Leverkusen. The youth trainer opens up about Bayer’s position in their competition against other teams for young talent, Leverkusen’s advantages in this fight, Julian Brandt’s greatest quality, and why the U23 team was resembling more and more a kind of fantasy world.
Q: Does Bayer 04 have to reinvent itself in terms of its youth system in order to maintain (or get back) its role as a leader in this area?
Lewandowski: That depends on how you define a “leading role.” We definitely had to do something; that much you can’t argue. It all starts with the facilities. Back when Bayer built the youth team center in Kurtekotten in 2000, the club was miles ahead of other clubs in this regard. But that’s already 14 years ago and not a lot has changed since then. In the past several years, many clubs have surpassed us, and I’m not talking about Bayern Munich. Nor do I need to say more about what a RB Leipzig is currently doing. Gladbach, for example, has built an ultra-modern youth team center. Many good, but not necessarily top, Bundesliga clubs are doing something. And we’ve realized that we are coming apart at the seams in terms of our facilities.
Q: And how do you plan to solve this problem?
Lewandowski: This topic of our facilities is one we’ve been watching closely for the past three or four years. In reality, we have to expand the Kurtekotten (youth team center). There have been some attempts already, but they haven’t really been effective. And so we questioned if maybe we, with our facilities as they are, couldn’t find a better way to use our resources and without having to spend 10m Euro to do it.
Q: For example, if the U19 team were to move to the BayArena
Lewandowski: Correct. By bringing the U19 team to the stadium, we are easing the situation at the (youth) training center a little and, at the same time, bringing the most important of our youth teams to where they actually belong – with the professionals.
Q: And there will be more room at the BayArena due to the disbanding of the U23 team. When did you become convinced that this team was actually a dead-end for talent?
Lewandowski: We just came to the conclusion that we could do better, with the same facilities and cost, by using all of our resources more effectively. And pretty quickly you’re talking about the U23, because of their proximity to the senior team. But, in fact, they haven’t been able to bring across players that were interesting for the senior team, and next season this problem was going to be even more pronounced.
Q: Why is that?
Lewandowski: Because only about 4 or 5 players would have been under contract. We would have had to buy a completely new team. And for whom? For a Maximilian Wagener and an Oliver Schnitzler, who could maybe become of interest for the senior team? And for that you’re going to have a budget that is significantly higher than that all of the youth teams? That would almost be a luxury, which you might not begrudge, but it can’t be the right way if you’re looking to use your money and resources effectively.
Q: But how do you close the gap between players at an U19 level and the Bundesliga pros?
Lewandowski: We have to reconsider player development. 10 years ago hardly one 18 year old played in the Bundesliga. Today, that’s not the case. Players are being better developed at even earlier ages now. Development in terms of football comes earlier, and so we say that we’re going to invest more in the development of 13-, 14-, and 15-year olds, and less in the 22-year olds.
Q: In the end, how do you measure success in terms of working with youth? Do you measure it by individual players who have made it to the pros, or is it measured by the youth teams winning titles?
Lewandowski: Very much the former. There was a time in Germany in which youth titles were ridiculed because it was supposed to be about the development of the players and not the success of the teams. We busy ourselves today trying to pass on to the kids the desire for success. That’s really important. An example – one of Julian Brandt’s strongest traits is simply his unbelievable self-confidence. And what has helped us in this regard, is the inclusion of sports psychologists.
Q: How many youth-team players do you foresee making up the first team in the future?
Lewandowski: First of all, it’s important to remember that at a top club (like Leverkusen), it’s always going to be difficult to integrate a youth player into the senior side. In the long run, though, we would like to clearly increase that number. How long that will take, I can’t yet say. Our goal is, of course, to be successful as quickly as possible. I’m convinced that many of the things we’re currently working on will pan out in the long run.
Q: So what will happen to those senior youth team (A-Team) players who aren’t able to make the jump to the professional ranks?
Lewandowski: If the question is, what will happen to a senior youth player after his time with the A-Team, then the key words are “individual solutions.” Starting July 1, Dirk Dreher (current Team Manager of the Bayer II squad –ed.) will fill a new role in which he will be responsible for maintaining contact with players who won’t be advancing to our U19 team and finding solutions for them in terms of future progress. And to be honest, regarding the U23 (Bayer II) side, we were offering a bit of a fantasy to players who were 22 or 23 years old by suggesting that they could continue to make a living at this level for another 15 years. From a social aspect, that’s not really the case. One thing is clear: the really good, older youth team players have never asked to be a part of the U23 team. Not a one.
Q: So will Bayer rely more and more on loaning players out. Is cooperation with other clubs part of the plan?
Lewandowski: That’s not etched in stone. Naturally, there are several clubs more similar to us in terms of their philosophies, their approach, their style, and how they work. For example, it’s evident that we loan out more players to Greuther Fuerth than to other teams.
Q: Why should a young talent switch to Bayer Leverkusen and not some other competitor?
Lewandowski: Of course, this is a never-ending battle, one that’s been fought for years at the highest levels, because all of the competitors have come to realize how important player development is and are now investing in it. I think that we still have a slight advantage over other teams based on our staff, but that doesn’t mean we can relax, even for a moment.
Q: What’s so special about the youth player development staff?
Lewandowski: We do our jobs with an unbelievably high level of continuity, experience, and quality, and we try to build a special connection to each one of our players. It doesn’t matter if the player is one destined for greater things, or if he’s one who will likely not go farther than the U15 team. This important point is something that the staff at Kurtekotten have always understood, and that’s why my respect [for them] is so great. You never hear a complaint from any of the players, even once they’re gone. That’s not too typical.
Q: Is the youth transfer market becoming a less and less civilized place to do business?
Lewandowski: Here we try to project a reasonable level of cooperation, but not necessarily with missionary zeal. It is still all about getting the best for Bayer Leverkusen. I certainly hope that our dealings remain civil. Of course, over the past two years there’s been a tendency to suggest that the whole thing could change, and that tendency becomes more likely with new competitors like Leipzig.
Q: Speaking of Leipzig, is the project over there still underestimated?
Lewandowski: I don’t know if anyone still underestimates Leipzig. I certainly don’t. I know what’s happening there at the moment, and in the case of their young player development, I know it pretty well.
Q: Is Bayer in danger of being at a disadvantage if you use a “soft touch” in the youth market? Especially if other teams are dealing in a more cut-throat fashion?
Lewandowski: The “soft touch” needs to remain one of our strengths. We are simply convinced that a player who feels comfortable in his surroundings will play better. And that’s another one of our strengths – that we consider our societal responsibility to the player more so than others. We don’t ever want to lose that.
Questions were presented by Stefan Kluettermann.