Simon Rolfes (l.) and Xabi Alonso (r.) lapped up the celebrations as Bayer Leverkusen clinched a first Bundesliga title in the club's history. - © Oliver Hardt/Bundesliga
Simon Rolfes (l.) and Xabi Alonso (r.) lapped up the celebrations as Bayer Leverkusen clinched a first Bundesliga title in the club's history. - © Oliver Hardt/Bundesliga

Simon Rolfes on Bayer Leverkusen's title celebrations, keeping Xabi Alonso and invincible hopes


One week on from overseeing Bayer Leverkusen's historic Bundesliga title triumph, sporting director Simon Rolfes sits down with to reflect on the historic campaign and how shared ambition managed to keep Xabi Alonso at the club beyond the 2023/24 season. How would you sum up the current and, of course, still running season after last Sunday’s events?

Simon Rolfes: "Sunday couldn’t [have been] better. The whole day, with all the fans welcoming the team when the bus arrived here at the stadium. And then also during the match. The match maybe also showed a bit like a mirror of the whole season, that we continued to play, that we have to be patient as well. But at the end, we got the game. We always stayed with our playing style, with our focus, with our concentration, mentality. And at the end, the opponents struggled to compete against us. That’s one thing that really showed the strength of the team, this mentality of never give up, always play until the last second of the match." You were there when the referee blew the whistle, hugging everyone, but who was the first to congratulate you on your phone?

Rolfes: “I don’t know for sure. After the match, I didn’t pick up the phone, but I think nobody tried to call me. I don’t know exactly. But for sure, I got so many messages. Yesterday, the whole evening, I was answering all the messages. There you can also feel – if you get, from everywhere in Europe, congrats – how impressive it is and how special it is. And our history, to win for the first time the German championship after so many years, after so often being close to this goal, and now we did it in an impressive way; five matchdays before the end, with so many points ahead, that’s fantastic.”

Watch: Leverkusen fans celebrate title What happened after everyone left the BayArena? Did you get any sleep at all?

Rolfes: "I slept really well. Not that long, but really well. This was, for sure, a big goal in the last weeks to win it, but we have to be honest. How we play, we had to win this title. So, it was also a little bit like a relief on Sunday that we did it. We were the best team in this Bundesliga season. You have to show that at the end in results. That’s why it was a little bit of a relief also, and I slept really well.” Do you remember the time and place when you realised that maybe this year you could really become champions?           

Rolfes: “The feeling that we have a really competitive team grew quite early in the season. When we played the fourth matchday in Munich; a very competitive match, high level from both teams. But also the weeks after, I was sure that we are competitive for the German championship. If we would win it, I was totally convinced after our home game against [Bayern] Munich when we won 3-0. Also, in the way we won the game, with such dominance. After that, I was sure this team, this spirit, this mentality, this will to win, will lead us to the title.”

Watch: Leverkusen 3-0 Bayern - highlights This season for Leverkusen truly has been something else. If you could name three Bundesliga milestones for Bayer, what were they?

Rolfes: “There's a lot… The first away match in Munich, for sure, was crucial to have this self-confidence that we can compete with all the teams in the Bundesliga, also with the favourites [Bayern]. Then maybe not the one game, but the time during the Africa Cup of Nations where we missed our African players and really had a tight squad, that we won in Augsburg and Leipzig in the last minutes, with this mentality [to play] until the last second. And then the home match against Munich, because I think in the race to the title, both teams were up to that match close together. And from this on, the [teams] go in different directions. That’s why I think this was crucial.” When you signed Xabi Alonso in October 2022, Leverkusen were 17th in the table. Back then, would you ever have imagined the journey Bayer would go with him?

Rolfes: "At that time, the view was maybe a little more short-term. Short-term but with an idea of long-term possibilities, I would say. The short-term view that we were 17th, to go up, because the team was much better than the current place at that time. And we had the feeling that how we tried to sign players, or which players, how we tried to play as a playing style as a club, or how we tried to train – all those things, Xabi would fit perfectly within. After some months of difficulties, to go up this ladder, step-by-step, you could feel in March that now it’s accelerating, the development and the spirit. Also getting to the semi-finals of the Europa League creates a special atmosphere here in the club, with the fans. And Xabi, for sure, was an accelerator or boost for this development until now.”

Simon Rolfes (l.) was instrumental in first bringing to Bayer Leverkusen, and then keeping at the club, Xabi Alonso (r.). - IMAGO/Christopher Neundorf A couple of weeks ago, a bunch of different clubs and coaches across Europe's top leagues announced their future plans. Jürgen Klopp will end his Liverpool era; Bayern will stop working with Thomas Tuchel after the season. Did those decisions put any pressure on you? And how did you manage to keep Xabi at the BayArena?

Rolfes: "Not pressure, but for sure if you have interest in your coach or interest in your players, you have to manage it. The best way is always, besides having contracts, to convince or give them the feeling that it’s the right place to be. I think that was always Xabi’s feeling, that besides maybe interest from other clubs – his team, his coaching staff, his daily work here – the trust we are giving to him, the collaboration day-by-day, that it’s the perfect place. He can be ambitious, and the ambition of the club and his ambitions are similar. That’s why I was always convinced that he would stay.” What makes Xabi so special? As a football mastermind but also as a person?

Rolfes: "For sure, his qualities as a coach, his understanding of the game, his feeling for situations, for game situations, are key qualities. But I think what was also really important during this season is that he’s used to winning in the end as a player. It comes from his playing career, for sure. This winner's mentality to say: ‘Okay, we’ve won a game on Thursday. Sunday’s the next game, we want to win as well’. This consistency, also this hard discipline, hard working day-by-day, I think this mentality made it special. He brought it to the players.” This season was the first you could all plan together with Xabi from the start. What were the most influential signings and why?

Rolfes: “A key position was Granit Xhaka, as number six. The six is the heart of the game, he’s dominating the rhythm, it’s the most strategical position. How offensive we can play, how defensive we can play? It’s always the connector of all the parts of the team in the number six position. We had some bad luck there last season due to injuries to Charles Aranguiz, an experienced player, so that was where we said: ‘There we have to improve.' It’s not only the signings last summer that made us champions. We had good players around, but this guy who connects, we missed a little bit. Granit, for sure, with his qualities, technique, tactically, his game intelligence, his personality as a leader, and the ability to connect people with his personality, with the languages he speaks; he was a very important signing.”

Watch: Xhaka at the Leverkusen control centre I know it’s tough to say which player was the most important one to keep the ship on track. But let’s give it a try: Who was a true game changer this year and why?     

Rolfes: “I think all his other teammates will agree with me that it’s Florian Wirtz, because he’s from this region, here four-and-a-half years. How he’s playing football everybody loves. All the kids, the fans, everybody would like to play like Florian, but that’s one thing. The other thing is his will to win, he runs among the most in the Bundesliga. He’s never giving up in each situation and this spirit, he transfers it to the fans. The last 10 minutes [of games], nobody left the stadium because there was always the feeling this team could make it. And Florian is a bit like the embodiment of this spirit.”

Watch: All of Wirtz's Bundesliga goals so far Undefeated in over 40 games. All German records are now connected to this Werkself. What makes this team invincible?

Rolfes: “You always have to be prepared that you can lose, you have to have the respect for the opponent. I think that was one thing why we haven’t lost, because we always have the respect for each game. Home or away, we never lost it. And then I think our structural play, how we play as a team gives us a lot of strength and power. It’s not like one guy has to decide it with extraordinary actions. We have a lot of strength in our team play.” After over a decade of Bayern Munich’s dominance in the Bundesliga, it wasn’t Dortmund or even Leipzig who ended that streak. How was it possible for Leverkusen to terminate Bayern’s championship run in such dominant fashion?

Rolfes: “Development of players over the years here, like Florian, Edmond Tapsoba, [Piero] Hincapie, Jeremie Frimpong, Amine Adli… I could mention even more. And then for sure some experienced players, like Granit Xhaka, [Alejandro] Grimaldo, [Jonas] Hofmann last summer. That was a bit like the pieces of the puzzle were then together, with Xabi as the coach, with the fantastic coaching staff. And if you have all the pieces of the puzzle together, the picture is really nice. I think there were a lot of influences to this development." Every success story bears something tragic. Rudi Völler and Reiner Calmund had been in touching distance of winning the Meisterschale but failed to do so eventually. And then came Simon Rolfes and achieved what nobody here did before. How does that feel?

Rolfes: “It’s a lot of pride for me, but to be also the successor of Rudi and Calli, because they have developed the club in an amazing way over the last 30 years. If you see the emotions after the match, it’s also for them. And 30 years ago, it was a totally different situation. The club developed step by step. I’m very happy to continue this work from them, this foundation, and push it with maybe new ideas as well. You have to learn from them but also bring in new input, new ideas. But without their work, I couldn’t have the chance to achieve this. That’s why I’m really thankful for both of them.”

Watch: Leverkusen no longer Neverkusen Winning the Meisterschale could only be one piece of the puzzle. What’s on your mind when thinking about the next couple of weeks?

Rolfes: “We have amazing chances ahead of us. The Europa League is a really big thing for us. We felt this last season when we played the semi-final, playing for reaching a final again; we want this. And then, hopefully, we can get to the final. In the cup, we have the final ahead of us. The last final in 2020 we played against Munich in front of – during corona – 200 spectators. It was so disappointing. Not only to lose, but also like it was a friendly match – a training game, more or less. That’s why we're looking forward to reach, in all competitions, the maximum. That’s the ambition of the team, that’s how we play, that’s how we act.” Is not losing a single game this season also a goal for Xabi and yourself? Would it be like another title?

Rolfes: “It would be very special. Up to now, I always said it’s not about not losing, it’s about how often you win. I think that’s the really impressive way that we have now won [38] games out of the [44]. That is the most impressive number for me. But now, for sure, we reach the first goal to win the championship in the Bundesliga. If we could stay without a defeat, it would be historic again. We go for that [but] we always go for winning the games.”