Midfielder has form to help West Ham to victory over Stoke City in FA Cup quarter-final today.
Hitzlsperger is crucial and 'in the zone' for West Ham
Late for his next engagement after a two-hour interview, Thomas Hitzlsperger was readying to leave when the conversation turned to a newspaper profile on David Luiz. "Centre halves, that's something else we should talk about," the German said.
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Hitzlsperger likes the Chelsea defender's character and the way he makes plays from the back.
"I think we have too many centre halves that are physically good but once they get the ball don't know what to do," he said. "Every single player is important these days but we don't really focus on centre halves. They're not just defenders, they start the game.
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"They aren't under pressure so they should use the space to choose where the ball goes. What's the point of just passing it two yards to a defensive midfielder?
"The movement has to be right up front but they should be able to make a good pass. That's what we did with the German national team. Jogi Loew [the manager] wanted [Per] Mertesacker to play like Argentina in the World Cup 2006. The centre halves played the ball straight into the striker's feet."
It's a favoured theme of Uefa technical director Andy Roxburgh, and a method exploited by Loew with Germany.
Newly returned from the worst injury of his career, the West Ham United midfielder's eyes brightened as he spoke. "I love football. Why shouldn't I want to spend my day discussing it?"
Hitzlsperger had agreed to meet at a coffee shop in Spitalfields, an area of east London that few professional footballers choose to make their home. Upton Park is a 30-minute Underground ride away, a trip Hitzlsperger often takes.
Yet remark on the unconventional selection of residence or transport and the German turns uncharacteristically cautious.
"Living in the East End is fantastic, but I don't want people to get the impression I'm trying to be different in every aspect that I can," he says. "Of course I've got some different interests, but I think now in football you've got so many players who don't just play the game, they have different interests. Politics, economics, whatever."
The youngest of seven siblings brought up on a dairy farm 40km east of Munich, Hitzlsperger walked out on Bayern 11 years ago for an accelerated entry into Aston Villa's first team. In 2005, he switched back to Germany, winning the Bundesliga in a memorable second Stuttgart season. Last year there were six trying months at Lazio in Italy before a return to a country and contest he adores.
Deftly recruited by West Ham before most of the Premier League realised a player with over 50 games for Germany was without contract, Hitzlsperger, 28, impressed in an unbeaten pre-season. Then one of "Der Hammer's" famously robust left-foot strikes on international duty resulted in a thigh injury, ultimately diagnosed as a tendon rupture requiring surgery.
His competitive debut for West Ham was delayed until a February 21 FA Cup defeat of Burnley in which Hitzlsperger scored the opener and sent West Ham on an 11-goal, three-win run that has the team believing they can play their way out of a relegation struggle.
"I think I'm in a kind of zone at the moment," said Hitzlsperger, now part of an astute midfield trio with Scott Parker and Mark Noble. "It just happens, and I've experienced it before, after an injury. You come back and think: It's just nice to be here. I don't want to overcomplicate it and say: 'What are we doing next? How are we playing tactically?' The coaches look after that. I just want to be there and switch off a little bit. Go out there and enjoy myself."
Plenty of thought went into his recovery period. Though rehabilitated in Germany, Hitzlsperger regularly flew back to England to be with the team. Not wanting new colleagues "to forget me", he would watch matches and work out how best to contribute when fit again. Observing a midfield that dropped too deep, he resolved to stay high up the pitch supporting forwards and offering an option to defenders.
He also began contemplating a future career as a manager.
"I like finding out what makes teams work. Knowing why [Sir Alex] Ferguson is so dominant, why [Jose] Mourinho is such a good coach. Because players are not easy and I know myself, sometimes I'm very critical of the manager as well. I demand a lot. And players know, well at least they think they know, at least as much about football as the manager."
He talks of how Stuttgart's "whole team was sort of in the zone" as they won the German title with eight consecutive victories (including his own impeccable final-day finish), and how their oft-criticised coach, Armin Veh, "did great not to interfere too much".
He is fascinated by the complexities involved in bringing together a group of disparate personalities to form a wining unit.
"How do you motivate a group of 20, 25 players, most of them millionaires, to win games? Because most of the players in the Premier League, at any team, they are talented enough to beat any team in the league. But how do you make them gel? How do you make them work together?"
"I've heard people saying they don't like the way Avram Grant comes across, but he is very experienced and got us back to winning ways. I know what we do in training, I've seen coaches and managers, and sometimes I thought they were doing something wrong. But they had the job. There must be something you can't learn that qualifies you for he job."
"I can become a good manager by watching games on television, doing my research, getting into tactics, get my degrees and everything. But if you're standing in front of a group of players you must know how to handle them, how to get them going, how to motivate them to do extra training."
The motivation to repeat victory over Stoke City this FA Cup afternoon is a semi-final at Wembley, a stadium where Hitzlsperger inflicted defeat on England shortly after its reopening. An amused student of the English-German dynamic and an enthusiastic advocate of Raphael Honigstein's excellent book on the subject, Englischer Fussball, he recalls the programme cover on which Michael Owen said, 'Let's see if anyone can beat us.'
"We did, and then they talked it down," Hitzlsperger said with a laugh. "That's what I like about England. You have a really bad game, and everyone is talking about the short spell that was good. 'If we play like the last 10 minutes, next game we're going to win it.' At West Ham we have these players in the dressing room. We've lost so many games this season and a few days later people are just happy again. That's what they do, and I like it."