Testing himself up against the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Timo Werner and Marco Reus have helped Moussa Niakhate become a Bundesliga staple and Mainz vice-captain at the age of just 24.
The French defender has become a force to be reckoned with on the pitch since joining the Karneval club from Metz in the summer of 2018, making just as strong an impression on the league's best forwards as he has on his own colleagues.
Sitting down with bundesliga.com, Niakhate discusses how he is returning to the fundamentals of life during the coronavirus lockdown, his opinion on the Bundesliga's goal-brokers and how he became Mainz's able deputy...
bundesliga.com: How are you staying fit during this period?
Moussa Niakhate: "That depends. Sometimes I go for a run outside, there's a little park near my house. Otherwise, I complete individual exercises at home – on my abdominals as well as other exercises."
bundesliga.com: What sort of things are you doing to keep yourself entertained?
Niakhate: "I'm watching a lot of television, a few series - to challenge my ideas and to learn new things. As I said, I also do a lot of sport at home. Lots of individual exercises at home and I run in the park as well. Otherwise, I go to the supermarket to do some shopping. That's what I get up to."
bundesliga.com: How do you ensure that you stay in close contact with your family?
Niakhate: "On the phone. I call them, I send them text messages. I do so every day because, just like in Germany, the situation in France is very difficult. They're confined to the house, they're not allowed to leave their house. We're able to go out a bit here which is good. But yes, on the phone."
bundesliga.com: How does it work in terms of staying in touch with your teammates and coaches?
Niakhate: "We have a WhatsApp group. There's also another app which all the players are on. The head coach and the coaching staff upload guidance and instructions on there during the week. They also call us to find out what we are up to, how we're doing mentally, how we're dealing with the situation and so on. So, via WhatsApp, phone or the app."
bundesliga.com: How do they ensure the concentration levels are kept high within the team?
Niakhate: "It's important to remember that even though this is a very strange situation, we're still footballers. We all need to be ready to go. It's not certain when the league will start again, so we always need to be ready to go. There's no time to switch off, particularly in our current situation. We remain professional, we do the exercises that we're asked to do, and with all that, it works."
bundesliga.com: Are you proud to be vice-captain of your team at the age of just 24?
Niakhate: "Yes, of course, especially as I'm still young, as you said. But what makes me most proud is the confidence that the coach and my teammates have placed in me. That's the thing I'm most proud of, but the most important thing is always the team. Namely, to win games and to bring joy to our fans. But to be captain of such a big club with so many good players makes me very proud of course.”
bundesliga.com: As a vice-captain, how much room for improvement is there?
Niakhate: "I'm not sure what I'm missing. The reason I was voted in as vice-captain was because I have the capacity to do well in that particular area, in terms of my leadership skills. I was tasked with being one of the leaders and I'm certain that I can rise to the challenge."
Watch: Moussa Niakhate scored his first Bundesliga goal in a six-goal thriller against RB Leipzig in 2018/19
bundesliga.com: Where can you improve as a player?
Niakhate: "In every area. If I sit here today and tell you that I need to improve in this area, but that there is nothing for me to learn in another area, that would mean I had mastered certain things and have no room for development. In reality, I feel as though I can improve in every area, be it offensive, defensive, the tackle, heading, passing, everything. I have certain strengths, but I can always improve in every area and that's what pushes me forward."
bundesliga.com: Which strikers have made the biggest impression on you since your arrival in the Bundesliga?
Niakhate: "I'm not sure. On the whole, the level of strikers in the league is very high. This is one of the best leagues in the world in terms of attacking talent. I can't single out one player, but it's certainly true that there are lots of very good strikers. Even in those teams which may not necessarily be playing in Europe, or those that have been recently promoted from the second division. There are many good strikers, with a range of characteristics. Some are big and physical, others are small and quick. But they're all very good players with a strong mentality. Playing against them is the best way to improve as a defender, so it's good."
bundesliga.com: More specifically, which players are worthy of mention in your opinion?
Niakhate: "It's difficult to name one because there are so many good strikers. It's difficult to single one out. If you look at the statistics, you see RB Leipzig's [Timo] Werner and Bayern's [Robert] Lewandowski are scoring loads of goals. But there are so many good strikers in the league. There's also [Marco] Reus, who is an excellent attacker. There are simply too many to choose from – even from those teams which are at the bottom of the table."
bundesliga.com: Now that you're at home so much, are you using the time to learn new things?
Niakhate: "It's true that we have a huge amount of time. Normally we're playing football every day, but now we have to stay at home. Nothing in particular, really. I'm continuing to live my life as though nothing had happened. I'm eating like I did before, I entertain myself like I did before, I'm still watching the same TV series as before. It's true that I have a little bit more free time on the PlayStation with my friends. I have more time than I normally would, so that's what I do."
bundesliga.com: If you could address your fans now, what would your message be?
Niakhate: "Stay calm, listen to the advice given by the national authorities, stay at home, and make good use of your time. Spend time with your family, enjoy yourself, laugh, play games with your family. Call people, for example, those friends who you may not have spoken to in a while. Ask them how they are doing and what's new. That's what I would say. Return to the fundamental things in life. The fundamentals are your family, enjoying good moments, laughing – even though these things may be more difficult at the moment. Those are the fundamentals of life. Focus on those things and on what is essential."
bundesliga.com: How do you think the season is going so far?
Niakhate: "I think we're 14th or 15th. It's been a fairly complicated season for us. We didn't get off to the best of starts. Personally, though, I see a lot in this team because we fight hard every single weekend. We're not hiding. We're a young team, we need to learn, and we need to do so quickly because otherwise we'll miss out on points. It's a complicated season, but it's a season which will help us to grow."
bundesliga.com: What have been the highlights for you this season?
Niakhate: "I don't know. I can't tell you because it's not something I've thought about. But as I said, we'll be stronger as a result of this season. Each individual player needs to grow themselves and that'll allow us to grow as a team and to gain experience."
bundesliga.com: What are your objectives for the remainder of the season?
Niakhate: "The objective is to avoid relegation. That's the minimum for us. But also to get back into a rhythm, to win two or three games in a row, and to give our fans something to celebrate. Score as many goals as possible and concede as few as possible. That would be a good start. We have nine or 10 matches left in the season, we need to remain focussed until the end, and ensure that all the players stay fit and healthy."
bundesliga.com: Could the break in the season work to your advantage given the fact that the team were enduring a difficult spell?
Niakhate: "I don't know because we're all in the same situation. Every club in Europe is on a break at the moment. Having said that, I'm sure there'll be certain teams who use this break to their advantage."
Niakhate: "He's been playing well for a while now, I think he scored seven or eight goals last season. I'm very happy for him because he's a friend of mine. It's great, I'm very happy for him. I hope that he continues to score lots of goals after the break – as well as all the other attacking players."
bundesliga.com: Do your teammates call you more than other players because you are one of the captains?
Niakhate: "Not particularly, no. My current situation is no different from anyone else's. All of the players are simply trying to spend time with their families, to relax and to concentrate on their routines. Everyone is simply immersed in their families, though the contact between teammates hasn't been lost."
bundesliga.com: What is your opinion of Mainz head coach Achim Beierlorzer?
Niakhate: "He came here to help us, to train us, and to set us up to win matches. We have a coach today who was at Cologne at the beginning of the season. He has lots of experience. Everything is going well with the coach. He knew how to get his message across to the players when he came in, and that's the most important thing. The fact that he was able to convey the message that he wanted to; everyone has understood his ideas and internalised them. That's crucial – we're all on the same page."
bundesliga.com: Is there anything you would like to say at the end of the interview?
Niakhate: "It's important to stay very calm in the current situation, and to facilitate the work of doctors, nurses and public health officials. They're doing an outstanding job and benefitting everyone. So, I would like to thank them for their work, they're helping the entire population in this extremely complicated situation. I hope that when all of this is over, we're able to thank them properly. Perhaps all the doctors could be invited out onto the pitch in Mainz. For us to show them our gratitude – that's the very least we can do. Invite them onto the pitch and thank them, I think that would be a good idea."