Kaan Ayhan has been in the Bundesliga since making his debut with Schalke back in 2013 as an 18-year-old. Now, a more mature, experienced and improved version of himself, the 25-year-old wants to keep improving with Fortuna Düsseldorf.
After helping Fortuna stay in the Bundesliga last season, Turkey international Ayhan is targeting more of the same as he explains in an exclusive interview with bundesliga.com discussing relegation battles, playing for his country and more...
bundesliga.com: To what extent are the memories of your strong second half to last season an advantage now?
Kaan Ayhan: "Yes, of course, this is something I've mentioned many times. We know how quickly things can change and we experienced this first-hand last season. We know what it feels like when you have five games and you win three of them and draw one or whatever it may be. But importantly what it takes to have a truly successful period. That should always give us belief and it should always evoke a fighting spirit within us. We know that there's no need to let our heads drop after a defeat – and the defeats will come. We know that we always need to keep going and that we can always pick up our points by going on runs like that."
bundesliga.com: What does the team need to do to get back into their rhythm?
Ayhan: "First of all, you need the results on the pitch, that's clear. You have to build your confidence and ensure that those things that are perhaps not taken for granted come naturally to us. That was certainly the case for us during the second half of last season. We worked ourselves up into a frenzy in parts. We knew that it had a lot to do with the results, which were mostly good. We knew that it had the potential to be harder this year. We were ready for that. But our objective, of course, is to recreate our form from last season. Lots of the players from last season are still at the club, of course some of them have left. But I'm convinced that we can replace them. The important thing, as you mentioned, is that we get the results on the pitch. With these results, certain things that didn't work for us in the first half of the season will start to fall into place."
bundesliga.com: What qualities are needed to survive a relegation battle?
Ayhan: "I think that teams or players that find themselves in relegation battles call upon the same attributes. Passion and fight, but that's the bare minimum required in my opinion. Regardless of whether you're fighting for survival or for the league title, or whatever aims you've set yourself, those are the minimum qualities needed. We have those here in the team, so as I said, that's the base level, it always has to be there, but we also need to make sure we don't hide in matches. That was the case at times in the first half of the season. We weren't able to get out of our own half because we were too passive. We've discussed this now during the winter break, the coach mentioned it too as he has a similar opinion. We've made it our objective to be much more active in games going forward. That's a good means of getting out of our current situation. Being active yourself and not hiding in the face of your opponent. To fight for every single point."
bundesliga.com: You have been in the Bundesliga for a while now, and also have been active for the Turkey national team. What influence has this had on your standing in the team?
Ayhan: "I don't know. Your standing grows, of course, the longer you're at the club. But I wouldn't put this exclusively down to personal sporting success, but rather age. The older players tend to take on more responsibility. I've noticed that from my teammates and the coaching staff. They expect me to take on more responsibility. I joined the player committee this season. It was the first time I'd joined this committee at the age of 24. So, of course, I'm growing into certain responsibilities. But my relationship with the team hasn't changed all that much. I'm still the same Kaan. I now have an official position as member of the player committee, and I'm engaged in that. But all of us older players are pleased to share around this additional responsibility. That's the case in the team, but I also take it upon myself to lead by example with a certain body language in order to get a few more per cent out of the team – and out of myself, too, of course."
bundesliga.com: How have you developed over the last few years?
Ayhan: "I do think I've become more relaxed out on the pitch. I've kept the same level of aggression, but I used to have a youthful temperament. If things didn't go the way I wanted, I would normally show that I was unhappy. There are now more eyes on me in general – at least since this season. I'm aware of that but always try to motivate the team from the back. As a central defender, you have a number of responsibilities in terms of organising play from the back and instructing the team. But like I said, I do so with a cool head. I'm also always aware of the fact that I need to be a role model for my teammates. But my development is ongoing, I can always learn more. I'm still developing in this regard, just like every other 25-year-old player."
bundesliga.com: Do any coaches ever come up to you and tell you to relax in your playing style?
Ayhan: "No, that's certainly not the case. Perhaps you simply reach a certain level of maturity at some point and no longer have the same short fuse. But I still enjoy seeing the fire in my eyes on television, and the way I lead by example. Without emotion, without fire in my belly, it would be difficult for me to have the right body language out on the pitch. That's part of my game and I never want to lose that. But it's certainly true that you grow into these things from a certain age – I'm now married, so have to take on more responsibility in my private life. I'm currently in the process of growing into this role. But it's not something that I'm actively pursuing – I'm not telling myself to do this and that. Instead, it's a level of maturity and a gut feeling which determines how you react in every moment."
bundesliga.com: How have your experiences with the national team contributed to this maturity?
Ayhan: "Yeah, it's not just the matches that make a difference, but the experiences in general. If you were to make a film of the year 2019, there are so many incredible memories. It was a hugely positive and successful year, both in a sporting and in a personal sense. You know how to deal with certain situations better and approach things with a certain degree of humility. We'll see what 2020 has to offer. But like I said, you grow as a person mentally – not so much physically anymore. It's a process of development and it'll remain a process of development even at the age of 30."
bundesliga.com: Was it a dream of yours to secure qualification for a European Championship?
Ayhan: "Yes, European Championships are a big deal, that's for sure. I remember one of my first matches was a qualifier for the European Championships and I asked myself whether I'd ever experience this again in my career. As Turkey, we're not able to take qualification as a given. We're currently in the process of getting to the point where we can truly say that we expect to take part in every single tournament. It's a dream come true of course, the World Cup would be even better. That's a dream that I'll experience at some point. At the end of the day, it's confirmation of the work you've put in as a player and as a team. It gives you a huge amount for the future, lots of belief. That's something you want to carry with you for as long as possible."
bundesliga.com: What would it mean to you to score a goal at the European Championships?
Ayhan: "We'll have to see. I scored three goals in qualification. That's a lot of goals for a centre-back of course. I was told that no other centre-back had managed as many. Once again, we return to the positive sporting year of 2019. If I was able to do so at a European Championship – I don't even want to think about it at the moment – but it would likely be a huge goal for our country in the achievement of our aims. And being successful in the tournament. But I'm not solely responsible for scoring the goals. You try to help of course, but the best thing would be keeping clean sheets in all three group matches. That's a big aim of mine, it would be huge if we could manage it, fantastic."
bundesliga.com: Do you have any rituals before games?
Ayhan: "It changes week-by-week. It's not really a superstition, but if we win then the following week our warm-up routines remain unchanged. If we lose, we change them."
Watch: Ayhan's brace in Fortuna's win over Freiburg last season!
bundesliga.com: Who is your best friend on the team?
Ayhan: "I don't know but Kenan Karaman and I travel together, we spend a lot of our free time together. I have lots of good friends in the team but Kenan is probably the person I spend the most time with and vice versa."
bundesliga.com: How do you like spending your free time?
Ayhan: "It changes I would say. I spend a lot of time on my computer in my bedroom. I close the door and enjoy some peace and quiet. I do lots of things but it's always nice to relax and forget the stresses of day-to-day life. I'm a bit of a computer geek."
bundesliga.com: What has been the best moment of your life?
Ayhan: "I'd say my wedding which took place over the summer. It marked the beginning of a new chapter of my life. I've had to take on more responsibility in my private life. I've enjoyed lots of highlights on the pitch this year. 2019 was the best year of my life to date and I'll always be thankful for the year."
bundesliga.com: What has been the most difficult moment of your life?
Ayhan: "The most difficult moment. I have to say first of all that I'm thankful not to have had that many difficult moments so far. Everything has gone well for me so far in life, and I hope it continues. If I had to say something, it'd be when I left Schalke. It was difficult for me to come to terms with it at that moment, but ultimately I'm thankful for how things panned out and wouldn't want it any other way."