“Alot of people don’t know me,” Antonio Rüdiger says as he considers how perceptions of him have changed since Thomas Tuchel’s arrival at Chelsea in January.
Rüdiger has been one of the most watchable players in the Premier League this season, entertaining supporters with aggressive defending, powerful runs and expressive mannerisms, but he does not feel any different.
“I have always been as I am now,” he continues. “It’s just that things are going well. Obviously everyone has their opinion.
I’ve always been the same Toni.”
According to Rüdiger, that Toni is “a guy who is serious about his own things,” but with a penchant for creating a good vibe in the dressing room.
He bats away suggestions that he is a joker, but he is hardly a shrinking violet on the pitch.
He is tough on opposition forwards and he showed his humour when he stuck out his tongue at Chelsea’s fans after winning a penalty during their recent victory over Malmö.
“This is just how I am on the pitch,” he says. “It’s pure emotion.”
Yet that emotion has been viewed differently in the past. The serious air can occasionally make it hard for an outsider to see Rüdiger’s lighter side.
Throw in his aggressive style and the potential for misconceptions to build of the 28-year-old as a difficult character is obvious.
Fortunately Tuchel saw Rüdiger’s all-in approach, strong personality and dislike of losing as positives: evidence of a fierce competitor and a positive team player rather than a potential troublemaker.
The defender had fallen out of the team under Frank Lampard, who wanted to sell the Germany international during the summer of 2020, and he was portrayed as a disruptive influence when Lampard was sacked.
He is honest enough to admit that his performances were below par during Lampard’s first year, but he could not understand why things unravelled last season.
He knew that he was still a top defender and then proved it under Tuchel, helping Chelsea end up as European champions.
“Tuchel gave me new life,” Rüdiger says. “I wouldn’t say he said: ‘You have to be the biggest speaker in the dressing room.’ I’m not like this.
I like to show everything on the pitch. He told me what he expects – my natural game: to be aggressive, to be a leader.”
Rüdiger is open on his feelings after the final whistle blew when Chelsea beat Manchester City in the Champions League final. “It was big relief,” he says. “It was crazy.
‘At some point you were the Buhmann [bogeyman]. You were a bad person to have around from what I heard.’
For me, it was good. At the end of the day you cannot close people out.
They will always keep speaking and that’s not why I play football, but it was good that I came out as a winner.”
Rüdiger, who joined Chelsea from Roma in 2017 for £29m, smiles when asked whether he had a point to prove. “One hundred per cent.
The manager got fired and there were a lot of people … I don’t know what they tried, but it didn’t work.”
Chelsea’s defence works. They have become difficult to break down since switching to a back three under Tuchel, whose side top the league before visiting Newcastle on Saturday, and Rüdiger has been exceptional as the left-sided centre-back.
“I played back three under [Antonio] Conte at Chelsea,” Rüdiger says. “I played back four with [Maurizio] Sarri, which was a good season.
If there is a clear plan in what you are doing, it doesn’t matter if it’s a back three or a four.
“It’s about structure. This what I have to give full credit to the manager for.
Sometimes it’s a back three, but sometimes I end up pressing up front, so all of a sudden it’s a not a back three, it’s a back four.
It’s an odd way of his! But we concede less, which is good.
“When we had those runs where you’re not conceding, you start thinking about it. Before, it was not the case.
We didn’t have many clean sheets. For a defender there’s nothing more important than a clean sheet.”
Rüdiger’s game has developed under Tuchel. “When I was younger I wasn’t normally the player who runs forward with the ball,” he says.
“I can do it but it’s more for me about the defensive aspect. I like to press high.
Pressing is in my DNA. The coach gave me the freedom to do so because this is what he expects.”
Pressing is a finely tuned skill. “It’s automatism,” Rüdiger says. “You have to do it in training and everyone has to be switched on.
Sorry to say it, but there shouldn’t be any fuck-ups. Any little detail which you don’t put in, it can cost you a lot.
When you press so high, somewhere there’s space on the pitch. If one sleeps it can be chaos.
“Jürgen Klopp – since he’s been at Liverpool they’ve been pressing, pressing, pressing. Man City do it very well.
It’s good to put pressure high because if you win the ball you’re closer to goal.”
A fair point, although Rüdiger is also approaching cult status because of his quest for a goal from long range.
“I need to work on my shots,” he says, laughing. “Mason Mount – maybe I need to work with him. Maybe he can teach me something.”
The conversation turns to Rüdiger’s apparent attempt to score from the centre circle against Aston Villa last month; the ball ended in the upper tier. “Let me make this straight,” he says.
“It was never in my mind to shoot. I just wanted to clear the ball. People took it as a shot but it could have been a counterattack.
If I maybe control that ball there then maybe [Danny] Ings was close to me, maybe he takes the ball away, and then everyone has to run 70 metres.”
Rüdiger, who scored from inside the area when Chelsea beat Tottenham last month, supports his teammates.
He talks up his close friend Callum Hudson-Odoi and backs Timo Werner to start scoring.
Then he praises Édouard Mendy – “at this moment he is the best goalkeeper in the world” – and tips the inconsistent Kai Havertz to build on his European winner against City.
“Life is a rollercoaster,” he says. “One day you can be down there, the next you are King Kai. He is very young.
The maturity will come with time. In football time is rare, but we have to lift him. Lift everyone. We have a lot of young boys.”
Rüdiger recalls his upbringing in Berlin-Neukölln and struggling to control his temper when he played football.
“I grew up in a place where I had to be tough. I found it cool to be in fights.
But sometimes when provocations came, I went for more, which got me sent off.
I said to myself: ‘I should focus on my game and be more calm.’”
Rüdiger sounds content now, although he is yet to commit his future to Chelsea.
His contract runs out next summer. Bayern Munich and Real Madrid want him on a free.
“The most important thing is that I feel happy here,” Rüdiger says. “I think if people look at it, they can see I’m happy.
About the contract situation, I talk with the club. This is for nobody’s ears.
It was how I said it would be after the Euros – there would be talks.
There was a talk between Marina [Granovskaia, a Chelsea director] and my agent.
We have the situation where we are at now and I have nothing to do with all the speculation.
This is not in my mind. I’m focused on what I’m doing because this is why I wake up every morning.”
Rüdiger does not worry about whether defenders are respected enough.
“To people outside it’s always more important who scores the goals,” he says.
“If you do an amazing block as a defender which saves a goal, maybe that will be remembered. But nothing else.
“Let me put it like this: you have Messi, Ronaldo, Salah, Benzema, Lewandowski and everything, so who am I to say I should be judged like them? I know my job.
I’m realistic. If I get a clean sheet it’s good for me, my team and my companions in defence.