NRudi Völler, who will retire from operational business in the summer, is also quite present at Bayer Leverkusen. As in the past 17 years, the club icon comes to work every morning, takes part in meetings and gives impetus. But the team with which he travels to a duel at FC Bayern Munich for the last time before his retirement is no longer a Rudi Völler team.
A good three years ago, Simon Rolfes took over the post of sports director from Völler, who then became managing director. And in the meantime, the 40-year-old Rolfes, who has tackled the solution to an age-old problem at his club, is showing itself more and more clearly.
An important component of development and personality formation consists in “tackling resistance”, says Rolfes, which is something “to which we attach great importance this year”. In this respect, the game in Munich has the character of a matriculation test. In the first half of the season, Munich and the Werkself were level on points when they met on matchday eight. Bayern led 5-0 at half-time in Leverkusen and eventually won 5-1, it was a demonstration of superiority. Coach Gerardo Seoane’s team fell from all dreams and into a performance hole. Within a few weeks, the connection to the top of the table was lost. Typical Leverkusen, was the general verdict.
Typical Bayer Leverkusen?
For years, Bayer Leverkusen has tended to delight the crowd with enchantingly beautiful football in order to lose a lot of points in the less good phases of a season. At least compared to the claim of a Champions League contender. Rolfes explains that every club experiences weeks when things don’t go so well, how pronounced these are depends “on the maturity of the individual player and the maturity of the team”.
Before Christmas, Leverkusen suffered another slump, which is why they are now 14 points behind the top of the table. But now that spring is beginning, the sporting director is confident that the Werkself have made significant progress in this critical area. In fact, there is some evidence that the club will not only qualify for the Champions League again, but may have a longer period of stability ahead of them. “I think we’ve developed further in some areas, we’ve grown together,” says coach Seoane.
In any case, the years of major squad changes that Rolfes made in the past change periods are over. When it was certain at the time that the great leader Lars Bender was about to end his career and that Kai Havertz was about to switch to a world club, he initiated a “process of upheaval” that has now progressed so far that in the upcoming transfer windows “only small fine adjustments are left “are necessary, says the 40-year-old sports director.
Crown jewels swirl on offense
Rolfes is extremely satisfied with the squad, which has developed a new stylistic flexibility under Seoane in recent months: “Under Peter Bosz we had a lot of ball possession and fewer moments of transition. This component was added at the same time as we were trying to develop our game with the ball,” says Rolfes.
Bayer 04 have retained their old strengths and gained new qualities. For example the robustness of Robert Andrich, speed on the wings or the brilliance of Florian Wirtz, whose signing from 1. FC Köln was perhaps Rolfes’ biggest coup. The team has also matured over the course of this season.
To illustrate this progress, Rolfes explicitly names the 22-year-old Frenchman Moussa Diaby, who literally exploded. He has scored seven goals for the Werkself in the last five games and is more involved in defensive work than ever before. In the first half, the winger was constantly being provoked by opponent fouls, saw seven yellow cards, was sent off once and often lost the thread. “He took a big step there, he stays focused now and just scored a lot more goals,” says Rolfes. “Diaby is a key player at the moment.”
An exciting mix
But many others in the squad have long since benefited from the good overall development. Kerem Demirbay seems to be doing well in his third year at Bayer 04, a full-back duo that works has finally been found in Jeremie Frimpong and Mitchel Bakker, and Andrich is now even considered a national player. Not even the loss of top scorer Patrik Schick, who has torn a muscle fiber, is a sporting catastrophe in view of the homogeneous squad.
Strong alternatives are available in Lucas Alario or Iranian Sardar Azmoun, who signed from Zenit St. Petersburg in January and could make his first appearance for Bayer 04 in Munich. “We have a lot of players this year who see a very interesting perspective for themselves here. Players who feel that the team can develop, that there is good cooperation,” says Rolfes.
With such self-confidence, the Leverkusen team now want to continue a fairly impressive 2022 with a convincing performance in Munich. 5: 1, 5: 2, 4: 2, 2: 3, 3: 0 are the most recent results of the Werkself. Gerardo Seoane’s team has scored an unbelievable 19 goals in the last five games, of which only the duel at Mainz 05 was lost. If you want to see a spectacle, you should look at Bayer Leverkusen, this Saturday (3.30 p.m. in the FAZ live ticker for the Bundesliga and on Sky) in the Munich Arena.
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