Bayer Leverkusen processing a lifetime of heartbreak by clinging to the promise of tomorrow

LEVERKUSEN, Germany -- On one hand, Bayer Leverkusen are a Bundesliga outcast, a club owned by a giant corporation (Bayer) that earned an exception from the people-powered 50+1 rule -- which prohibits commercial investors from having more than a 49% ownership stake in a club. Leverkusen view themselves as a factory club -- "die Werkself" or the "Factory Eleven" -- but are viewed by others as plastic, a business team designed for profit. On the other hand, they are the perfect German prototype, a club obsessed with fielding exciting young players and playing attractive, attacking football.

Dimitar Berbatov, Arturo Vidal, Andre Schurrle, Son Heung-Min, Hakan Calhanoglu, Javier Hernandez, Julian Brandt and Kai Havertz: Plenty of exciting young talent has donned the red and black in North Rhine-Westphalia in recent times. The club has just about the steadiest possible track record to show for it, too: In a league in which the potential for rising and falling dramatically is high, Leverkusen have finished in the top half of the table for 34 of the past 37 seasons, with five second-place finishes -- and, famously, no titles -- to their name.

Twenty years ago, the club nearly accomplished everything, all at once, while setting the template for all of the excellent attacking soccer for which Germany would soon become known. And they've been chasing that vision ever since.

A new man in charge

Simon Rolfes was still a Werder Bremen reserve 20 years ago, still a few seasons away from joining Leverkusen and becoming a steady contributor for the German national team. Now, as the team's new managing director, he's tasked with moving the club forward.

Rolfes eventually became Leverkusen captain in a career that stretched to 2015. After retirement, he briefly served as a pundit and completed a two-year UEFA Masters course; his dissertation was on football academies, which perfectly set the table for his return to Leverkusen in 2018, first as head of youth and development, then as sporting director. Upon club legend Rudi Voller's retirement this summer, Rolfes took over the top spot in the club's sporting arm.

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At this point, no one in the world has a better feel than Rolfes, both for what Bayer Leverkusen do well and where they might still lack.

"I would say the strength of the club is stability in the leadership," he told ESPN in the club offices in May, referring to long tenures for both Voller and former Bayer CEO and board member Werner Wenning. "Hopefully, I will also be here for a long time."

After a steady run of top-four finishes and Champions League round-of-16 exits, the club was battling a bit of an identity crisis when Rolfes arrived. As was typical for this club, stars had left for the Premier League in recent years -- Schurrle for Chelsea in 2013, Emre Can for Liverpool in 2014, Son for Tottenham Hotspur in 2015 -- and the replacements weren't quite as successful. Leverkusen slipped to 12th in 2016-17, their worst finish in 14 years, scoring just 53 goals in the process. They then transferred Chicharito (to West Ham United) and midfielders Calhanoglu (to AC Milan) and Kevin Kampl (to RB Leipzig) and began leaning extensively on young players.

In 2017-18, they rebounded to fifth behind a core of Kevin Volland (25) and 22-and-under players such as Brandt, Leon Bailey, Jonathan Tah and teenager Havertz. In 2018-19, Havertz enjoyed a breakout season (20 goals and six assists in all competitions), and Leverkusen climbed to fourth. When Brandt left for Bourssia Dortmund in 2019, the club brought in Paris Saint-Germain teenager Moussa Diaby. And when both Havertz (Chelsea) and Volland (AS Monaco) both left in 2020 -- Havertz for a nearly $100 million transfer fee -- Leverkusen brought in AS Roma forward Patrik Schick.

The transition from Havertz was a painful one, as Leverkusen again scored just 53 goals during a sixth-place run in 2020-21. But this past season, Diaby and Schick paired with another breakout teenager, Florian Wirtz, and Leverkusen scored a club-record 80 goals and jumped to third, their best finish in six years. Wirtz tore an ACL in March and likely won't be at full strength until after the coming season has begun, but Leverkusen's lone signing to date this summer has been 19-year-old Adam Hlozek, who combined 26 goals with 21 assists in all competitions in the past two seasons with Sparta Prague.

What's better than having exciting young talent? Having even more of it.

"I think it's really crucial that you have an identity, a general philosophy in the club and that it is stable," Rolfes said. "Then you can be efficient in your way of working and not go from one direction to the other. And the philosophy here is, I would say [over] the last 23 years, to play offensive football, to play attractive football, to score a lot of goals, to have very interesting players, to develop players to the really world-class level.

"When I entered in 2018, we struggled a little bit with our key elements," he continued. "The football was bad. We had a squad with not so much potential. So it was a little bit [going] back to the roots and [trying] to adapt to the way of playing today. Now if you see the squad, we have a lot of offensive power. We have a lot of potential. We scored more goals than ever in our history with a very young squad."

The best transition team in Europe?

Precocious talent obviously played a role in this 2021-22 breakthrough. Despite both Schick and Wirtz missing plenty of time to injury, the Shick-Diaby-Wirtz trio combined for 51 goals and 31 assists among 170 chances created in all competitions. Somehow, they still left enough opportunities on the table for veterans Lucas Alario, Robert Andrich and Karim Bellarabi to combine for 18 more goals and for lightning-fast full-backs Jeremie Frimpong (21) and Mitchel Bakker (22) to combine for 13 more assists.

While Shick was a known entity of sorts, getting breakthroughs from both Diaby and Wirtz in a short amount of time was a blessing, one that you cannot predict as you are scouting and looking to acquire young talent.

"You have to imagine that [a young player] is able to reach that level," Rolfes said, "and you sign him because of what you imagine in your fantasy of the player. But then you have to check, OK, where will he be in the squad? If he's too weak and has to grow, then that [slows] your development. How fast it goes is really difficult to say.

"With Florian Wirtz, it took six weeks."

Credit for a lot of the team's improvement belongs to Gerardo Seoane. There is no guarantee that any manager would have coaxed that level of production from such a young roster core. Seoane came to Leverkusen after winning three straight Swiss Super League titles with Young Boys; he evidently made quite an impression during his team's aggregate 6-3 trouncing of Leverkusen in the 2021 Europa League knockout rounds.

Seoane's approach with Young Boys was almost recklessly optimistic. He mainly deployed a 4-4-2 formation that would basically become a 2-4-4 as the full-backs pushed aggressively up the pitch. With Leverkusen last season, he leaned more heavily on a 4-2-3-1, which both suited what the players were used to and allowed Schick to shine as a solo forward. Schick could perform as a target man of sorts in a slow-building, heavy-possession attack, but with extreme speed and creativity, the quartet of Wirtz, Diaby, Frimpong and Bakker gave them a serious counterattacking heft.

As a result, Leverkusen almost tried to become the best of both worlds. They finished the season sixth in the Bundesliga in possession rate (54%), fifth in passes per possession (5.0) and fourth in their percentage of possessions that featured at least nine passes (20%). But they also had the most solo possessions (14%), most possessions with 0 to 2 passes (40%) and highest percentage of forward pass attempts (34%) of any of the teams that finished in Germany's top four. They were the best transition team in Germany: In what I call "transition possessions" -- possessions that start outside the attacking third and last 20 or fewer seconds -- they averaged 0.94 goals per match and allowed 0.29, both best in the league.

"We have a very, very good transition from winning the ball to the offense," Rolfes said. "Very good. I don't know if there's a team in Germany [that] is better at that part than us. But for sure, the transition to the defense, it's also very important. In the transition phases, teams try to score [more directly]. If you want to attack and you want to score goals, you have to also work a lot on your defense."

Leverkusen also varied from the top four with their defensive passivity. They allowed 13.4 passes per defensive action (13th in the Bundesliga) and started just 6% of their possessions in the attacking third (17th) and 38% in the middle third (16th). They allowed opponents free build-up and actually created fewer touches in the attacking third (138.2 per 90 minutes) than they allowed (151.4). That meant they were able to thwart counterattacks and create space for their own, but it also meant they were giving up plenty of shot attempts (0.13 per possession, 11th in the league).

This worked as long as goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky was on his game (he usually is) and as long as shot quality remained on their side. They ranked second in the league in both expected goals (xG) per shot and xG allowed per shot. In wins, they averaged 0.16 per shot and allowed 0.10, an advantage that adds up more than the decimal points would make it seem; in losses, it was 0.12 to 0.12.

Continuity as an asset

Thus far, signing Hlozek has been Leverkusen's only offseason move in Rolfes' first season fully in charge. For a while, the transfer rumor industrial complex has linked the club to Manchester City starlet Sam Edozie, but he's an attacker, too.

The transfer window doesn't close for another six weeks, but it appears Leverkusen's biggest friend this offseason is continuity. Wirtz signed a new contract during his rehabilitation, and Diaby elected to remain with the club despite rumored interest from both Arsenal and Newcastle United. Among last year's regulars, only Alario has departed, and he logged less than 1,000 minutes in all competitions.

The Bundesliga's best clubs not named Bayern Munich are all regarded primarily as developmental clubs that nurture young talent, then transfer them for big money to fund the acquisition of the next round of talent. That will remain the case moving forward, but for a club like Leverkusen, keeping your stars for just an extra year or two could make a massive difference when it comes to competing, both with Bayern in the league and with the rest of the continent in UEFA competitions.

"It helps to keep the best players," Rolfes said. "If we can keep the top layer [of stars] one, two years longer, maybe three or four years, it's a big success for us. With that we can grow in performance. Our key players will not play here for 15 years, and that's OK."

Leverkusen's high-continuity summer couldn't have come without both the revenue and the exposure that Champions League qualification provided for players like Wirtz and Diaby. But for this project to work, the club has to already pursue the next stars.

"You have to constantly have a supply chain," Rolfes said. "You need competition, but if we have a top player, you always think about the replacement [to make] in some years. You have to think one step ahead and introduce other guys" like Hlozek and, potentially, Edozie. "For sure, we try to keep our top players as long as possible, but they will leave one day. We have to focus also on the next ones and develop them."

The goal for this season is to aim even higher than last year's third-place finish. "To compete in the top two, you need [at least] 70 points," Rolfes said, "otherwise it makes no sense to speak about different things." Leverkusen finished six points shy of that mark last season. "Six more points, it's a big step. We know we have some potential to grow." They also have the Champions League to think about.

"We learned a lot in Bergamo," Rolfes said, referring to the team's loss to Atalanta in the Europa League knockout rounds. They fell by an aggregate score of 4-2, primarily driven by a spurt of three goals allowed in 26 minutes in the opening leg. Atalanta have been one of the most successful and attractive teams in Europe in the past few years, one that had competed well in the Champions League before a slip last season. "That was a hint for next season's Champions League and where we have to go, how serious and intelligent you [must] play.

"For sure, we will have some games where we play offensively attractive," he said, "and we will beat the opponent because we have so much offensive power." But knowing how to win in multiple ways will make all the difference in hitting that 70-point mark and succeeding in Europe.

Chasing the ghost of 2002

It's a pretty walk from Leverkusen's central train station to Leverkusen's BayArena, down a trail through the city's Stadtpark. One assumes that on a big matchday, you will hear the buzz of the stadium well before you see it.

One also assumes that, with Liverpool and Manchester United coming to town and a potential Treble at the club's feet, said buzz was awfully powerful in April 2002.

As late as the morning of April 27 that year, Bayer Leverkusen controlled their Treble destiny. They had recently wrested control of the Bundesliga away from rivals Borussia Dortmund with a spectacular hot streak. Beginning with a 4-0 win over BVB on Feb. 24, they had gone unbeaten through eight league matches, building a five-point cushion atop the table with three to play. They had reached the DFB-Pokal final as well by manhandling another rival, FC Cologne, in March.

This was supposed to be the season in which all the investment paid off. Leverkusen had built one of the most well-rounded squads in Europe, one capable of maneuvering around you with beautiful, Dutch-style artistry or running through you with old-fashioned might.

Oliver Neuville (18 goals and nine assists in all competitions) stretched defenses and broke their shape while wingers Bernd Schneider and Ze Roberto (a combined 12 goals and 34 assists) fired in perfect crosses, and players such as defensive midfielder Michael Ballack (23 and eight, respectively), defender Lucio (seven goals) and super-sub Berbatov (10 goals) teleported into the box to finish them off.

This was a squad at once both optimistic and relentlessly physical. Ballack was one of the most respected and hated players in Germany; he was part of a midfield trio, along with Carsten Ramelow and Yildiray Basturk, who each racked up 15 yellow cards that season. The team could outscore you and outfight you, and they were well on their way toward righting a wrong from two years earlier, when they lost the Bundesliga title on the final matchday.

The domestic titles weren't the biggest left on the board, however. September wins over Barcelona and Lyon had set the pace for their best-ever Champions League run. During their March hot streak, they notched 3-1 wins over both Juventus and Deportivo La Coruna, which earned them a spot in the quarterfinals against mighty Liverpool. After a 1-0 loss at Anfield, they took the Reds down 4-2 at home in one of the most exciting Champions League matches of the century. After two early goals from Ballack, they took the cumulative lead in the 68th minute via Berbatov, lost it in the 79th, and wrested it away for good via Lucio in the 84th.

On April 24, they twice came back from a goal down to nab a key 2-2 draw at Old Trafford. Success, however, was beginning to take its toll. Ballack had injured a foot against Liverpool and would require pain-killing injections for the rest of the season (and into the summer's World Cup). And following the thrilling win over Liverpool, they had drawn at Hamburg to drop two points, then suffered a serious "uh-oh" loss to Rolfes' Werder Bremen, missing a penalty and falling 2-1. A comfortable league lead was down to two points; they would need to beat relegation-threatened Nurnberg on April 27 and Hertha Berlin on May 4 to assure a title.

They did not beat Nurnberg. Three days before United's visit, they suffered a meek 1-0 road defeat, which gave Dortmund a sudden, one-point edge in the table. They would advance past United -- Neuville's 45th-minute goal gave them a 1-1 draw, and they advanced on away goals -- but defender Jens Nowotny tore an ACL late in the match. The sense of doom was building.

On May 4, they beat Hertha thanks to a Ballack brace, but Dortmund scored late to beat Werder Bremen and win the Bundesliga. On May 11, in the DFB-Pokal final, they took an early lead but gave up three goals in the final 22 minutes to lose 4-2 to Schalke. On May 15, in the Champions League final, they fell victim to Zinedine Zidane and one of the greatest goals in the sport's history. It gave Real Madrid a 2-1 lead late in the first half, and while Leverkusen would control the ball and create a series of strong chances in the second half, they never found an equalizer.

The greatest team in club history came away with zero trophies. Twenty years later, they're still searching for one. This season's team could be even prettier and more ruthless in attack; we'll find out soon enough if it can put together the same level of steel.