Interview: Bayer 04 Leverkusen’s Sporting Managing Director Simon Rolfes

Image Credit (Bundesliga Content Hub Images)

How would you sum up the current and, of course, still running season after last Sunday’s events?

“Sunday couldn’t [have been] better. The whole day, with all the fans welcoming the team when the bus arrived here at the stadium. And then also during the match. The match may also show a bit like a mirror of the whole season that we continued to play, that we have to be patient as well. But in the end, we won the game. We always stayed with our playing style, with our focus, with our concentration, and mentality. And in the end, the opponents struggled to compete against us. That’s one thing that showed the strength of the team, this mentality of never giving up, always playing until the last second of the match.”

You were there when the referee blew the whistle, hugging everyone, but who was the first to congratulate you on your phone?

“I don’t know for sure. After the match, I didn’t pick up the phone, but I think nobody tried to call me. I don’t know exactly. But for sure, I got so many messages. Yesterday, the whole evening, I was answering all the messages. There you can also feel – if you get, from everywhere in Europe, congrats – how impressive it is and how special it is. And our history, to win for the first time the German championship after so many years, after so often being close to this goal, and now we did it impressively; five matchdays before the end, with so many points ahead, that’s fantastic.”

What happened after everyone left the BayArena? Did you get any sleep at all?

“I slept well. Not that long, but well. This was, for sure, a big goal in the last weeks to win it, but we have to be honest. How we played, we had to win this title. So, it was also a little bit of a relief on Sunday that we did it. We were the best team in this Bundesliga season. You have to show that at the end in results. That’s why it was a little bit of a relief also, and I slept well.”

Do you remember the time and place when you realised that maybe this year you could become champions?

“The feeling that we have a competitive team grew quite early in the season. When we played the fourth matchday in Munich; a very competitive match, high level from both teams. But also the weeks after, I was sure that we were competitive for the German championship. If we would win it, I was convinced after our home game against Bayern München when we won 3-0. Also, in the way we won the game, with such dominance. After that, I was sure this team, this spirit, this mentality, this will to win, will lead us to the title.”

This season for Leverkusen truly has been something else. If you could name three Bundesliga milestones for Bayer, what were they?

“There’s a lot… The first away match in Munich, for sure, was crucial to have this self-confidence that we can compete with all the teams in the Bundesliga, including the favourites [Bayern]. Then maybe not just one game, but the time during the Africa Cup of Nations where we missed our African players and really had a tight squad, that we won in Augsburg and Leipzig in the last minutes, with this mentality [to play] until the last second. And then the home match against Bayern München, because I think in the race to the title, both teams were, up to that match, close together. And from this on, the [teams] went in different directions. That’s why I think this was crucial.”

Do you think those last-minute matches when you turned a defeat into a win were crucial this season? Remember the game against Leipzig, Augsburg and then obviously Hoffenheim to think now we’re going to be champions.

“For sure, Hoffenheim was a little bit like the last point that we turned this match in the last minute. But that was a little bit like a result of the weeks and months before, of the development of the team, the development of the team spirit and mentality, and the winner mentality. In the end, it was not a coincidence for me that we scored so many goals in the last, let’s say, 15 minutes, because of how we played, and how we dominated the game with ball possession. The other teams, it’s difficult for them because they have to run a lot, have to concentrate on each situation, because then if we find spaces, we try to use them. So, at the end of the game, the spaces are getting bigger, and the possibilities are getting bigger. We have a really good squad. The substitution players so often make a difference at the end and bring new energy into the team and decide the games, that’s why, for me, it was not a surprise that we scored so many goals in the last 15-20 minutes.”

When you signed Xabi Alonso in October 2022, Leverkusen were 17th in the table. Back then, would you ever have imagined the journey Bayer would go with him?

“At that time, the view was maybe a little more short-term. Short-term but with an idea of long-term possibilities, I would say. The short-term view was that we were 17th [and needed] to go up because the team was much better than its place at that time. And we had the feeling that how we tried to sign players, or which players, how we tried to play as a playing style as a club, or how we tried to train – all those things, Xabi would fit in perfectly. After some months of difficulties, going up this ladder, step-by-step, you could feel in March that now it was accelerating, the development and the spirit. Also getting to the semi-finals of the Europa League creates a special atmosphere here in the club, with the fans. And Xabi, for sure, has been an accelerator or boost for this development until now.”

A couple of weeks ago, a bunch of different clubs and coaches across Europe’s top leagues announced their plans. Jürgen Klopp will end his Liverpool era; Bayern will stop working with Thomas Tuchel after the season. Did those decisions put any pressure on you? And how did you manage to keep Xabi at the BayArena?

“Not pressure, but for sure if you have an interest in your coach or interest in your players, you have to manage it. The best way is always, besides having contracts, to convince or give them the feeling that it’s the right place to be. I think that was always Xabi’s feeling, that besides maybe the interest from other clubs – his team, his coaching staff, his daily work here – the trust we are giving to him, the collaboration day-by-day, that this is the perfect place. He can be ambitious, and the ambition of the club and his ambitions are similar. That’s why I was always convinced that he would stay.”

What makes Xabi so special? As a football mastermind but also as a person?

“For sure, his qualities as a coach, his understanding of the game, his feeling for situations, for game situations, are key qualities. But I think what has also been important during this season is that he’s used to winning in the end as a player. It comes from his playing career, for sure. This winner’s mentality to say: ‘Okay, we’ve won a game on Thursday. Sunday’s the next game, we want to win as well. This consistency, also this hard discipline, working hard day by day, I think this mentality made it special. He brought it to the players.”

This season was the first you could all plan together with Xabi from the start. What were the most influential signings and why?

“A key position was Granit Xhaka, as number six. The six is the heart of the game, he’s dominating the rhythm, and it’s the most strategic position. How offensive can we play, how defensive can we play? The number six position is always the connector of all the parts of the team. We had some bad luck there last season due to the injuries of Charles Aranguiz, an experienced player, so that was where we said: ‘There we have to improve.’ It’s not only the signings last summer that made us champions. We had good players around, but this guy who connects it all, we missed that a little bit. Granit, for sure, with his qualities, technique, tactically, his game intelligence, his personality as a leader, and the ability to connect people with his personality, with the languages he speaks; he was a very important signing.”

I know it’s tough to say which player was the most important one to keep the ship on course. But let’s give it a try: Who was a true game changer this year and why?
“I think all his other teammates will agree with me that it’s Florian Wirtz because he’s from this region, [has been] here four-and-a-half years. How he’s playing football everybody loves. All the kids, the fans, everybody would like to play like Florian, but that’s one thing. The other thing is his will to win, he runs among the most in the Bundesliga. He’s never giving up in any situation and this spirit, he transmits it to the fans. In the last 10 minutes [of games], nobody left the stadium because there was always the feeling this team could make it. And Florian is a bit like the embodiment of this spirit.”

Undefeated in over 40 games. All German records are now connected to this Werkself. What makes this team invincible?

“You always have to be prepared that you may lose, you have to have respect for the opponent. I think that was one thing why we haven’t lost because we always have respect for each game. Home or away, we never lost it. And then I think our structural play, how we play as a team gives us a lot of strength and power. It’s not like one guy has to decide it through extraordinary actions. We have a lot of strength in our team play.”

After over a decade of Bayern Munich’s dominance in the Bundesliga, it wasn’t Dortmund or even Leipzig who ended that streak. How was it possible for Leverkusen to terminate Bayern’s championship run in such a dominant fashion?

“Development of players over the years here, like Florian, Edmond Tapsoba, [Piero] Hincapie, Jeremie Frimpong, Amine Adli… I could mention even more. And then for sure some experienced players, like Granit Xhaka, [Alejandro] Grimaldo, [Jonas] Hofmann last summer. That was a bit like the pieces of the puzzle had found each other, with Xabi as the coach, with the fantastic coaching staff. And if you have all the pieces of the puzzle together, the picture is nice. I think there were a lot of influences to this development.”

Every success story bears something tragic. Rudi Völler and Reiner Calmund had been in touching distance of winning the Meisterschale but failed to do so eventually. And then came Simon Rolfes who achieved what nobody here did before. How does that feel?

“It’s a lot of pride for me, but also to be the successor of Rudi and Calli, because they have developed the club in an amazing way over the last 30 years. If you see the emotions after the match, it’s also for them. And 30 years ago, it was a different situation. The club developed step by step. I’m very happy to continue this work from them, on this foundation, and push it with maybe new ideas as well. You have to learn from them but also bring in new input, and new ideas. But without their work, I wouldn’t have had the chance to achieve this. That’s why I’m thankful for both of them.”

Winning the Meisterschale could only be one piece of the puzzle. What’s on your mind when thinking about the next couple of weeks?

“We have amazing chances ahead of us. The Europa League is a really big thing for us. We felt this last season when we played the semi-final, playing to reach a final again; we want this. And then, hopefully, we can get to the final. In the cup, we have the final ahead of us. In the last final in 2020, we played against Munich in front of – during corona – 200 spectators. It was so disappointing. Not only to lose but also like it was a friendly match – a training game, more or less. That’s why we’re looking forward to reaching, in all competitions, the maximum. That’s the ambition of the team, that’s how we play, that’s how we act.”

Is not losing a single game this season also a goal for Xabi and yourself? Would it be like another title?

“It would be very special. Up to now, I always said it’s not about losing, it’s about how often you win. I think that’s the really impressive way that we have now won [38] games out of the [45]. That is the most impressive number for me. But now, for sure, we have reached the first goal to win the championship in the Bundesliga. If we can stay without a defeat, it would be historic again. We are going for that [but] we always go for winning the games.”