach Jupp Heynckes criticised Boateng for not being "clever enough" and the Germany defender missed the round of 16 tie against Arsenal due to suspension.
"It was good for me to be on the bench for a bit," Boateng tells ESPN FC. "Because I had to learn to calm down on the pitch. Back then, I was so desperate to get involved, to make up for mistakes or to help out my teammates that I rushed into tackles far too quickly. I had to have more control."
Part of the problem was simply down to inexperience -- Boateng, born in 1988, was still learning his trade in those years -- but the enforced break made him realise that his mentality had to change, too. He needed to be switched on much more, at all times.
"Keeping up your concentration is one of the hardest tasks when you're a centre-back because a team like Bayern tend to dominate and can give you sense of false security," he explains. "You mostly defend with your head, always reacting to the movement of opponents and teammates. I had to become more aware of that, play with much more consideration, the way you drive a car: you always need to look left, right and the rear mirror to see what's going on around you."
His journey to the top wasn't an easy one, however. At the 2012 Champions League final against Chelsea in Bayern's home town, his somewhat tepid challenge allowed Didier Drogba to score a late 1-1 equaliser from the Blues' only corner of the game.
"I couldn't eat for two days straight after that, it hurt so much," he recalls, even if he doesn't accept the personal blame that was heaped on him. "It was a training ground move. Somebody -- I think it was [Branislav] Ivanovic -- blocked me off the ball, so I had no chance of getting to Drogba in time. There's not a lot you can do about it if it's done that well. In any case, we had enough chances to win the game before and after that. It wasn't only my fault."
Boateng improved a lot in the next season as Bayern bounced back to win the Champions League, but doubts about his temperament persisted all the way to the World Cup final, where he was arguably the best player on the pitch. Bayern's trust was at last vindicated.
"I'm very grateful that they believed in me and fought so hard to sign me from City," Boateng says with characteristic humility. "I'm very happy that I've been allowed to stay here and develop my game. Moving here worked out better than I could have hoped for."
Two more years under Pep Guardiola saw him add long, pinpoint passes to his repertoire, a skill that has become a key weapon for both club and country. The Catalan manager turned the Berlin-born centre-back into a de facto playmaker but important groundwork had been laid earlier during Heynckes' regime.
"I would stay behind every day after training and hit 30, 40 long balls with [assistant coach] Peter Hermann," he says. "If you do that, you get better eventually." And next on his list for personal improvement is a higher goal-scoring rate. "Six goals [in all competitions since 2011] is not enough, I have to find the net more often," he says, while revealing he's currently working extra shifts fine-tuning his runs and jumps.
As far as his core task of defending is concerned, however, Boateng is firmly ensconced in the world's elite. His reliability on the pitch has ushered in more confidence off it; the rather shy, introvert boy has turned into one of the most vocal members of the Bayern and Germany squads, and is now being seen as future captain material for both. "It would be a dream for me," he admits.
Boateng was critical of Bayern's performance in the 1-0 defeat at Atletico Madrid last month, saying, "You can't win playing like that, we didn't show enough." And he is equally candid in addressing the team's problems in the wake of two disappointing draws, against Cologne and Eintracht Frankfurt, in the Bundesliga.
"It's not the end of the world, it's not a crisis," he says. "But at Bayern, we have higher aspirations, we demand more of ourselves. We cannot be happy when we don't win three games in a row and don't play well. I believe all of us -- and I include myself in that -- have to work a lot harder, show more aggression on the pitch and have the right attitude from the very first moment."
The change from Guardiola's high-pressing, high-intensity game to a more varied approach under Carlo Ancelotti will take a bit more time to come to fruition but Boateng warns that the team must quickly do what he himself had to do in the past: to learn to stay switched on and fully focused without the ball.
"It's absolutely fine to be a bit more reactive and not chase after the ball at times. But you cannot be passive," he says. "You have to be just as sharp when it comes to challenging for the ball, even if you challenge for it a bit deeper. There's simply no excuse for not going for it or for not picking up your man."
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein