Who is Simon Rolfes? Why Leverkusen's 'Shopping King' is linked with Liverpool

Xabi Alonso is the name in the headlines given Bayer Leverkusen’s ascent to the summit of the Bundesliga, but Simon Rolfes deserves a fair chunk of the credit. Bayer currently lead the title race from Bayern Munich by an eight-point margin, seemingly destined to end their hoodoo and finally set to win the German title. 

Alonso’s rise as manager has put him in the frame to replace Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool come the season’s end. He is under contract until 2026 and the club remain confident he will see out his terms. 

The Spain World Cup winner has got the best out of signings like Alex Grimaldo, Victor Boniface and Granit Xhaka this season but credit for the Werkself’s incredible season to date must also go to Rolfes, their Managing Director Sports.

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One of the most highly-regarded executives in European football thanks to his work at Leverkusen, the 42-year-old recently put pen to paper on a new contract which ties him to the BayArena until 2028. It's not for nothing that esteemed German publication Kicker call him 'Der Shopping King'.

Despite that new deal, and in light of the interest being shown around Alonso, Rolfes has now been linked with a move to Liverpool

The Reds are in the market for a sporting director following the departure of Jorg Schmadtke with reports that FSG will seek to replicate the Leverkusen double act which has carried the side to the top of the Bundesliga and into the latter stages of the DFB Pokal and Europa League as well. 

Fußball: 1. Bundesliga, Trainervorstellung Xabi Alonso - Bayer 04 Leverkusen am 06.010.2022 in Leverkusen Nordrhein-Westfalen. Leverkusen s Sportdirektor Simon Rolfes und Leverkusen s Chef Trainer Xabi Alonso auf der Tribüne im Stadion, *** Soccer 1 Bundesliga, coach presentation Xabi Alonso Bayer 04 Leverkusen on 06 010 2022 in Leverkusen North Rhine Westphalia Leverkusen s sports director Simon Rolfes and Leverkusen s head coach Xabi Alonso in the stands at the stadium, Copyright: xChristopherxNeundorfx

Simon Rolfe playing career

Rolfes was a no-nonsense kind of midfielder. He had no time for nonsense like bookings and fouls. He preferred to break up attacks before they happened rather than make a panicked tackle later.

Confident with the ball at his feet, Rolfes would usually pick the right pass rather than attempt anything risky and rarely dribbled past opponents.

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When Rolfes played for Bayer Leverkusen, then Sporting Director (and World Cup winning forward) Rudi Voller said the midfielder could be the next Michael Ballack. He never quite reached those heights, but had an impressive career, playing almost 377 times for B04 over the course of 10 seasons.

This unfortunately coincided with part of the team’s Neverkusen period, finishing as runner-up in both the German Cup and the Bundesliga.

Rolfes earned 26 caps for Germany, playing for the national team at Euro 2008, and was regarded as one of the best Bundesliga midfielders of his day. 

Part of the Werder Bremen youth and academy systems, he had moved to Alemannia Aachen before being recruited by Leverkusen in 2005. He hung up his boots relatively young, destined for a move into the executive side of the game. 

Moving into management

After retirement as a player, Rolfes enrolled in the two-year UEFA MIP course - the executive master for international players in sports management. 

He did his dissertation on football academies in Europe, visiting training grounds in Barcelona, PSV and Tottenham - among others - in the process. He had close contacts with all levels of those academies, speaking to directors and coaches and undertaking extensive analysis on different methods and procedures for sustaining academies. 

He combined it with work as a ZDF pundit as well as running a couple of his own companies. 

He also completed an MBA in sports management in 2019, which he first started in 2013, at the University of Applied Sciences Koblenz. 

Rolfes the sporting director

Rolfes returned to Leverkusen in the role of Head of Youth and Development in 2018 and spent four years rising through the ranks before replacing the aforementioned Voller in his current role in 2022. 

His current job title is Manager Director Sports but held the position of Sporting Director from December 2018 until summer 2022. 

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He was in place when Leverkusen made the decision to replace Gerardo Seoane with Alonso while the club were mired in the Bundesliga relegation places in October 2022. 

Rolfes renewing his contract in November was seen as a major coup for Leverkusen, guaranteeing them a degree of certainty over their planning for the long term. With him and Alonso at the helm, Leverkusen have the right personalities and structures to thrive. 

'Der Shopping King' and his best signings

In an extensive interview with the official Bundesliga website, Rolfes outlined the three pillars that go into signing a player for Leverkusen. Those are atmosphere, development and performance. 

Fußball, 1. Bundesliga, 20240217, 1. FC Heidenheim 1846 - Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Im Bild Jeremie FRIMPONG Bayer 04 Leverkusen, 30 Portrait Oberkörper halbe Figur angeschnittenes Einzelmotiv dynamisch. Heidenheim Voit Arena Baden-Württemberg Deutschland *** Soccer, 1 Bundesliga, 20240217, 1 FC Heidenheim 1846 Bayer 04 Leverkusen In the picture Jeremie FRIMPONG Bayer 04 Leverkusen, 30 Portrait upper body half figure cropped single motif dynamic Heidenheim Voit Arena Baden Württemberg Germany Copyright: Passion2Press/MarkusxFischerx

Having overseen the club’s recruitment at youth and senior levels in one capacity or the other since 2018, Rolfes knows what it takes to sign and develop the best talents around. 

He is a meticulous user of data to inform his recruitment decisions and also relies on Leverkusen’s old-fashioned network of former players in South America - like Lucio and Ze Roberto - to help sell the club to potential targets. 

“You need to look at which markets make sense for you and where you have the biggest chance of getting good players based on your history," Rolfes told Bulinews in 2022.

"And when I say markets, I don’t just mean countries, but also age groups and tournaments.

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“If you look at the whole world, you’re more inefficient. We try not to be too big in terms of scouting. I think it’s better to have a bit smaller team with good communication, where everyone is involved. We try to be the best in our key markets. To do that, we have to leave some markets for the other clubs.”

He coaxed Florian Wirtz from the Koln underage ranks in 2020, placing him with the Leverkusen first team, and has been responsible for orchestrating the club’s hugely successful squad building over the last few seasons. 

Players like Odilon Kossounou, Edmond Tapsoba, Piero Hincapie, Jeremie Frimpong, Grimaldo, Robert Andrich, Xhaka, Amin Adli and Boniface have been recruited under his watch.

There is a good blend of potential and experience with Rolfes having a keen sense of which players will fit in a personality sense. 

“Fundamental keys to the success of Bayer 04 are being clear and open-minded, innovative, global and forward-thinking, while recognizing the history and roots of a club like Bayer 04,” he wrote on his LinkedIn account. 

Simon Rolfes Der Shopping King Bayer Leverkusen Liverpool FC

Liverpool target Simon Rolfes was dubbed 'Der Shopping King' by German publication 'Kicker' for his prowess in the transfer market.

What Xabi Alonso and co say about Simon Rolfes

"For me, continuity at the top of a company is hugely significant – maybe even more so in football than elsewhere. We complement each other very well with the different strengths we offer,” Bayer Leverkusen CEO Fernando Carro told the club’s official website in December about his collaboration with Rolfes at the top of the club hierarchy. 

It’s clear that Alonso too like working with Rolfes. Upon his contract renewal in August, he said: “The fact we are convinced of the same ideas and direction on the pitch, creates close affinity and confidence between the club management and myself. 

“There is also a very good and relaxed working basis day-to-day. That too makes working with my staff and all Bayer 04 employees great fun.”

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