Florian Wirtz is the latest Bayer Leverkusen teenage star from a club that depends on developing young talent

Leverkusen – When Chelsea paid Bayer Leverkusen a king’s ransom for Kai Havertz – the Bundesliga’s best player in two decades – in the summer of 2020, sports director Simon Rolfes didn’t blink. He had the best part of $100 million burning a hole in his pocket. He did not intend to spend it on a direct replacement for Havertz. “We can buy one for eight million, and that’s a waste of money, baby is already better,” he says. “In the end we didn’t have a chance to act differently. It would have been meaningless.”

The child is Florian Werts, much more than a successor to the crown of Havertz. Still at just 18 years old, Wirtz is the beating heart of Bayer Leverkusen, and has been heralded as one of the best young players of his generation with four Germany caps already to his name. Although he would naturally be compared to Havertz, it is rare for the two to interpret their roles in spaces in front of defenses differently. The Chelsea striker has all the starting ingredients for a classic man number 10 but oddly enough: his height means both Leverkusen and Thomas Tuchel have managed to use him as a central attacker, not least because his size can be used to great effect in fixed pieces.

Meanwhile, Wirtz takes the more traditional form of a central builder. Where many German strikers will start wide and look to move inside the field, he tends to prefer retreating to deeper areas to collect the ball from the midfielders. At 5 feet 7 inches, he has the appearance of a diminutive playmaker even though Celtic defenders can attest that the ball cannot be pushed away easily.

Against their Scottish guest in Thursday’s Europa League victory, Wirtz was a devastating force. His eye for passing and the ability to put the ball exactly where he wanted Leverkusen made all three of his goals and secured qualification to the Round of 16 with a neat byline shot that propelled Moussa Diaby to net the winner.

While Gerardo Sewan’s young side looked to be struggling under Celtic pressure, Wirtz rose to the moment and created six chances. Earlier that day, when Rolfes received a long list of scouts for Thursday’s game, he mocked the weight of his eyeballs that would be at his club with something of gallows humor. Every big club in Europe is watching the young playmaker seriously, and Rolfes knows his phone will be ringing over the coming months. However, for now they are convinced that they are the perfect place to train Wirtz for football. “Florian is so young, for him it’s good to play here for other years,” says the Bayer 04 chief. “We wouldn’t be nervous if we got an offer. That was the case with Kai Havertz. A year ago we had really, really big offers. There was no discussion for us to sell. We know the value of the players and we know that they can still increase their values.”

Leverkusen still knows that time is running out, not only for Havertz but a host of other young talents as well. Edmund Tapsoba was wanted by Arsenal last summer. Liverpool and Everton have been linked with Moussa Diaby. Euro 2020 champion Patrick Schick has had a string of Premier League teams linked to a show. Then there is the specter of perpetual champion Bayern Munich, who will gather the best talent in the Bundesliga and beat their rivals in the process.

Perhaps Rolf is realistic enough to know that the best-case scenario for Leverkusen is a season like Monaco enjoyed in 2016-17 or Ajax two years later: domestic glory and a run in Europe that brings accolades but invites the Premier League and European Sharks to a match. Feeding frenzy. “We have a really long contract [with Wirtz]His smile indicates that he is well aware that Leverkusen won’t make it to 2026 without getting an offer for his star services, says Rolfes, “that’s fine”. But it’s not just about contracts. And the feeling that this is the best place for him for as long as possible to develop, grow, improve his character, his material and technical things. ”

“We have to show that we’re working at a really high level here. Then we can keep him. If we have a good team that has a lot of ambition, we try to keep it for as long as possible. He’s definitely 18, but already a central player in our squad: not Florian. Not only but Patrick Schick, great striker, Moussa Diaby, Edmund Tapsoba, there are more really young players who can reach the world level.We try to keep them as long as possible so they grow up together, maybe they have one year where they accelerate their career together Here in Leverkusen.”

The challenge for Leverkusen, if they want this success to be sustainable, is to prepare for the day Wirtz and his company are gone. This is the club’s academy’s ultimate job, and they insist it’s not winning matches. “It’s easy for a coach to win at U17 or U15,” says Keld Bordinggaard, the club’s head coaching. “Put the big players on the field and you’ll get your score. Developing the next big talent is even more difficult. For a club like ours, sometimes we need to sell players.” It’s up in the system and down. It’s so important that we take the players to the next step. Our coaches feel that kind of pressure.”

They also share a sense of ownership in the players who make the score. Havertz may have left Leverkusen without adding to the club’s mediocre trophy collection, but the titles he won later are a source of great pride for the club. “Everyone at this club wants to have a role in the development of Kai Havertz,” said Club Performance Center Director Thomas Eichen. “You talk to the coaches who coached him in the U-13 Cup, I was the one who coached him to head the ball in this way.”

Spotting the next Havertz or Wirtz is more difficult in an environment like North Rhine-Westphalia. Leverkusen is surrounded by football giants on all sides. To the north lie Gelsenkirchen, Dortmund, Mönchengladbach and Düsseldorf, all of which are seats of German football powers. To the south is Kowloon. In an area less than 50 miles north to south, six big names, plus a host of other clubs, scour the population of seven million in search of the next possibility that could make them millions or lead the club to glory.

“It’s war,” Bordinggaard says. “I am so grateful it is not part of my job description.” Aichen is charged with leading those very battles. “I was a professional [genera] Management [with Werder Bremen and 1860 Munich] And it was not so terrible as in young people. Every agent and every parent wants to get the next best player and make money from this. At the age of 13 and 14, it does not matter, they receive incredible financial offers. ”

Clubs look with envy at their competitors, looking to catch the best and brightest. When Rolfes, a veteran of 10 years in the Leverkusen midfield until 2015, returned to the club as executive, his first question about preparing the youth was why Verts were in Cologne, not Leverkusen. “He is a player for Bayer Leverkusen: playful, offensive, technical, energetic, creative.” From there the magic attack began, as with many outstanding talents in the area.

From a training center with a bistro and places for parents to interact with commitments related to schoolwork, Leverkusen realistically offers everything they can to snatch the best young talent. Others will offer more money, and Leverkusen hope that the quality of their young coaches and the historic commitment to giving young people a chance serves them even more. Unlike many of their competitors, Bayer 04 does not have a B team working at the lower levels. There is a direct path from the under-19 team to the first team. Perhaps Leverkusen’s most compelling argument for Wirtz, was that on day one he would be training alongside Havertz and company.

Leverkusen goes beyond just playing a similar system between youth teams and Seoane. Young players will work on the same training drills as Wirtz, Tapsoba and Diaby at the next higher level. “Imagine a 16-year-old getting into the first team and training with the national team players from France, Germany and South America not knowing the drill or the little game,” Bordinggaard explains. “He lost there. That’s why we have to introduce them early, so he doesn’t have to think ‘Can I touch the ball once or twice, or am I allowed to play in that direction?'” “

Because, of course, it’s not just about creating the next Havertz and Wirtz. Whether to sell them or add them to the first team, Leverkusen need to make sure that it’s not just the best of the best who makes it to the finish line in the football academy.
“It is very important that he is not only the best young player in our squad,” Ishin says. “Maybe the average player can contribute to our team and the coach can use it eight, nine or ten times per season. Then you can sell it to another club, which is important for us.”

The club knows that owning one Havertz or Wirtz is a reflection of finding good talent, and it may just be two plus a bit of good fortune. On this occasion, lightning struck twice in the Bay Arena. They found an exceptional German playmaker that they could refine into a superstar and replace him with another.

A forged young footballer in Bayer Leverkusen last season decided the course of the Champions League final. He would be a brave man who bet this would happen again.

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