Simon Rolfes (l.) was the man who brought Xabi Alonso (r.) to Bayer Leverkusen. - © IMAGO/Christopher Neundorf
Simon Rolfes (l.) was the man who brought Xabi Alonso (r.) to Bayer Leverkusen. - © IMAGO/Christopher Neundorf

Simon Rolfes: Who is Bayer Leverkusen’s behind-the-scenes mastermind?


From Florian Wirtz to Alejandro Grimaldo and even Xabi Alonso himself, Bayer Leverkusen’s director of sport Simon Rolfes has demonstrated just how keen his eye is for spotting and recruiting talent. takes a closer look at Die Werkself’s behind-the-scenes mastermind.

Rolfes’ association with Leverkusen began in June 2005 when he joined the club as a fresh-faced 23-year-old. He had never played in the Bundesliga at the time, having established himself in the second division, but went on to spend 10 seasons at the BayArena before retiring in June 2015.

A defensive midfielder in his playing days, primarily concerned with destroying opposition attacks, he has since shown just how effective his creative side is too. Perhaps that is unsurprising given that he wanted to be an engineer when he was younger; building things to last has always been a passion.

After hanging up his boots, the 26-time Germany international remained at Leverkusen and took on a role as director of the youth academy. He became the first team’s sporting director in late 2018, a post he held until accepting his current role as director of sport in July 2022 following Rudi Völler’s retirement.

Watch: 'A good time to retire' - when Rolfes called it a day

And so while Alonso deserves all the credit he has received for turning a side that was at risk of being relegated into swashbuckling Bundesliga champions in the space of 18 months, Rolfes also played a significant role in building the squad, a process which has been years in the making.

For example, Exequiel Palacios and Edmond Tapsoba, two cornerstones of this championship-winning side, both arrived as far back as January 2020 – over four years ago now.

Wirtz arrived in July that year, followed by Patrik Schick (September 2020), Jeremie Frimpong (January 2021), Piero Hincapie and Robert Andrich (both in August 2021).

That was followed by Alonso’s appointment in October 2022. “He was an absolutely world-class player for a number of years,” Rolfes said of the Spaniard’s appointment at the time. “He’s an intelligent strategist and was extremely successful in three of the toughest European leagues.

While at Bayern Munich, Xabi Alonso (l.) played against Simon Rolfes (r.) during his playing days with Bayer Leverkusen. - imago sportfotodienst

“But this shouldn’t be viewed as an experiment for Leverkusen. It’s not about experience, it’s about quality. Julian Nagelsmann, for example, was a lot younger when he first started out. I’m certain it’s a good opportunity.

“There’s always an element of risk involved but you always have to improve and take forward steps. I’m absolutely convinced it will work out.”

That last line in particular has aged well – to the extent that it is quite the understatement.

Rolfes’ comments about taking risks also offer interesting insight into his transfer workings: accepting that it might not work out, but doing everything possible to make sure it does.

Watch: How Simon Rolfes uses AWS for his scouting for Bayer Leverkusen

It is also why he was able to issue a firm rebuttal to Bayern Munich honorary president Uli Hoeneß’ comments that Leverkusen had been “lucky” in the summer 2023 transfer market by signing Grimaldo, Granit Xhaka and Victor Boniface.

“They had a bit of luck with the transfers, you have to say,” Hoeneß said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “Nobody else saw what they did in Boniface. Nobody knew who Grimaldo was before then either.”

Rolfes responded by saying “luck is not an accident”. In fact, he had gone to Lisbon to watch Grimaldo with a view to signing him as far back as 2019, while they had witnessed Boniface’s quality first hand in the latter stages of the UEFA Europa League when they played Union Saint-Gilloise.

Still, knowing which players you want is one thing. Getting them to sign is quite another. Clearly, then, Rolfes has some impressive powers of persuasion.

“Right from the get-go I was totally convinced he had what it takes,” Rolfes said of bringing in Alonso, despite the Spaniard never having been at the helm of a senior team before.

Those silver-tongued arguments worked their magic on Grimaldo, too. “We convinced him that the football we play here suits him better,” Rolfes said of his discussions with the Spaniard, now a full international following his consistent form in Leverkusen.

“He was already a good player at Benfica, and that was actually an important point. He wanted to try something new and we could offer him that and at a high level. Obviously it was also an advantage that he had a Spanish-speaking coach in Xabi Alonso, who rates him highly.”

The good news for Leverkusen fans is that while this title success may have been a long time coming, given Rolfes’ track record you can safely bet has plenty more to come in the pipeline.