Last Saturday, the latest edition of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund’s “Klassiker” rivalry served up a thrilling game that showcased two of soccer’s best strikers. After Erling Haaland scored twice to give Dortmund an early advantage, Robert Lewandowski hit back with a hat trick to inspire Bayern’s comeback win. Watching them go back and forth reminded me of something I have believed since I was a little boy: “Scoring goals is the coolest thing on the planet.”
When I was just learning the game, my dad understood what I was feeling and gave me a textbook, encouraging me to keep track of my performance. So from the age of 8 until I finished youth soccer at 18, I wrote down the date, the opponent and how many goals I scored for every game. It kept me hungry to write into the book every week, to feel like I had done my job.
As a child, Jurgen Klinsmann recorded all of the goals he scored in this record book.
In my second year, I scored 106 goals in 18 games. One day, I had 16 goals in 40 minutes. I always grabbed the ball after scoring and took it back to the halfway line so I had more time to do it again. The attitude stayed with me as a professional; as a striker you become number-driven because you always want to score and, once a match ends, you immediately think about the next one.
Though the position has changed over the years, I see that single-minded approach in today’s top strikers. Lewandowski, for example, is a master who has completed his game over a decade and is so fluid, so smooth in what he is doing. He also has the perfect support system with players who constantly feed him; Thomas Muller does it the most — it’s like a pipeline that is always on — but Lewandowski also has Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman and Leroy Sane.
Haaland, meanwhile, is like a younger version of Lewandowski. He is just 20, but is well developed as he grows into his strong body and has the characteristics to put the pieces together on his way to perfection. Haaland possesses that ideal combination of knowing where the ball will go — he smells where it will drop — and ruthlessness front of goal. Left foot, right foot, headers; he can score in any way and also links well with teammates.
Strikers are primarily judged based on the number of goals they score and the accomplished ones should find the net at least every second game. What this creates is a mindset that is always looking forward. If you have a bad period or a bad match, in which you miss five or six 100% chances, an easy one can save your entire performance.
The feeling of scoring after a tough time is like when a mustang is freed into the wilderness after being tied up. Early in my career at Stuttgart, I did not click with a coach and was having a difficult time, but then his assistant took over — he was from the area and knew me — and I scored five goals against Fortuna Dusseldorf in his first game! The fifth one was a 70-yard run from inside my own half. Moments like that are just a reminder that you have what it takes.
Having the support of a coach is vital for a striker, and you can see the benefit in what Romelu Lukaku is achieving at Inter under Antonio Conte, who previously wanted to sign him at Chelsea. Lukaku has always scored goals, but his game has gone to another level in Italy; Inter lead Serie A by six points as a result. It is so important to know a coach counts on you, believes in you and says, even if you don’t score for a few games, that it is no big deal.
You need to be surrounded by people who can help, whether that is family, coaches or otherwise, and I was very lucky during my time at Stuttgart. Months before we played the 1989 UEFA Cup final against Napoli and Diego Maradona, my coach Arie Haan said the time was right for me to join Inter. I did not understand because we were playing well and had full stadiums, but he said to go where the best in the world were and, at the time, that meant Italy. He basically pushed me out of my hometown team, but for my own good.
Many of the moves I made were influenced by others — I would never have joined Tottenham had it not been for Ossie Ardiles — but no matter the level, my approach was the same as it had been when I was learning the game because soccer is a self-teaching game. Everything I could do later on, I had by the age of 9 or 10; just by playing every day, my skill set and instincts developed.
There was one goal I scored for Germany in the 1994 World Cup against South Korea, where I flicked the ball up in the air and, in my turn, volleyed it with my weaker left foot. It became goal of the month in Germany and people asked how I could come up with a goal like that, but it was what I learned years before.
In 1987, I scored a bicycle kick for Stuttgart against Bayern that became goal of the year; it was just what I had done as a kid. No big deal! Even now, I play for a veterans’ team and, though I am not doing bicycle kicks anymore and it is all much slower, the way I played before — from growing up to my prime-time years — is mostly still there in my game.
The instincts remain the same, but the striker role is different at the top level in today’s game, which is more fluid compared to the rigidity of 20 or 30 years ago. In contrast to more defined roles back then, now teams play different formations, while some go without a recognized No. 9 and some wingers are likelier to cut in diagonally and shoot than get to the endline and cross for a center-forward.
At first, the evolution made me a little sad because the traditional striker role appeared to be in jeopardy, but teams have found new ways to incorporate a central striker. The 4-2-3-1, which Bayern use to support Lewandowski, is one, while there are some players who almost seem to play multiple positions in the same game.
Kylian Mbappe is someone I love to watch, but he is a different type of player because he likes to come from a wide position and plays well in a two- or three-striker formation. He still breaks into the box, gets into the right positions, is technical and can head the ball, but comes more from a speed point of view and is unstoppable once he picks up pace.
Whether it is Mbappe, Lewandowski, Haaland or any of today’s other great strikers, there are certain shared similarities. As top professionals, hunger and drive sets them apart, as well as a cold-blooded approach when a chance comes. But these stars also play in a simple way, knowing that their primary job brings with it the best feeling in the world, one which takes them back to their earliest memories of the game: scoring a goal.