Leverkusen -- When Chelsea paid Bayer Leverkusen a king's ransom for the services of Kai Havertz -- the best player the Bundesliga side had produced in two decades -- in the summer of 2020 sporting director Simon Rolfes did not blink. He had the best part of $100 million burning a hole in his pocket. He had no intention of spending it on a straight replacement for Havertz. "We could buy one for eight million, a waste of money, the kid is already better," he says. "At the end we didn't have a chance to act in a different way. It would have been senseless."
The kid is Florian Wirtz, so much more than just the successor to Havertz's crown. Still just 18 years of age, Wirtz is the beating heart of Bayer Leverkusen, heralded as one of the finest young players of his generation with four senior caps for Germany to his name already. Though he will naturally be compared to Havertz, the two could scarcely interpret their role in the spaces in front of defenses more differently. The Chelsea forward has all the raw ingredients of a classic number 10 but in a curious form: his height means that both Leverkusen and Thomas Tuchel have found success deploying him as a center forward, not least because they can use his size to great effect at set pieces.
Wirtz, meanwhile, takes on the more traditional form of a central creator. Where many German forwards will start wide and look to move infield, he tends to favor dropping to deeper spots to collect the ball off his central midfielders. At 5ft 7in he has the look of the diminutive playmaker though Celtic defenders can attest he is not easily brushed off the ball.
Against the Scottish visitors in Thursday's Europa League win, Wirtz was a devastating force. His eye for a pass and ability to put the ball exactly where he wanted it brought Leverkusen all three of their goals and he secured qualification for the round of 16 with an elegant chip off the byline that teed up Moussa Diaby to volley home the winner.
As Gerardo Seoane's young side looked to struggle under the pressure exerted on them by Celtic, Wirtz rose to the moment, creating six chances. Earlier that day, when Rolfes received the lengthy list of scouts attending Thursday's game, he laughed off the sheer weight of eyeballs that would be on his club with something akin to gallows' humour. Every big club in Europe is seriously monitoring the young playmaker and Rolfes knows his phone will be ringing off the hook over the coming months. For now, however, they are convinced that they represent the perfect place for Wirtz's footballing apprenticeship. "Florian is so young, for him it's good to play here for some more years," says the Bayer 04 chief. "We will not be nervous if we get an offer. That was the same case with Kai Havertz. We had one year before already really, really big offers. There was no discussion for us to sell. We know the value of players and we know they can still increase their values."
Still Leverkusen know the clock is ticking, not just for Havertz but for a host of other young talent as well. Edmond Tapsoba was wanted by Arsenal last summer. Liverpool and Everton have been linked with Moussa Diaby. Patrik Schick's breakout Euro 2020 had a string of Premier League sides linked with a bid. Then there is the specter of perennial champions Bayern Munich, who will hoover up the best talent in the Bundesliga and kneecap their competitors in the process.
Rolfes is perhaps 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 feeding frenzy. "We have a really long contract [with Wirtz], that's good," says Rolfes, his smile suggesting he is well aware that Leverkusen will not get to 2026 without getting an offer for his star player's services. "But it's not only about contracts. The feeling that this is the best place for him as long as possible to develop, to grow, to improve in his personality and technical, physical things," he said.
"We have to show that we work on a really high level here. Then we can keep him. If we have a good squad with a lot of ambition, we try to keep him as long as possible. For sure he's 18, but already a central player of our squad: not only Florian but Patrik Schick, a fantastic striker, Moussa Diaby, Edmond Tapsoba, there are more really young players who can reach world class level. We try to keep them as long as possible that they grow together, that they maybe have one year where they accelerate their career together here in Leverkusen."
The challenge for Leverkusen, if they want such success to be sustainable, is to ready themselves for the day when Wirtz and company have gone. That is the ultimate job of the club's academy, not, they insist, winning matches. Keld Bordinggaard, the club's head of coaching, says: "It's easier for the coach to win at U17 or U15 level. Put the big guys on the pitch and you have your result. To develop the next top talent is much, much more difficult. For a club like ours we sometimes need to sell players upwards in the system and downwards. It's crucial we bring 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 grade. Havertz may have left Leverkusen without adding to the club's modest trophy collection, but the silverware he has subsequently won is a source of great pride for the club. "Everybody in this club wants to have a part in the development of Kai Havertz," says the director of the club's performance center Thomas Eichin. "You speak to coaches who coached him in the U13s 'aaah I was the one who coached him to head the ball like that'."
Discovering the next Havertz or Wirtz is all the more challenging in an environment like North Rhine-Westphalia. Leverkusen are surrounded by footballing giants on all sides. To the north lie Gelsenkirchen, Dortmund, Monchengladbach and Dusseldorf, all seats of German footballing powers. To the south Cologne. In an area less than 50 miles north to south six big names, plus a host of other clubs, are scouring the population of seven million for the next prospect who could make them millions or lead the club to glory.
"It's a war," says Bordinggaard. "I'm very thankful it's not part of my job description." It is Eichin who is tasked with leading those particular battles. "I was a professional [genera] manager [with Werder Bremen and 1860 Munich] and it wasn't as horrible as it is in the youth. Every agent, every parent wants to get the next top player and earn money with this. At 13, 14 it doesn't matter, they get unbelievable money offers."
Clubs look enviously at their rivals, looking to snare the best and brightest. When Rolfes, a 10 year veteran of the Leverkusen midfield up to 2015, returned to the club as an executive his first question of the youth setup was why Wirtz was at Cologne, not Leverkusen. "He's a player for Bayer Leverkusen: ability to play, offensive, technical, active, creative." From there the charm offensive began, as it does with so many top talents in the area.
From a training center with a bistro and places for parents to react to commitments over school work, Leverkusen offer all they realistically can to snatch up the best young talent. Others will offer more money, Leverkusen hope that the quality of their youth coaches and historic commitment to giving youth a chance serves them in greater stead. Unlike many of their rivals, Bayer 04 do not have a B team operating in the lower levels. There is a direct path from Under-19s to the first team. It was perhaps Leverkusen's most compelling argument to Wirtz, that on day one he would be training alongside Havertz and company.
Leverkusen go beyond simply playing a similar system between their youth teams and Seoane's squad. Young players will work on the same training drills that Wirtz, Tapsoba and Diaby are being put through at the next level up. "Imagine a 16 year old steps into the first team and training with national team players from France, Germany and South America and he doesn't know the drill or the small-sided game," explains Bordinggaard. "He's lost there. That's why we have to introduce them way earlier, so he doesn't have to think 'can I touch the ball once or twice, or am I allowed to play in this direction?'"
Because, of course, this is not just about creating the next Havertz and Wirtz. Whether to sell them out or to add to the first team, Leverkusen need to make sure that it is not just the very best of the best that make it to the finishing line of academy football.
"It's very important that not just the best youth player comes into our squad," says Eichin. "Maybe an average player can contribute to our team and the coach can use them eight, nine, 10 times in a season. Then you can sell him to another club, that is as important for us."
The club know that having one of Havertz or Wirtz is reflective of good talent spotting, two might just be that plus a bit of good fortune. On this occasion lightning struck twice at the Bay Arena. They found an exceptional German playmaker they could hone into a star and replaced him with another.
Last season a young footballer forged at Bayer Leverkusen decided the course of the Champions League final. It would be a brave man who bet against that happening again.