Odilon Kossounou hasn't missed a game at the heart of Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen's defence this season. bundesliga.com caught up with the Ivory Coast international ahead of the next test of his team's title credentials at home to Borussia Dortmund...
bundesliga.com: How are you managing as a team to play such attractive attacking football whilst also being so solid at the back?
Odilon Kossounou: "It's something we have been working on for many years now. It's my third season here at the club. And for the majority of the players in this squad, we have played together for over three years. So, we have got to know each other better and better. And we also have a new coach who has put a system in place that suits us perfectly. It has enabled us to defend well as a team, but also to attack freely."
Kossounou: "Of course, yes. First of all, Tapsoba is Burkinabé and Tah is both German and Ivorian. The same nationality as me. So, we all speak French. And that allows us to communicate effectively on the pitch and function well as a unit."
bundesliga.com: How are you managing to perform at such a consistently high level?
Kossounou: "I would say I have worked hard in a number of areas this season. And the system that the coach has introduced suits me very well. I am able to contribute both in an attacking sense and also in a defensive sense. I have also worked a lot on my positioning with the coach. Other attributes were there already, but we worked a lot on my positioning on the pitch. Overall, the system is one I feel very comfortable in. So that has enabled me to show my qualities on the pitch."
Watch: Another perfect month for Leverkusen
bundesliga: Which one out of the three of you is the quickest?
Kossounou: "We are all quite quick. But I'm probably the most comfortable chasing the ball if it goes in behind us. So, I would say I am a little bit quicker than the other two."
bundesliga.com: You recently scored your first Bundesliga goal. How did that feel?
Kossounou: "I was very pleased, to be honest. I have been here for three years and that was my first Bundesliga goal. So, you could see when I scored on the pitch, I was very happy. It gave me a lot of energy and confidence to always keep going."
bundesliga.com: You face Borussia Dortmund on Sunday. What are you expecting from the game?
Kossounou: "We all know that Dortmund are not a small team. They are one of the big clubs here in Germany, so this has always been a difficult fixture. It's not an easy game. But as I said in an interview ahead of the Bremen game, we have a solid foundation this season. We are able to endure the difficult moments out on the pitch. Each season is different. I think we are more mature as a team this season - both with the ball and without the ball. It will be an open game. We will play the same way we have all season. I think if we stick to our strengths and respect the challenge, we can pick up a positive result. And it's a home game too. So, the fans will be behind us and will be pushing us throughout. They will give us the energy we need to give our all out there."
bundesliga.com: Does the energy around the team feel different this season?
Kossounou: "Yes, of course. But I would say it's been a long time in the making. It's not something that started this season, it has been constructed over many years. We have known each other for a long time now and we all know how each other plays. And then we had some new arrivals like Granit [Xhaka] and [Alejandro] Grimaldo. And the others, too. That has all contributed to the overall cohesion we have as a team."
bundesliga.com: Is the objective winning the Bundesliga?
Kossounou: "For me and for the team, we have to remain grounded. There is still a lot of work to do. It's true we are in first place in the Bundesliga at the moment. But we've got a long way to go. We have made a good start to the season, that's all. We need to keep that going and continue to take it match by match rather than focusing on the title. That's what we have done so far. At the end of the season, we will see what the outcome is."
bundesliga.com: Do you prefer playing as part of a back four or a back three?
Kossounou: "I feel comfortable playing as part of a central defensive pair. But I prefer a back three as that is what we have been working on since the beginning of the season. We know each other so well out on the pitch and function well as a three. But I have no problem playing as part of a back [four]. The coach prefers me on the right of a back three, though. We will always adapt to what the coach wants."
bundesliga.com: Which striker has caused you the most problems this season?
Kossounou: "I wouldn’t say there is one over the rest. We played against Bayern Munich and Harry Kane. He was very good. We also played against Leipzig and [Loïs] Openda. But because of the system that we play, it could be that I'm marking Openda one minute but two minutes later, he is next to Tah. So, it's not like a constant match-up. It changes throughout the game. I would not name one single striker that has caused me difficulties. But given we have played Bayern Munich and Leipzig, I would say Harry Kane and Openda. Those were difficult matches."
bundesliga.com: How much are you looking forward to the Africa Cup of Nations?
Kossounou: "Yes, it's something very special for me. It has been a long time. But the next AFCON is in 2024. It's a true pleasure for me to be able to represent my country at this tournament. And to be able to play in our country. It's a real source of pride for us. It's very exciting to be able to participate."
bundesliga.com: What was your childhood like in the Ivory Coast?
Kossounou: "It was a great childhood. It wasn’t easy, though. But I had the chance to join a school and then later an academy, the Mimosa Academy. I learned a lot of things there that were very positive for my personal development. We did sport there, but also focused on our studies. That helped me a lot to develop. And that helped me too when I made the move to Europe as it allowed me to integrate myself into professional football clubs here."
bundesliga.com: Were you a good student?
Kossounou: "Of course, yes. But I prioritised football. I was a good student, though. I tried to do both things at the same time."
bundesliga.com: Was there anyone who particularly supported you in your journey to becoming a professional footballer?
Kossounou: "My parents, of course. My father played football, but not at a high level. But he says I picked it up from him. He was an attacker. I also started as an attacker. Then I moved into midfield and finally into defence. He was the person who really pushed me. He helped me to believe in myself and chase my dreams. He helped me to develop the base that you need to become a man and the foundation for what I have achieved since. My mother, too, of course. She helped me a lot with her blessings and her words. She called me all the time to give me advice. She has always helped me to improve as a person."
bundesliga.com: You spent your formative years at the Mimosa Academy in the Ivory Coast. What does the club mean to you?
Kossounou: "It was the moment everything clicked for me. When I arrived at the Mimosa Academy, it was the moment I realised I could really become a professional footballer. It was an opportunity that was given to me. It wasn't easy to get in, a lot of young people want to enroll there. But when I did join, I realised I could have a professional career. And I worked hard to achieve that. The way they coached football was also very good and that has helped me throughout my career."
bundesliga.com: Lots of famous players started in that academy. What makes the training there so special?
Kossounou: "We learn everything - in a technical sense, in a tactical sense. It's a great academy. And we knew that it was because of the players that graduated from there like Yaya and Kolo Touré. They were huge talents. And you could see that quality straight away [in the academy]. They taught us everything. And as we have grown up, that has helped us a lot."
bundesliga.com: You moved to Sweden as a very young player. How was that for you?
Kossounou: "It wasn't easy. I was very young and I left my parents early in order to go to Sweden, to Hammarby. Once I decided to become a professional footballer, that was what I had to do. And I knew that was what I needed to do. And today it has paid off."
bundesliga.com: What makes the Bundesliga so special in your opinion?
Kossounou: "First of all, the Bundesliga is simply a different level. There are some big clubs here like Bayern and Dortmund. The games here are very challenging. So, there is a big difference. You have to be very well-prepared to succeed at this level. The stadiums here are very different and the atmospheres too. The Bundesliga is one of the top five leagues in Europe. So, yes, there is a big difference compared to Sweden or other leagues."
AFCON joy for BVB's Haller and B04's Kossounou
Borussia Dortmund forward Sébastien Haller netted the winning goal in the final while Odilon Kossounou of Bayer Leverkusen also featured as Ivory Coast won the Africa Cup of Nations.
Leverkusen and Dortmund's glittering diamonds
There will be plenty of young gems on show as Bayer Leverkusen take on Borussia Dortmund this weekend in a mouth-watering encounter.
Africans in the Bundesliga - a new golden era?
The Bundesliga has a long history of showcasing some of the greatest talents in African football, but the abundance of footballing brilliance from the continent in Germany is stronger than ever before.