He may only have joined the club in the summer, but Axel Witsel is already an indispensable member of the Borussia Dortmund team currently top of the Bundesliga standings, and is confidently looking forward to this weekend's Klassiker meeting with Bayern Munich.
In this exclusive interview with bundesliga.com, the 29-year-old Belgium international discusses the upcoming match against Bayern, Dortmund's "mad" youthful attack and how he is settling in to life in Germany's top flight.
Axel Witsel: Bayern are Bayern, they're always strong. Their early season form hasn’t been as good as in recent years, so it's our job to take advantage of that. Despite that, the game won’t be easy at all. But at home, in front of our crowd and with the quality we have in the team, we can beat them. In one game, everything is possible.
Watch: We meet Axel Witsel before the Klassiker!
bundesliga.com: What makes Bayern dangerous?
Witsel: They're used to dominating the league and performing well in the Champions League. They know what it is to win titles almost every year. They're much more experienced than we are right now. Their players are older and still have a lot of quality, like Franck Ribery for instance. His career is closer to its end than its beginning, but he's still playing at a very high level. So Bayern are ahead of us, both in terms of experience and dealing with pressure. But our young players are able to bring some madness into our game, and this madness can create amazing things on the pitch.
bundesliga.com: Which player do you know personally and who do you consider an extraordinary player?
Witsel: I don't know them personally. But an extraordinary player? Thiago. He’s a fantastic midfielder. He creates the play, he usually initiates his team’s attacks. There is also Ribery, who can make a difference. Arjen Robben, Robert Lewandowski who is a great goalscorer. So we need to watch out. However, as I said, we should fear nobody. We'll be playing at home, in front of our supporters. We will have to deliver a great performance.
Watch: Witsel's role in Lucien Favre's Dortmund
bundesliga.com: Was it a surprise for you to come here and start so well?
Witsel: No. After the World Cup, my goal was to come back to Europe. I knew that I had the quality to play for a top European club. So when Dortmund called up, I didn’t hesitate, but it wasn’t a surprise.
bundesliga.com: What do you bring to the Dortmund team?
Witsel: I try to bring in my experience, even if this is the first time in my career that I’ve played at the top level in a top league. We have a lot of young players here. The squad is strong, but most players are 19, 20, 21 years old - and I’m turning 30 in January! I try to be a leader on the pitch, as I’ve done at all the clubs I’ve played for.
bundesliga.com: How would you describe your first few months in Dortmund?
Witsel: Very good. I was really welcomed by everybody, the staff, players, management. I’ve adapted well to the club since I arrived and I was lucky to play and score immediately, which made the following months easier.
Watch: Witsel's stunning Goal of the Month winner in August
bundesliga.com: How does it feel to play and score at the Signal Iduna Park?
Witsel: It was wonderful. We're lucky to be able to play in our stadium. It’s always full, no matter the opponent. The fans fill it up at every game, so it’s an honour to play there.
bundesliga.com: Why are Dortmund performing so well?
Witsel: The last two years were not too good. Now, Dortmund need to perform again like they used to, and that's what we're doing. We started very well in the league, we're still in the DFB Cup and we're strong in the Champions League. But we shouldn’t try to overthink it. We should take each game as it comes and move forward that way.
bundesliga.com: Can you tell us why you're called “Chaloupe”?
Witsel: Chaloupe is my nickname. They gave it to me when I was playing for Standard Lièege because I am always… A Chaloupe is a small wooden boat, which always moves very slowly on the water. That is how I am every day: cool, relaxed, not stressed. That's why they called me that years ago and I'm still like that today.
bundesliga.com: Is it true that you were named after Axel Foley?
Witsel: My parents were fans of Eddie Murphy. So they watched this film, I think it was ‘Beverly Hills Cop’, right? As soon as they saw Axel they decided to give me his name. I saw the movie a very long time ago. He’s a cool guy!
bundesliga.com: Why do you celebrate your goals with the eagle gesture?
Witsel: It is an imitation of Nicolas Anelka’s celebrations, when he used to play. I was a fan of the French national team around 1998. My father is French, from Martinique. And one day, as my pro career was beginning at Standard, my school friend Nurak told me that I should do this gesture when I score. I scored, started to do it, and have been doing it ever since.
bundesliga.com: But today, you’re probably no longer a fan of the French national team, right?
Witsel: No, it’s not that I’m not a fan. It’s just that I’m Belgian, period. But I used to watch France a lot when Zinedine Zidane was around because he was my idol.
bundesliga.com: Did you talk with Michy Batshuayi about BVB?
Witsel: Yes, he told me that I would really like the club, the way it is set up, the way the team plays. He really enjoyed the time he spent here.