Despite all the decision-making power they wield, club executives cannot control what happens on the pitch.
When Bayer 04 Leverkusen invited a group of international journalists to roundtables with the club’s top executives, Managing Director of Sport Simon Rolfes and CEO Fernando Carro, Gerardo Seoane was head coach and the 2022/23 season had just begun. The plan was that, after the roundtables, we would take in the club’s home game against upstart Union Berlin. At the time, everyone anticipated an interesting, winnable game for Leverkusen—perhaps in third or fourth place—over Union several places lower.
No one foresaw that Leverkusen would be in sixteenth place, hovering above the relegation zone (in the relegation playoff spot), and that Union would be in first place. The same executives we would meet had dismissed Seoane four weeks prior to our arrival and had hired, to universal surprise, former Real Madrid and Bayern Munich legend Xabi Alonso, who had been coaching the second team of Real Sociedad.
Alonso’s tenure commenced with a big victory over last-place Schalke 04, but Leverkusen was winless in the six games after that. The official topics of our discussions were scouting and internationalization. Everyone, however, had Alonso and the team on their mind. Leverkusen—Xabi especially—needed a win.
The mood around the BayArena was concerned, but by no means desperate. The staff at the BayArena I spoke with, many of whom came from Leverkusen and supported the team personally—and passionately!—were baffled. On paper, the roster was among the best in the league, but the players seemed dispirited. Their confidence had been shaken.
Questions were also already being asked about Alonso. He was and remains a relatively unknown quantity as a coach, and he tells the media vanishingly little directly. Some pundits in the German press went so far as to claim before the game against Union that his own job was potentially in jeopardy.
Even if, in reality, Alonso was far from losing his job, it was clear that he had not yet found consistency at Leverkusen. He still had not found a reliable lineup, but rather exchanged players or moved them to opposite sides of the pitch and back with disquieting frequency.
Leverkusen’s offense in particular was in crisis: rising superstar Florian Wirtz had suffered an ACL tear in March and was still not cleared to play, and star striker Patrick Schick, who scored an impressive 24 goals in 2021/22, had stopped scoring almost entirely: only 2 goals in eight games. Schick played two games under Alonso, also without scoring, before an adductor injury sidelined him. Alonso put left winger Adam Hlozek in the middle, but he had yet to find the net for Leverkusen at all in his time at the club.
Leverkusen’s managing director of sport, Simon Rolfes, has an extraordinarily demanding job yet is exceptionally generous with his time and insights. For an hour, he candidly discussed with us—in English—Leverkusen’s scouting strategy, his own work, and the crisis in which Bayer 04 found itself ahead of a suddenly critical showdown against first-place Union Berlin the next day. “What is it like for you,” Seb Stafford-Bloor of the Athletic asked Rolfes, “when things don’t go so well at the club?”
Rolfes, tall and lean and eminently affable, ended his playing career at Leverkusen in 2015 and officially succeeded the legendary Rudi Völler only at the end of last season, July 2022. He answered with a smile: “In general, you can say in football, you can think five years ahead as long as you win the next game.”
“In such a situation like this,” Rolfes elaborated, “you have to really take care of the short-term things, and if they are running well you can go further and be more strategic. And in the best case, if things are always running well, you can take care that the next steps are successful, build the squad and strategize.”
Yet Rolfes was also candid about the current state of the team. He said, “In a crisis like this, you have to solve it—my task is to spend the most time to help, to do what I can do.” And if he cannot, then he looks ahead.
The next day, Sunday, only hours before Leverkusen would play Union, club CEO Fernando Carro also addressed the current situation in conversation with us. Paola Herrera of Diario Récord asked Carro to explain the club’s reasoning for signing Alonso despite his lack of top-flight experience. Carro replied without hesitation:
“Because we believe in his knowledge, his potential, his aura, his way of looking at things. We have spoken to many coaches in the past, and experience is one of the topics, but the ability of the person is—”
And at this point, the example Carro cited was his own:
“I didn’t have experience in football when I was chosen CEO for Bayer Leverkusen, and still my ability and other reasons made the shareholders choose me, so I don’t believe that you have to have experience. You have to have the personality and capabilities to do the job, and we believe in the personality and abilities of Xabi, that his experience as a player and legend as a player will help him get on track.”
Contrary to the rumors, Rolfes and Carro did not betray the slightest indication that the club might do something drastic if Alonso lost even all three games before the World Cup break, let alone only to Union. When Ronan Murphy of Football Transfers asked Carro whether he felt the World Cup break would be good or bad for the club, Carro wryly replied, “I will tell you: if we win the three games, then I say, ‘Scheisse, now we stop!’ But if we do not win the three games, then I will say, perhaps it is a good time for us to recover.”
We laughed, but Carro’s calm confidence proved prescient: after a frustrating, scoreless first half, Leverkusen crushed Union 5:0 before a sold-out arena of ecstatic faithful. I heard cheers from the Leverkusen locker room—“Xabi! Xabi!”—as we lingered in the mixed zone afterward. A handful of players emerged to meet their wives and children. Rolfes quietly ran a victory lap in the mixed zone as he spoke to the media. Carro appeared as well, smiling broadly, his dress shirt untucked, and made for the locker room. We were good luck, he joked, “Glücksbringsel.”
At the ensuing press conference, Ronan asked Alonso himself whether he thought the winter break would be good or bad for the team. His answer: “No, I think the Winterpause [winter break] is going to be very good for us. My feeling has been that since I came everything has been a roller coaster.” The break would “feel like a preseason” to him. “It’s going to be really, really useful, but it’s in our hands if we finish with a good feeling or not.”
As it happens, Alonso and his players will start the World Cup break with a good feeling: after beating Union, Leverkusen beat their local rival FC Köln 2-1 away (just across the Rhine), and then finished the Hinrunde with a solid 2-0 win over Stuttgart. The roller coaster ride that Xabi evoked to describe his tenure at Leverkusen thus far had come to an end.
Within a week, Leverkusen had leaped from 16th to 11th. The crisis was over.