Having not managed more than 15 games in one single English Premier League season since 2006, Mikael Silvestre has already made eight Bundesliga appearances in just two months with new club Werder Bremen. These figures sum up the renaissance that the former French international is experiencing in his new surroundings, where he has regained his appetite for the game.
After an anti-climactic end to his stay at Manchester United, where he came within a season of joining an elite club of players with ten years of service at Old Trafford, the veteran defender endured a disappointing spell at Arsenal prior to his move to northern Germany. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Silvestre talks about that frustrating period in north London, adjusting to life in Bremen and his new team’s search for consistency.
FIFA.com: Mikael, after 11 years playing in England, you recently moved to Werder Bremen at the age of 33. Would you say this is the final challenge of your career?
Mikael Silvestre: I can’t really tell you if it’s the last one. Come back to me in two years! But as to whether it’s a new challenge, yes, there’s no doubt about that. I’m experiencing a new country, a new league, a new language and a new city. Any way you look at it, it’s a test.
Did you already know which position you were most likely to be used in at Bremen?
I signed up as the first-choice left-back. I knew what the club was looking for even before they got in contact with me. I’m ready and willing to fulfil that role – I enjoy it a lot, even though I do prefer playing in central defence. I think being a versatile player is an advantage. It’s certainly been a theme throughout my career. I started as a midfielder, and then one day, while I was at Rennes, I had to fill in at left-back. After that I moved into the middle, and have constantly switched between the two positions ever since.
You arrived at the club at the end of August, without having taken part in pre-season training. Would you say that, physically speaking, you have now caught up with your team-mates?
I feel as if I’ve pretty much regained my fitness. Usually you need a good month and a half to get your level back, so I should be on a par with all my team-mates by now. In any case, given the amount of ground that I tend to cover during games, I can assure you that I quickly got a feel for it! (laughs) My last match with Arsenal was a long while back on 9 May. But I worked hard in the meantime, and things are fine now.
I didn't handle being a substitute very well at Arsenal. I knew that whatever I did in training, I’d still be on the bench when games came around.
From your experience thus far of the Bundesliga, how do you feel it compares with the Premier League?
The styles of play are not that far apart, so I don’t feel like a fish out of water. There are actually many similarities. The biggest difference for me is that I’ve always played as part of a 4-4-2 formation. Before coming here, I was used to having a player in front of me down the left-hand side, someone with whom I could exchange passes. Here, that’s not the case, and I’ve had to adjust accordingly. The most difficult thing has been getting used to playing with new team-mates. But Germany is a country that lives and breathes football, the stadiums are amazing and the pitches are always perfect: to be honest, it would be hard not to settle in well.
In terms of helping out the attack, you tend to stay back more at Bremen than you did at Manchester United. Is that simply down to tactical instructions from the coach?
Actually, it’s more to do with the fact that we’ve not been dominating matches enough for me to do it more often. We’ve had to prioritise cutting off attacks down the flank to avoid getting ourselves into difficulties. I’ve had very little opportunity to get down the line since I came here.
Has the move gone as well as you were hoping it would?
I’m not surprised by how well things have turned out because I saw the team play before I joined them. We’ve got some great players, a coach – Thomas Schaaf – who’s been in place for 11 years, and a Sporting Director who knows what he’s doing, Klaus Allofs. Stability is something that the club values highly, and for me it’s the main reason for the success that Werder Bremen have enjoyed over the last ten years or so. I also appreciate the atmosphere of calm and serenity that we’ve got here, something that I’d heard a lot about previously. Of course there’s pressure, but it’s not a negative kind of pressure.
How would you explain the team’s poor start to the season?
A lack of consistency; we’ve been too erratic. The first couple of games I was involved in were good – a draw with Bayern and a two-goal comeback against Tottenham in the Champions League. But after that we played less well in the Hamburg match, and since then we just don’t seem to be able to put a good run together. Mid-table is not where a club like Bremen belongs. We need to try to quickly make up the ground we’ve lost.
From a personal point of view, you now find yourself in the starting XI every week. Does it feel like a brand new start, after two tricky seasons at Arsenal?
Absolutely. I feel like a kid again. I didn't handle being a substitute very well at Arsenal. I knew that whatever I did in training, I’d still be on the bench when games came around, because a coach rarely changes a defensive pairing, unless there’s an injury. I should stress that when I say that, I hold no grudge against Arsene Wenger – it was simply the situation at the time. I began to get really frustrated by working hard all week without any reward at the end of it. But here, I love it. We play a game every three days, which is excellent.
Is it essential at your age to still take such enjoyment from the game, in order to maintain the same level of competitiveness?
It’s all part of my attempt to get through the times where I might be struggling a bit physically. I don’t have the same recovery time as before – during the 48 hours that follow a match, I’m not really capable of doing anything (laughs). In my head, the desire is still there, though. Lots of former players have said to me: “Enjoy it while you can, because you’ll miss it when it’s gone.” And that’s what I’m trying to do.
Bremen is a city that is very proud of its football club. Have you been surprised by this strength of feeling?
It’s quite simply remarkable. Here, Werder are absolutely everywhere. Everyone in Bremen, as they go about their day-to-day business, possesses something to show that they follow Werder, be it on their clothing, at home, in their car or at the office. There’s just a great passion for the club. And the home support is incredible. Despite our results, they still turn up to watch us train in great numbers, and there have never been any negative comments thrown in our direction.
To finish off, tell us a bit about your ‘Schools for Hope’ charity, and your plans to build a new school in Haiti.
We’re working on it at the moment. We raised the funds by asking for a day’s salary from my old Arsenal team-mates, as well as from a couple of players at Chelsea. We should be able to make the new school a reality in 2011, and I’m tremendously happy about that.