Simon Rolfes has now been sporting director at Bayer 04 for over a year. In an in-depth interview, the 38-year-old talked about recent transfers, the DNA of Bayer 04 football, greater demands on youth development and general developments in football.
Simon, you've been sporting director for over a year. When you look back: What's your personal assessment?
Rolfes: 2019 was a good year. Particularly in the second half of last season, we played good and, at times, thrilling football. That proves we made a very good choice with the appointment of Peter Bosz. In both the transfer windows in the summer and now in the winter as well, we brought in quality and, above all, a lot of potential for the future. Of course, we would have hoped to make a better start to the new season. Losing the opening game in the Champions League against Lokomotiv Moscow really reduced our chances but we ended up going through to the Round of 16. Nevertheless: We were under pressure and we battled our way to third place in the remaining games in the group stage so that now we’re still in three competitions and can still achieve our targets. I think we are well-equipped for the tough challenges ahead.
One of the first decisions you shared responsibility for was the signing of head coach Peter Bosz and you've extended the contract early to 2022. Was the appointment of Bosz a sort of fundamental decision for a particular type of football?
Rolfes: Yes, it was a decision for Bayer 04 football. Our DNA has always been to play attacking football with lots of possession. Of course, there are more factors in playing successful football. Players have to be developed and improved. And that's more likely to happen if they have the ball more often instead of playing on the break. Those elements are important for our understanding of football. And Peter Bosz stands for all that. That's why it all fits in so well together.
If you compare the team from the end of 2018 with today's – where do you see the biggest differences in the way you play?
Rolfes: We used to play more reactive football and now we are more proactive and dominant. We have high possession rates that we obviously have to make the most of to get results. Our set-up is offensive. We had lots of great games last year such as the 6-1 victory against Frankfurt and we often thrilled the fans with our football. As at the start of February with the 4-3 win against Borussia Dortmund. And, of course, we want to achieve maximum success. And we've got to keep on working on that.
Peter Bosz was very disappointed after the defeat at TSG Hoffenheim. As in the first half of the season, the Werkself were unable to win in spite of loads of chances. In contrast, the team was extremely effective against Dortmund and scored four goals from less chances. How do you explain such a turnaround within a week?
Rolfes: Of course, I'm also disappointed about games like the one at Hoffenheim where we weren't up to scratch. But once the annoyance has subsided, I quickly asked myself: What challenges did the game pose? What can or must we do better next time? There are always reasons why we don't win or why we lose. What’s that down to? You have to analyse it. Football is always about permanent adjustment and changes to little things rather than basics. Because top-level football is always about making minor adjustments.
The job of a sporting director is very varied. Amongst the most important things is obviously putting together a strong squad by signing the right players who can help the team. How happy are you with the new signings this season?
Rolfes: I'm convinced we’ve brought in good players who are all able to move us forward. Many of our new signings are still very young. They will help us now but also, above all, in the future. They all have a lot of potential and quality, they will develop with us and become important components of our future squad.
Exequiel Palacios, for example, makes a very mature impression for his young age…
Rolfes: Yes, I noticed that in our first talks with him. He's already achieved a lot with River Plate and has gathered a lot of important experience. In terms of personality, he’s somebody who takes responsibility, is brave, always wants to win and has great mentality. His footballing ability is definitely beyond doubt.
And Edmond Tapsoba also appears to be very advanced in that respect.
Rolfes: His development in Portugal was impressive and he was a regular first choice at top-flight Vitoria Guimaraes. And he impressed with his goal threat on top of his defensive qualities. Edmond scored eight goals in 32 games including three in the Europa League. He's only 20 and hasn't played professional football for very long. But he has the right qualities. He was thrown in at the deep end against Borussia Dortmund's top attack and he produced a great performance after just four training sessions with the team.
In addition to Palacios and Tapsoba, Paulinho also somehow feels like a new signing although he's played for Leverkusen since the summer of 2018…
Rolfes: It was very important for him to play so many games for Brazil in the Olympic qualifiers. He needed that match practice. He was a very crucial factor in Brazil qualifying for the Olympics with his three goals and four assists making him the top scorer and provider in the tournament. The U23s have a very high standing in Brazil. I met our former central defender Juan before Christmas and he confirmed that to me saying this U23 side is the next generation of the Selecao. Paulinho was able to gain loads of confidence. Of course, we hope he's had a great boost and a lift that can see him play an important role in the second half of the season.
Since the start of this season, Tim Steidten has been working as squad planner and the head of scouting at Bayer 04. What does the working relationship look like with the former Bremen man?
Rolfes: It's very close. A massive amount of work is done behind the scenes in scouting, which is incredibly important for transfers. So Tim is a very important component in this area with his department.
Putting together the squad is a main part of your work. What's right at the top of your priority list?
Rolfes: We want to continue to bring lots of interesting talents and players to Leverkusen. Our vision is to be one of the top three clubs in Europe in youth development. We are good here but we want to be excellent. That's very close to my heart. That's the sort of thing that drives the club forward: When home-grown talents make it, as is the case with Kai Havertz, it creates an identity within the whole club. We place great value on helping talented players from our Academy to make the step up to the Werkself in the next few years.
This season, your friend and former teammate Stefan Kießling is part of the Bayer 04 management. How important is it to have such role model working for the club?
Rolfes: I think it's very important for role models like Kies to be working at the club. He’s settled down well in his new job, is active in different areas and is an important link between sporting and other sections at Bayer 04. He is using his first year to get into the job. And, from time to time, I’ve talked to him about interesting players.
Like Sebastian Kehl (head of the professional players section at Borussia Dortmund), Markus Krösche (sporting director at RB Leipzig) and Marcel Schäfer (sporting director at VfL Wolfsburg), you are part of a generation of young, former players now working in the management of Bundesliga clubs and you are all very well connected with each other. You meet up – as at SPOBIS or with the leadership trip with the DFB Academy to Silicon Valley – and exchange views on trends and developments in sport and football in particular. Let's take a look into the future. How will football develop in the next few years? What sort of changes are you expecting?
Rolfes: Football will get even quicker. Pace and, above all, speed of execution always play a crucial role. In turn, that demands higher technical qualities from the players. And then it's a question of your own philosophy that differs from club to club. How do I want to achieve that with which players? I think youth development is a really important factor in the Bundesliga. And the development of your own youth players is one. Beyond that, young players in general – let's take Moussa Diaby as an example – have to have the chance to develop to a top level and get time on the pitch. I think that can become a specialty of the Bundesliga. Bayer 04 are definitely taking the route of providing young talents with a platform so that they can achieve maximum development.
What were the most valuable experience from the trip to Silicon Valley?
Rolfes: It was a chance to think outside the box. We had discussions with experts from companies like Facebook but we also took a really close look at American sport. We visited the ice hockey club San José Sharks and the American football team the San Francisco 49ers. What I think is fascinating: Each one has its own particular environment and different parameters. But if you get to the heart of the matter, that is questions about how you put a team together and manage it, how you lead contract discussions then everything is actually very similar – regardless of whether that's in American football, ice hockey or football. There are hardly any differences. And there's another insight: The others basically don't do it any differently from what we do. But, of course, you can always learn new things: Our visit to Stanford University made a huge impression. The spirit of the special factor and excellence is tangible everywhere.
Does it help if you have a close personal connection to colleagues like Sebastian Kehl and Markus Krösche?
Rolfes: That helps. Obviously you don't spill any secrets but you do talk about experiences in different areas. And it's always an advantage when you know who's on the other side.
Sebastian Kehl was your colleague at the UEFA Master for International Players course and you've known Markus Krösche even longer…
Rolfes: (He laughs) Yes, I was living at the Werder Bremen Academy at the same time as Markus. He was playing for the reserves and I was in the youth team and although I had a driving licence, I didn't have my own car. I used to borrow his Opel Corsa from Markus because we youth players had to go and collect the rolls for the Academy from the Werder baker twice a week.
Back to Leverkusen: You said at the beginning that not everything went to plan in the first half of the season. An old accusation that the media like to bring up again and again says: Bayer 04 never manage to complete a whole season at a consistently high level. Is there any truth in that?
Rolfes: That isn't a specific Bayer 04 problem. Every team is – in accordance with their targets for the season – always looking for the consistency required. And that was, and is, the same for Bayern, Dortmund and Leipzig this season as that consistency isn't always there. The desire for stability is now a permanent development process. Obviously, everybody wants to keep on winning. But it's not that easy. Within a season, we have to try and keep our performances at the highest possible level. Over the course of a season there are again and again different phases and challenges that confront us: Double-fixture weeks, key players out injured and much more. Interesting processes happen throughout the whole squad.
In what way?
Rolfes: In a team, it's always about finding joint answers to the challenges that come up. Sometimes a player has a great phase where the whole team helps out and then perhaps he has a couple of weeks where he isn't filled with confidence. Then somebody else has to step into the breach, put themselves forward and take responsibility in difficult situations. That's why it always comes down to the whole squad that has to have strength in depth to compensate. We always judge ourselves at the end of a campaign by our targets for the season.
It's definitely great to see that Kai Havertz, who wasn't always on his best form in the first half of the season, has rediscovered his old performance levels…
Rolfes: Yes, absolutely. Kai is really heading in the right direction. When I met him for the first training session in the second half of the season, I noticed how fresh he was, had energy and was looking forward to the rest of the season. And you’ve seen that in the first few games. He’s scored goals, been involved in others, has presence and is again playing a dominant role in our game..
Lars and Sven Bender also have presence and you can hardly rate their importance to the team highly enough.
Rolfes: I agree with that. Especially when you have a lot of young talented players in the side then you need old hands who can lead and provide direction. Lars and Sven are enormously important as an anchor for the young players – Lars as captain for many years and now Sven too in his third season. They are both absolute leaders – on and off the pitch.
Talking about young talents: At the end of January, Bayer 04 signed U17 international Florian Wirtz from FC Köln in face of stiff competition from other clubs. That created a stir around here.
Rolfes: Horst Heldt of FC Köln clearly explained that all clubs, including all significant clubs from the Rhineland, were interested in Florian and we were as well. I saw Florian for the first time when he was 13 or 14 and always kept a close eye on his development. It was only to be expected that the move would cause a certain amount of excitement in the media in the Rhineland. But the fact is, his contract ran out and lots of clubs wanted to sign him. That meant there was the opportunity to bring a big talent to Leverkusen. That's why we went after him. And, in the end, Florian decided to join us. It's that simple sometimes. Nevertheless, there won't be any massive switch between clubs in the Rhineland in the future in youth sections. That wasn't the way it was and it won't be like that in the future either.
Peter Bosz recently said, ideally we want to win a title this season. The fans obviously like to hear that. How realistic do you think is for the Werkself to be able to win silverware at the end of the season?
Rolfes: Winning a title is always an exceptional achievement. And that's what we're aiming for. To achieve the maximum in the cup competitions of the Europa League and the DFB Cup, you need special performances round after round. That applies to the games against Rangers as well as the cup semi-final against FC Saarbrücken. We definitely want to come out on top against both opponents.
Bayer 04 aim to qualify for a European competition every season and, if possible, be in the Champions League. What's required to be seen as a Champions League club in the future? And how realistic are the chances of the Werkself perhaps being in a semi-final or final again in the next few years?
Rolfes: We are definitely aiming to regularly play in the Champions League. You have to be sensible about how far you can go as that depends on the money factor and the financial position of the club. However, clubs like Ajax and Tottenham have forced their way into the phalanx of the super rich. Perhaps that isn't realistic on a constant basis but a lot is possible in a special year with a special flow. That's our dream.
Interview by Christian Jacobs