This past summer was an anxious one for Bayer Leverkusen supporters. Rising star Leon Bailey, 21, kept attracting the attention of giant clubs across Europe during the transfer window. From Chelsea to Bayern Munich, the interest had been growing and reports throughout the summer continued to suggest his exit was imminent. Bayer Leverkusen had failed to qualify for the Champions League after a fifth-place finish–due to goal differential–in the Bundesliga, and a new destination could potentially lure the Jamaican international.
But last month, Bailey extended his contract with the club until 2023, easing the worries of his supporters.
“I have a great appreciation for this club. I made some good improvements here so far, but I think I can still make some steps forward,” Bailey told SI.com.
The winger knows that in order for him to reach the peak of his talents, he must play not just at a club with big ambition, but one that fosters and supports players. For him, this club is essentially a school of soccer where a sense of youthful energy can be felt throughout the club.
“We have a young, hungry and ambitious team this year, that I wanted to be part of," Bailey said. "I think this place works highly professional, from pro even down to the youngest squads, but the biggest thing is that it also shares a common thought of courageous football with a feeling of family.”
With an average age of 24.5, Leverkusen’s first team (including its 22-year-old star, Julian Brandt) features one of the youngest squads in Europe's top leagues, but what’s even more impressive are the goals the club sets for itself with such young talent.
Bayer Leverkusen wants to return to the Champions League and it wants to compete with the giants of European soccer, including this weekend’s opponent, six-time reigning Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich. But given its financial limitations–after missing out on a top-four finish the club sold goalkeeper Bernd Leno to Arsenal for $28 million this summer to balance finances–the club needs a more detailed, creative approach on recruitment and development in order to compete.
So the question is simple: How can you be a top-four team with young, relatively inexperienced players and a conservative budget?
Enter Jonas Boldt, Bayer Leverkusen’s sporting director, who developed a prestigious reputation in the world of scouting since taking on an internship with the club more than a decade ago and has built a comprehensive network across Europe and South America. It was thanks to him that Chilean star Arturo Vidal was discovered and brought to Europe in 2007.
Boldt believes the club develops young talent to an exceptional degree because not only does it put an incredible amount of focus on technological and tactical practices, but it ensures the coaches who are hired tick every box and are there to mentor the players on and off the field.
“It’s all about putting the right people in place,” Boldt says. “I think we need to catch up in personality development strongly. But with our hiring of Simon Rolfes (head of youth development) recently, we have an ambitious person who will change a couple of things.”
The changes have come already as the club’s academy (from U-9s onwards), which boasts nearly 30 coaches (full-time, contract and freelance), implements the same training methods all the way through to the first team, with the ultimate objective promoting youth players to the senior squad as fast and efficiently as possible. The other factor is finding and developing homegrown talent and making them into pros, such as Kai Havertz, Benjamin Henrichs (who was sold to Monaco this summer) and Dominik Kohr.
Boldt also says Bayer Leverkusen does its homework by studying other academies that have contrasting philosophies in order to understand how they develop talent.
“Athletic Bilbao, for example, have a completely different philosophy due to the fact that they can have only Basques in their team," Boldt said. "There are a lot of interesting approaches that they have that can´t be applied completely, because Leverkusen is a different area with other competitors right next door such as Schalke, Gladbach, Köln, Düsseldorf, which are within 40 miles distance.”
Boldt never stops looking for different areas to find talent and places a strong interest on MLS, praising teams such as Atlanta United, NYCFC and the New York Red Bulls for building strong relationships outside of the United States.
“You can feel that there is momentum over there, they get external expertise from Europe and South America in order to spread the spirit of soccer a bit more,” Boldt said.
Boldt had his eye on one of MLS's top young talents, too, as Vancouver's 17-year-old star Alphonso Davies was also on his radar and the club nearly swooped in before before Bayern Munich finalized the deal. Bayern could wind up paying $22 million to land the Canadian international.
“Unfortunately, we did not have the financial capacity to move forward,” Boldt said.
Leverkusen isn't always able to compete in the transfer market, but it has other means to strengthen its squad from within. Understanding the player, on and off the field, is an obsession at the club, as each player grows to understand the mental and physical demands of professional competition. But Leverkusen also works on making sure each squad member is a well-rounded person.
A good example is in the 2016-2017 Champions League, when the German side was preparing for a daunting second leg at Atletico Madrid in the round of 16 while needing to overcome a 4-2 first leg deficit.
Then-manager Roger Schmidt knew that he needed his strongest team, whch included Havertz. At 17 years and 126 days old, he had become the club’s youngest player in the Bundesliga when he came on as a sub against Werder Bremen.
Havertz did not travel to Spain, though, as the match coincided with important school exams.
Without hesitation, Schmidt and his coaching staff left him back home in order to take care of his studies. Not even the biggest moment of his career in the biggest club competition in the world could overcome his education.
“Looking back, I congratulate our club, because before a player can be developed into a good player they need to be a good citizen and a good person,” said Leverkusen's Brazilian defender Wendell. At 25, he functions as one of the senior members of the team, and he believes it’s this type of mentality that differentiates Bayer Leverkusen from other clubs.
“I found this support from the club in regards to school to be quite admirable," Wendell said. "That would be different in Brazil or other places. When you are a young pro player there, you generally don't go to school anymore.”
Developing talent, however, is not enough, as the club knows it must also spend some in order to compete. But since it doesn’t have the millions of Bayern, Manchester City or PSG, when Leverkusen does spend, it must do so wisely.
Aside from selling Leno and Henrichs for an approximate $52 million combined this summer, the club kept most of its squad and strengthened the first team by promoting several U-19 players. It also bought 24-year-old defender Mitchell Weiser from Hertha Berlin.
But the most intriguing acquisition was Paulinho, an 18-year-old attacker from Vasco da Gama. The Brazilian, who made his senior club debut at 16, is extremely versatile and can play practically anywhere in the midfield. Leverkusen bought him for approximately $24 million, and the consensus says that was a bargain. Boldt lights up with excitement when discussing his potential.
“We are talking about a player who is one of the greatest talents in that age category, so it cannot be taken for granted that we even got the chance to sign him.” Boldt said. “He is a player who has good technique, an incredible instinct on the pitch, combined with goal-scoring abilities. All of that at this young age and with his good physique is a total package that you have to go for, and we are happy that we achieved to get him.”
Paulinho, who emulates his game after Cristiano Ronaldo, believes he has made the right choice, especially since the club has a solid reputation of developing Brazilian talent in Europe such as Emerson, Jorginho (the ex-Brazil international defender, not the current Chelsea midfielder), Ze Roberto and, now, Wendell. It will take time for him to adjust to a new culture, but the young star is already impressed with his new club and his new manager, Heiko Herrlich, who has a reputation of working well with younger players.
“He expects a lot from us,” Paulinho said. “For example, he wants us to put a lot of value in our team dynamic and our work so that we don't drag down the more experienced players and we can develop as quickly as possible to help get good results.”
He is impressed with training and how much the clubs expects from young players, especially how it sometimes brings in U-17 players to join sessions.
“I'm finding it quite interesting the different ways they are helping us grow and mature," Paulinho said. "I think it's the right way forward working with us this way.”
Despite its success in scouting, courting and signing young talent, this season hasn’t started brightly. Leverkusen lost its first two league matches to Borussia Monchengladbach and Wolfsburg. The hope is that the squad returns with a new sense of determination after the international break, when the test is as tough as it gets: a trip to Allianz Arena to face Bayern.
Regardless, this is a club that carefully assesses success and is realistic about expectations. If it returns to the Champions League this season, it could be regarded as one of the more underrated achievements in Europe.
“We were able to keep the whole squad together, apart from the goalkeeper, and to reinforce the team,” says Boldt, when asked about the mistakes of last season and the chances of qualifying for the Champions League this time around. “We barely missed qualification last season, although I have to say that usually you need to reach more points to finish top in the four than we saw last season in the table, so I think that experience will help us to be more efficient.”
Efficiency is perhaps the best word to describe Bayer 04 Leverkusen–a franchise that operates to the best of its ability without wasting anything.
The ultimate goal, however, is to exceed expectations. Time will tell if the project comes to fruition.