Welcome to the Leverkusen diaries.


If Bochum wasn’t quite the ‘end goal’ then this place certainly is. With some new, aged, images of Torbjorn, I’m ready to dive head first into this. Given the time I have to play FM these days and the speed in which I play and update, it’s unlikely that this FM will see my journey continue too much further than the gates of this famous club. Sadly, Bayer have fallen into a bit of pit of mid-table nothingness of late and it appears to be my job within – initially – the three years of my contract to turn that around. Memories of the golden era in the early 2000s under the management of coaches such as Christoph Daum and Klaus Toppmöller feel a million miles away. The club achieved unprecedented success during this period, notably finishing as runners-up in the Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal, and UEFA Champions League in the 2001-2002 season. Despite falling short of major trophies, Leverkusen’s performances earned them widespread recognition and respect within the footballing community. Similarly concerningly, the financial situation is of concern to me, especially when nearly €70m was raised this summer, alone, on the sale of Piero Hincapie. As is almost German tradition, the Ecuadorian now resides at Bayer Munich but is not the last of the current real life crop to have moved on but that list did start with the sacking of Xabi Alonso after less than 450 days in the job. Since then, they’ve hired, and sacked a list containing Sergio Conceicao, Arne Slot, Gerhard Strubel, Tony Jantchkeand, most recently, Max Schulz – who was part of the Red Bull family in Austria prior to a short and wholly unsuccessful stint in Germany. Over the course of these managers, Alex Grimaldo has moved on, as has Florian Wirtz – annoyingly, for free to Man City – and the likes of Palacios, Schick and Frimpong all find themselves in the Middle East, retired or on a rather crowded Parisian bench, respectively.

This job gives me the biggest platform of them all to exhibit the vast expanses of my playing and management style; we’re a huge club, who, as of right now, have no continental football but do possess a vast scouting network and fantastic youth facilities with the draw that Bochum could only dream of. Players such at Boniface, Tapsoba and Hlozek remain from the original crew who didn’t live up to what the real life Xabi is doing right now. It is the former Spanish midfield maestro, a man who brought his unique playing philosophy and tactical acumen to Bayer Leverkusen when he assumed the role of manager, that I can take a lot of inspiration from in my FM playing. Known for his elegant style and astute understanding of the game during his playing career, Alonso’s transition to management at Leverkusen has been characterized by several key elements:

  1. Possession-based Football: Alonso’s managerial style at Bayer Leverkusen emphasizes a possession-based approach to football. He prioritises fluid ball movement, intricate passing sequences, and maintaining control of the game through intelligent positional play. Leverkusen under Alonso seeks to dominate possession to dictate the tempo and rhythm of matches.
  2. Tactical Flexibility: Alonso has demonstrated a willingness to adapt his team’s tactics based on the strengths of the opposition and the specific context of each match. Leverkusen has showcased tactical flexibility under his guidance, seamlessly transitioning between different formations and systems to exploit opponent weaknesses while maximizing the team’s strengths.
  3. High Pressing and Intensity: Leverkusen under Alonso often employs a high pressing game, seeking to win the ball back quickly and disrupt opposition build-up play. Alonso emphasizes intense pressure on the ball carrier, coordinated pressing triggers, and collective defensive efforts to regain possession and launch swift counterattacks.
  4. Player Development and Youth Integration: As a manager, Alonso has shown a commitment to nurturing young talent and integrating academy graduates into the first team setup. Leverkusen’s squad under Alonso features a blend of experienced professionals and promising youngsters, with an emphasis on player development and long-term sustainability.
  5. Attacking Fluency: Leverkusen’s attacking play under Alonso is characterized by fluid movement, intricate passing combinations, and intelligent off-the-ball runs. Alonso encourages his players to express themselves in the final third, promoting creativity and spontaneity in attacking situations while maintaining defensive solidity and organizational discipline.

I always had Xabi down for his 3-4-3 preference and, therefore, didn’t really feel a connection to his style but deeper reading around his philosophy does see quite a close match, to be honest. I’ve watched bits of Bundesliga football this season and, honestly, Bayer have become a team that I’m rooting for – probably because they are the underdog in this and partially because I’d love to see Harry Kane not win the Bundesliga after years of also not winning trophies. Their style of play is fantastic and the way that they took apart Bayern in their 3-0 is just the kind of entertaining football that my board want to see. Yet, actually, it was the tactical nuances in that game that I am way more interested in developing and hope that the board give me enough time, with low enough expectations to try this, make mistakes and grow. Whilst Xabi has sadly retired, an ode to his legacy was my first port of call in terms of building my backroom – bringing back to the club his old assistant, below.


The Spaniard came to Leverkusen from top Spanish club Barcelona, where he was assistant coach with the U19s since 2017. In the spring of 2018 he fulfilled the same function with the Barca B team. Bayer 04 sporting director Simon Rolfes recognised Encinas’ “very good work” with the Catalan club. And he added “We expect a lot from him, particularly in working with our young players.” Encinas‘ tendencies feel pretty aligned with what I’d like to do and his formation matches my own. He is mentally strong and his ability to work with youngsters will be hugely beneficial to the youth integration policy that I want to instill here. I won’t be delegating much to him, given my desire to micromanage tactics and training but the move feels right for us. He’ll join a key group of employees, highlighted below.

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When looking through my staffing, I saw a name that I remembered from CM/FM past. A little bit of digging led me to some more information about a player, who, despite not being a Bayer academy graduate, seems to have found himself very much in the spotlight and part of the furniture at the club.  Simon Rolfe s‘ transition from a distinguished playing career to the role of Sporting Director exemplifies his commitment to Bayer Leverkusen’s ethos and values. As a former player, Rolfes brings invaluable insights and experiences to his new role, bridging the gap between the playing squad and the club’s management structure. Rolfes has overseen the acquisition of promising young talents and established performers, emphasizing a balance between youth development and experienced professionals. Leverkusen’s squad composition reflects Rolfes‘ vision of building a competitive team capable of challenging for domestic and European honours. As Sporting Director, Simon Rolfes has played a key role in shaping Bayer Leverkusen’s footballing philosophy. Leverkusen’s playing style emphasizes attacking flair, possession-based football, and tactical flexibility, reflecting Rolfes’ commitment to entertaining and dynamic football. Rolfes’ vision for Leverkusen transcends immediate results, focusing on sustainable success and the cultivation of a distinctive playing identity. Whilst he is a board member and not an active part of my backroom team, the narrative is that he can feed Kim Falkenberg – who holds both the DoF and Chief Scout roles – with this rationale. I think that this could be the perfect opportunity to really dive into the DoF transfer business; we’re (hopefully) well off enough that I can accept poor decisions from him but, by ensuring I do have the final say in transfer dealings, would not be against letting him initiate deals and, if not directly done by him, lead him to them through DoF shortlists. Potentially, my wage structure will be compromised but I will endeavour to set strong constraints on the upper limits of these weekly wages and, essentially, live and die by the sword of bonuses and release clauses, much like a professional manager may do in this modern age. Plus – it gives me more time to focus on the player development aspects…

Two other key members of my backroom team, Jorgensenand Bakayoko have enjoyed a journey with me, having originally joined me in Borås with Elfsborg and then moving to Bochum. The Dane has brought through a number of strong players in his time working with me and his methodology and philosophies are largely in line with my own. He’ll become a key member of the backroom team at both senior and youth level. My Ivorian coach has a similarly strong set of credentials – as we have demonstrated a strong set of set piece metrics, both offensively and defensively: an area he has sole control of. Around them, I will look to bring through a strong coaching team, pulling Kolo Toure and Zlatan Ibrahimovic with me on this route, too.

One thing that stood out from their website was the following quote: “B04 stands for a family-like atmosphere and a transparent club policy, both internally and externally. Transparent management culture is the motto. This means involving employees in all important issues, holding regular staff meetings, but also engaging in an open exchange with the outside world and involving fans, for example with regard to the jersey or catering offers within the framework of various discussion formats. On the one hand, this togetherness promotes the positioning of B04 as an attractive employer brand and, on the other hand, is the basis of the work “for the dream of our fans”. ” I think that this is absolutely important when considering the staff I am bringing in and how I work with them to listen to, and engage with, their thoughts. Falkenberg might have highly recommended a player to me – therefore I need to listen to that. I’m told that there are concerns with some areas of training – I need to address them. This is the kind of transparency and good-will that I intend to bring here.

On the pitch, I must say that the step up is pretty clear to see:

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Hicham Arkine – a €20m signing from Standard Liege is the jewel in my attacking crown, playing up top with current Leverkusen stars Boniface and Hlozek. The young Belgian is a hugely well rounded attacker, who can contribute to all areas of our attacking play but maybe not quite physical enough to lead the line. Cutting in from the right hand side might be the best option for him, particularly with the Czech on the left and the Nigerian up top. At just €4.6m from Excelsior, Ferhat Duran looks to be an immense talent. He’s been here for two years now and, despite not quite hitting the heights possible, came off the back of a season where he scored twenty times from midfield: largely, I imagine, down to his Long Shot ability. He’s a little weak defensively but the ability to be that late man in the box will provide opportunities for cutbacks to him, meaning that his trait to come deep will not stop him from effectively joining in. At the back, Tapsoba is still going strong; a man of pretty immense defensive quality but also a player who is really comfortable on the ball and will allow us to play out of defence far more. He’ll be flanked by Ozdemira bargain €450k defender who looks to have been played out on either flank so far in his career. Aside from these headline stars – there’s the typical Bayer method at play here too: Hannibal came in on a free from Man Utd, Hagiwara cost €4.3m from Gamba Osaka, Tom Bischof cost €500k from Wolves, Jevon Simons cost less than €10m from PSV, as did Markovic, a €7m signing from Milan. Linking back to the above point above transparency – a key part of the management of this team will be through the use of conversing with them. Overall, there are a solid group of players, minus maybe Neuer’s mercenary status and Duran and Hannibal’s outspoken media handling methods.

The entire team looks stronger than I’ve ever had before but, statistically, things aren’t quite going to plan. Defensively, we look quite weak and susceptible to crosses into the box and our successes in battles looks lower than I’d like it to be across the backline. Combine that with a high number of blocks for my centre backs and you’ll see that, as part of the twenty-seven goals we’ve conceded this year, I would suggest that a number have come as part of some rash defending and last minute work, some of which – naturally – won’t come off. I like that we have a number of progressive players but that, to me, suggests, that we’re quite deep in our transition and we’re lacking true creativity within the side, although Hannibal is rating quite well. Up top, we need to take more shots, although, when we do, they tend to be relatively high quality. Up top, we’ve been able to work with two decent aerial threats, but it’s likely that Hlozek will play wider and, therefore, get less opportunities in my 433 shape.

That quality doesn’t just stop at the first team, though:

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SimoNoa and Niklas are three of a group of strong youngsters who I have really high hopes for, as they look to follow Stiepermann and Bangura into the first team. At Bochum, I built a strong infrastructure in the U19 team but was never able to really crack the top teams, in particular, Dortmund but this season, I truly believe that there’s a chance we can do that. Whilst Schulz will reach the end of his eligibility at this level at the end of this season, both of the aforementioned players can enjoy a further two years developing and honing their skills into the tactical approach I want and the attribute moulds that I need to make my style of play work. Direct from their website, these quotes shows the synergy that I feel I will create with this team whilst managing here: “Our young players receive optimum support and development through targeted individual and team training as well as interesting comparison matches. Of course, we hope that our youth players can develop to the maximum in an environment tailored to them to reveal their full potential and create the opportunity to make the step up to our first team squad.”

“The development of the personality of our young players has great significance. That includes…

  • …a performance-oriented and self-motivating attitude to matches and training.
  • …self-critical assessment of own performance and the instructions of the coaching staff.
  • …a friendly presence.
  • …the ability to have team spirit and cooperation.

In addition, it is very important to us to make clear to our young players that school and vocational training take priority. With our U19 and U17 teams in the relevant youth Bundesligas plus the younger age groups we want to play a leading role at the highest level. In addition, we want our young players to be the most talented youth players in the region – and to convey sporting and non-sporting experience through participation in international tournaments and tours. At the same time, we want to contribute to the success of all tournaments we take part in through good sporting performances and a friendly approach from our players, coaches and support staff. We always nurture a co-operative approach to other clubs, the associations, our guests, our opponents and Bayer AG. Our management take a critical approach to their work and youth football in general. The target is to continually improve and be a strong as well as reliable partner. Given all the targeted support, the fun and joy of our players and staff still take centre stage.”

A match made in heaven!

Likewise, their wording about player pathways is something that I’m likely to return to when transfers are being considered:

” The value of the youth section at Bayer 04 is high in club political, financial and sporting terms. The cooperation between the first team and the Performance Centre presented by Barmenia is harmonious, practical and sensible. This is based on a concept from Bayer 04. In addition, the fact that the decision makers in the individual sections have worked with each other for a long time is beneficial to the targets set. Special measures in the youth section such as participation in national and international tournaments and performance comparisons are equally supported as conceptual thinking is. Even if the support of the first team is helpful in signing a particularly talented player, there is a dedicated and experienced contact in the youth section. Sporting managing director Simon Rolfes (left, here with the director of the licence team Thomas Eichin) regularly keeps up-to-date with the performance levels and the development of the youth section. This applies particularly to talented players in the U19 and U17 youth teams. There is the principle of the short path. It is no coincidence that Rolfes previously held the position of “director of development and youth” at Bayer 04. That means that players with potential from the youth teams are again and again included in training with the senior to give them early incentive in the sense of individual development.”


I took over on the day of a fixture, a derby against FC Koln. Therefore, in the instance of realism and, at this point, still with the Assistant – Sven Hubscher – from the old regime, I allowed him to take control of the tie as he would’ve actually spoken and worked with these players, whereas I had literally just arrived at the club. The result was one that has brought some concerns to me, particularly after watching back the highlights:


If ever a game brings back very recent memories, it’d be this. Interestingly, a 433 was adopted as opposed to the regular 442 that Bayer had fielded under Schulz but it was deep and devoid of a cutting edge. A third of the key passes were deep, raking balls from Bischof that somehow found their way onto Boniface, who was unable to apply a finish. The pass combinations show a team that were unable to demonstrate any kind of authority over the centre of the pitch, moving quickly to the flanks but only completing sixteen dribbles, with only three completed crosses coming all game – none from these moves. Arkine moved to ten goal contributions for the season – 0.61 per game – but, aside from that, things really felt a little forced: unconfident but somewhat overcomplicated. My thoughts, after looking at the players, remain built around my core ideology:

  • Extra man in early build up
  • Exploitation of space and numbers
  • Vertical quick paced transition

But, given the players I have, I want to press a little more, play a little higher up the pitch and give my players a bit more freedom to do the unexpected. This means that my base instructions may look something like the this. The intention is, as always, to be tactically fluid but work within the domains of a 4231 and a 433 as that is probably what we are best suited for and that is where my experience lies. Obviously, with a DoF who will, within reason, have pretty free reign, I could – should I deem the player and the deal satisfactory – end up with five centre backs and then somewhat be forced into a three at the back shape. Whatever shape we play with and whatever style we end upon, I really want to be successful here and build something that feels like more than a team! Do that, and I’ll have a feeling that this could be a pretty good ride!



  • Ben

    Ben has been a long time contributor to the FM community previously on The Dugout and the SI Forums. He is known for his great in-depth tactical analysis and an increasing level of understanding of data led recruitment. His FM saves are always in-depth and he delivers both his knowledge of the game and great storytelling including a talent for squad building, progressing youth players and finding diamonds in the rough. His saves are really popular within the blogging community. He is also the creator of the popular skin “Statman”

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