Leverkusen - With Bayer 04 Leverkusen the last Bundesliga side to begin pre-season training, it has been a long summer for head coach Roger Schmidt. Too long in fact - the 48-year-old tactician was first onto the grass alongside his new assistant Markus Krösche on Friday morning, greeting each of his players with a smile, despite the near 30-degree heat.
Although the club's international stars are set to return in due course, their absence was offset by the excitement surrounding two summer arrivals, Christoph Kramer and Admir Mehmedi. For the latter, a Swiss international signed from SC Freiburg, the surroundings were new. Yet for Kramer, who has been on loan at Borussia Mönchengladbach for the past two seasons, less acclimatisation was necessary.
"I still recognised quite a lot, but a few things have changed here," explained the 24-year-old FIFA World Cup winner, who has been impressed by the style of play espoused by Schmidt. "It's a type of planned chaos on the pitch, but I like how they play here, having to go and hunt the ball. It was a pretty intense start today." Indeed it was: Schmidt spared no-one, forcing his troops into a near two-hour session with gruelling athletic work under the watchful eye of fitness coach Oliver Bartlett.
"We're trying to get the most out of our squad in pre-season," explained Schmidt. "We already have a very good team." The retirement of former captain Simon Rolfes, however, has opened up a space in central midfield, and it is one which Schmidt expects Kramer to fill. "I'm expecting him to take on plenty of responsibility, given his experience," said the head coach, who is yet to confirm a skipper for 2015/16.
While Kramer may not be an immediate candidate for the armband, he will certainly be expected to play a leading role in helping die Werkself qualify for the UEFA Champions League via a play-off in August, before making his Bundesliga bow for the club in the Matchday 1 encounter at home to TSG 1899 Hoffenheim.
'We want to improve'
Another sought-after man in the post-training media session was Mehmedi. While the 33-time Swiss international will be allowed time to settle in new surroundings, he is expected to provide competition for veteran frontman Stefan Kießling as the lone striker. "It's great to be here and I’m really looking forward to it," he said. "That was a pretty intense training session, but it's good to be underway."
Once the 24-year-old had departed to a well-earned rest, it was the turn of Schmidt to face the assembled press. "We want to improve in a few areas but last season is a good basis for us," he said. "We're going to have to work very hard because there's so much competition in the Bundesliga." Really though, they were just platitudes; after all, he's delighted to be back.