Saalfelden is at the foot of the Austrian Alps.

South-west of Salzburg and about an hour over the border from Germany, it is cradled by mountains, sunk into a valley that sits beneath a wispy layer of cloud that twirls around pine trees and hangs over idle ski lifts.

It is breathtakingly beautiful. The scene is luscious green and perfect and, in thin air and under fine sheets of summer rain, Bayer Leverkusen are grinding away ahead of the new season.

Their training pitch is a hive of activity. Whistles are being blown. Goalposts are being moved. Bespoke mannequins, all wearing Leverkusen’s paracetamol crest, are bobbing in the breeze.

In one corner, the goalkeepers are toiling in the damp.

Save. Get up. Save. Get up.

“Footwork, footwork… good… again.”

Up and down they go, bouncing to their feet to face shots driven in from alternate angles. One ball thuds into a solar plexus, another clatters into the fleshy part of a forearm; it’s barbaric and brutal. The welts will last until the Bundesliga begins.

Bayer Leverkusen’s players prepare in the glorious setting (Photo: The Athletic)

On another pitch, Xabi Alonso stalks the sideline, prowling the edges of a possession drill. It is two or three touches allowed and every outfield player is involved. There are 20, maybe 25 players, all within a space a bit larger than a penalty area. Alonso wants an intense team. He needs players who can think as fast as electric current and this drill, with its whirling chaos, wouldn’t allow an amateur player so much as a touch. Tackles knife in from everywhere, at impossible speed and at all angles.

Alonso talks to his players in English, German and Spanish. He barks instructions and encouragement and, when he sees something he doesn’t like, stops the drill to tell a player where they should have been or to whom the ball should have gone.

This will be his first full season at Leverkusen.

He inherited a team in October 2022 that was one place off the foot of the league table after eight games. The changes he instigated were not instant but, after the turn of the year, Leverkusen improved in nearly every area of their game. They were more resilient without the ball and more purposeful and precise with it. They remained unbeaten between the end of February and the start of May, finishing sixth in the Bundesliga and reaching the semi-final of the Europa League.

In that context, it was an excellent start and Alonso is succeeding where many former players, particular the great ones, tend to fail. He is still the iconic No 6 who ran the Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich midfields, but he is also one of the most coveted young coaches in European football. Those two identities are independent of each other now — that is easier said than done.

It is an arresting contrast.

As a player, Alonso radiated calm. He was one of the finest orchestrators of his generation and someone who led by quiet, technical example. As a coach, he is more forceful; he wants the game played in a particular way and — on the training pitch — he is less abstract than he ever was as a player.

Bayer’s mannequins at the foot of the Austrian Alps (Photo: The Athletic)

Granit Xhaka is at the heart of the session.

Seven years in the Premier League have conditioned him for the drill’s speed, and he cuts and snaps his passes with a steady, smooth rhythm that is undisturbed by all the frenetic energy.

Alonso was a significant factor in Xhaka’s decision to return to Germany. Mikel Arteta, another player-turned-coach from San Sebastian, revived his Arsenal career and he speaks warmly of him and his impact. He also stresses that the decision to leave north London was not “against” Arsenal, but rather a move in favour of Leverkusen.

And from a coaching perspective, the commonalities between Arteta and Alonso should ease the transition and ultimately suit him.

Granit Xhaka back in the Bundesliga.

— Seb Stafford-Bloor (@SebSB) July 26, 2023

“They’re very similar; they have the same philosophy,” he tells The Athletic in the warmth of the hotel lobby later the same day. “I took a lot of things from Mikel Arteta, both as a coach and as a person. And I see many of the same things in Xabi now.”

Alonso has given him a different role ahead of the new season.

“Last year I played as a No 8 and it went well, but this is a different team. We spoke about this before I came here: he sees me as a No 6 and that’s how I see myself. But I’ll play anywhere. I’ll do whatever he asks.”

Xhaka’s time at Arsenal was a journey. So was his relationship with the club’s fans. But watching him now — away from all that turbulence — proves a reminder of what a fine player he is and has always been. Between the threshing blades of Alonso’s million-player rondo, he is always in a yard of space, always available to receive the ball and, somehow, even when there is no angle and the pressers are blocking out the light, always able to clip a pass away. A few sessions into his post-Arsenal career, he is clearly enjoying himself.

“I like this coaching team’s intensity,” he says. “They go full-gas every session — that’s very German in mentality — and that’s how we want to play this season.”

He is a serious person; polite and cordial — he has a sense of humour too — but there is a narrow-eyed conviction to the way he talks about Leverkusen’s upcoming season and his purpose within it.

His arrival was a decision made ultimately by Simon Rolfes. As the club’s managing director of sport, he was the architect of the rebuild this summer. He talks candidly, explaining how the Xhaka signing was just part of a wider strategy.

One of the more disappointing moments in Leverkusen’s season came in May, against Roma in the second leg of the Europa League semi-final. They had enough possession to overcome a 1-0 deficit that evening and were the better side at the BayArena. But that superiority was ground down by Jose Mourinho’s team and their shenanigans, and Leverkusen suffered what is best described as an emotional short-circuiting.

They were so affected by everything other than the football that night that they almost forgot to win the game.

Rolfes, Bayer’s CEO Fernando Carro and Alonso in discussion (Photo: The Athletic)

In response, Rolfes’ priority was to strengthen the squad in a particular way. He wanted to find the right people for their dressing room, as well as the right players for Alonso’s 3-4-3.

“We needed more stability in certain positions,” he says. “We also needed to add new experienced players to those we have, guys like Robert Andrich, Jonathan Tah and Lukas Hradecky, and to provide the team with more role models. I think we’ve done that with Granit Xhaka, Jonas Hofmann and Alex Grimaldo.

“All three have been very professional in their careers and have had the right attitude to their profession.”

It’s an interesting part of Rolfes’ work. Leverkusen’s recruiting acumen is well established; their work in South America especially so. But without the right senior players, the balance of the team would not be quite right. All the potency within the club’s developing players would not be incubated in the way it needs to be.

Moussa Diaby was one of the club’s biggest successes and has recently left. Signed for €15million (£12.9m; $16.5m), Diaby has just been sold to Aston Villa for €55m (£47.2m; $60.6m). It was the right time for everybody, Rolfes says; for Diaby to take the next step, but for Leverkusen to evolve.

“The bigger picture is that if we want to invest then we have to sell.”



50 to watch - Moussa Diaby: Leverkusen’s emerging livewire with a fondness for extravagance

It’s a refrain familiar from clubs across the world. Part of Rolfes’ job, like so many of his peers, is to minimise the trauma when someone as talented as Diaby leaves and to ensure that the club’s objectives do not have to be rescaled as a result. It is a challenge he cheerfully accepts, even if does not necessarily follow a template or pattern.

“It’s not like you know which year a player will leave, because you can’t know how quickly someone will adapt or develop. But, for example, when Leon Bailey was here (in 2017), we knew that at some point in those next two years he was going to leave. So, we signed Moussa Diaby because we thought that, one day, he’ll be able to replace him.”

Moussa Diaby during the Europa League semi-final in May (Photo: Federico Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Diaby did more than that. Bailey departed for Aston Villa in 2021, by which time the Frenchman had already become the more productive player. The two are now team-mates again at Villa Park, but Amine Adli — signed in 2021 — now looks ready to contend for a first-team place. In any case, Jonas Hofmann is certainly good enough to play on the right.

“To plan in detail is not really possible,” Rolfes adds. “But two to three years (before a sale) we have to have a newcomer in the squad. Sometimes it’s slower, sometimes it’s faster. But… from Bailey to Diaby, Diaby to Adli.”

This summer, Rolfes added another contingency. Jeremie Frimpong, the wing-back, was signed for €11m from Celtic in January 2021. He is now worth considerably more and coveted by some of the biggest clubs in Europe. His eventual departure is inevitable and so, in the summer of 2023, Leverkusen returned to South America to buy Arthur, a 20-year-old full-back from Brazilian side, Club America.

“He’s a very talented player. Very fast, very technical — but also a good mentality,” Rolfes says. “He’s a really good guy and he’s already started speaking a bit of German.”

Bayer Leverkusen keep rolling.



50 to watch - Jeremie Frimpong: The precocious wing-back who loves to attack

Edmond Tapsoba is one of the club’s mightiest prospects.

He is classy and confident in that Saalfelden rain, stepping out of tackles and looking every bit like one of the Bundesliga’s finest ball-carrying defenders.

Off the pitch, he is softly spoken and personable. He is about to enter his fourth season with Leverkusen and that time has not been without its challenges. He enjoyed a sudden rise upon joining the club in 2020, then a dip in the aftermath. Now, though, his stock is higher than ever.

Tapsoba is one of the Bundesliga’s best ball-carrying centre-backs (Photo: Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

One of the factors behind the team’s improvement under Alonso, certainly after the Bundesliga’s resumption following the World Cup, was a much-improved defence of which he was part. That owed much to Alonso’s work on the unit’s formation, explains Tapsoba, and the number of small-sided games Alonso employs.

“He’s tough on the defence. We work a lot on positioning — that seems a big part of Spanish coaching — and also on not letting the ball get between the lines and being ready for the pressure.”

Tapsoba is one of the most sought-after defenders in Europe. He has a host of admirers and for good reason.

Skilful, tall, and extremely quick — he’s also an unexpectedly good penalty-taker — he has the en vogue attributes that the biggest teams chase. He is also versatile. Leverkusen play with a back three and he has occupied all three centre-back positions at different times. Tapsoba is right-footed, but prefers to play in the centre or from the left. That is an interesting window into his mindset. He wants to defend, yes, but he wants to influence the game with the ball.

“On the right, you only really have two passing options: your wing-back and your centre-back. On the left (or centre), when you control the ball, you can step inside and see the whole field.”

Tapsoba is lithe and classy and really typical of the modern defensive ideal. But, watching him cherish the ball, it is easy to imagine him in a different era, anchoring a midfield or dominating the space between the penalty boxes with his languid skill and long stride.

The faces pressed against the fences around the training pitch are really after a closer look at Florian Wirtz.

A few young children have his name on the backs of their shirts and even the adults watching — even the press with their affected indifference — give the occasional squeak of joy when he has the ball at his feet.

Wirtz is a young darling of German football; a great playmaking hope of the national team and in person, from just a few yards away, he is a jewel of a player. Those local schoolchildren keep jostling for position around the perimeter fencing that surrounds the pitch, and they coo with excitement when, pressed to his left and right, Wirtz steps over the ball, his feet flashing to a blur, and escapes away and into space.

Off the pitch, Wirtz is less expressive. He is too sought-after to be available one-on-one and so, instead, the national and international media crowd around him in the late afternoon as he sits at the head of a long, thin wooden table.

Wirtz is still just 20 and he has the fresh-faced complexion of a teenager. Hemmed-in and verbally prodded, he seems almost vulnerable to the expectation around him. He is now well-recovered from his cruciate knee ligament injury and last season saw him return to his very best form. Now back in the limelight, he attracts that very specific kind of attention afforded to only the most talented.

Between training sessions, he just has to shuffle past in his flip-flops to make the local journalists twitch.

And that’s partly because German football isn’t, to use the popular refrain, in the very best moment. A year out from a home European Championship, there is a deepening existential crisis about how the national team might perform and from where it might draw its talent in the future. Wirtz plays in a position that is relatively well-stocked — Bayern Munich’s Jamal Musiala is obviously also a future star of the game — but there is still the sense of gathering pressure around him.

The questions he faces could be borrowed from those flung at England’s Golden Generation, or from any era during which a country is fretting about its place in the footballing hierarchy.

“Compared with your club form, Florian, your international performances aren’t as good — why is that?”

“Florian, do you get the sense the mood around the national team isn’t very good at the moment?”

“With your club, you’ve consistently produced bits of magic, but you’ve only done that sporadically with the national team. What’s the problem there?”

His answers were polite but curt, and safe. German football is there at the moment. In that place. And Wirtz is approaching the eye of that storm.

Wirtz is a rising star of German football (Photo: Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

Training camps abound with subtle dynamics.

There are sub-plots everywhere — or at least it is easy to imagine them wherever you look. Every mini-conference between the technical staff looks, from afar, like a high-powered transfer discussion. In fact, any time anyone with a branded tracksuit is seen talking on the phone it can seem like the football world is about to rock ever-so-gently on its axis.

That is true on the training pitch, too. On the final day before leaving Austria, Leverkusen finish their session with a crossing drill and those intra-squad mechanics are there to be seen. Who knows who. Who is loud. Who is quiet. Who has social confidence and who is still trying to convince themselves — and the other players — that they belong at the top of the game.

The way they respond to each other and sometimes themselves is fascinating.

Older players are mercilessly teased for mis-hits and clumsy shots. Others, like Robert Andrich, brutally castigate themselves and nobody else says a word. When a younger or newly arrived player slices a cross or gets under a header, they are given a few hearty claps and just encouragement to do better next time. From Alonso, from his assistants, from players like Xhaka and Hofmann. In a way, squads police themselves, organically developing those little energies.

But a training camp is not just a bonding exercise competition. It is really a competition. Not necessarily for places — not yet — but for status. It is somewhere for players to chase self-belief and clutch at little moments of ego.

During the crossing drill, one of the younger goalkeepers makes a brilliant save, jutting out a strong arm to deflect a header on to the post. He springs up and thumps that metal post in celebration. He is not going to play next season — Lukas Hradecky is the club captain and clear first choice — but Alonso was watching. So were all his senior team-mates, and he has just shown that he is a slightly better player than they possibly knew.

Victor Boniface is also a force in that final practice. Boniface was the joint top scorer in last season’s Europa League and has been signed for €20million from Union Saint-Gilloise. In just 18 months, he has gone from playing in Norway, then to Belgium and now to the Bundesliga. He knows that his team-mates are watching his every shot and touch, and working out whether he is worth that big fee.

That is a lonely place. Each time Boniface is involved, the collective energy draws towards him.

Boniface (left) was prolific at Union last term (Photo: Isosport/MB Media/Getty Images)

Rolfes has no doubts.

It was during his European performances that Boniface convinced Leverkusen he was ready for another step up.

“We were interested in Victor for sure after his performances in the Europa League group stage,” Rolfes says. “We’d known about him for longer through our scouting, but then we also got to play against him live in the quarter-finals.”

There is a complication, though. During the camp, between meals and sessions in the swimming pool, Patrik Schick is seen limping through the hotel lobby on crutches. Schick has been suffering from abductor problems since October 2022 and has played just a few hours of football over the past nine months. There is still no concrete timeframe for his return and one of the Bundesliga’s most compelling forwards will not be fit to start the season.

For Boniface, that is another layer to this challenge.

On the one hand, Leverkusen have just paid a large fee for him. On the other, he is going to occupy the role of one of their star players who cannot currently compete for that position. Comparisons with Schick are inevitable, even though they are stylistically different, and it creates another dimension to his arrival. That is no simple matter, either. Boniface has made a quantum leap in the game over the past year and a half. His life has changed and how he handles that — the status, the attention, the pressure and the money — will matter just as much.

“Personality is really important,” Rolfes says. “When you develop so quickly, as Victor has, you must be able to handle it in the correct way and with the right mindset and focus to be able to move on further.”

Boniface is clearly hungry for whatever comes next. He attacks the sessions in Austria and his confidence seems to rise with every little triumph; with each ball won or recycled, with the passes that find team-mates, with the shots or headers steered crisply into the net.

The speed of Alonso’s rondo in the rain is initially tricky for him and there is some nervousness to a few of his touches. But 24 hours later he was dispatching a fine volley in that crossing practice with a pure contact that echoed around the mountains above. Everyone clapped, on the training pitch and around it.

Every moment counts and everybody knows that. Even in pre-season.

Bayer Leverkusen’s Alpine base (Photo: The Athletic)

Granit Xhaka sounds like he has unfinished business in the Bundesliga.

He talks of his four years at Borussia Monchengladbach and remembers how, at times, youthful impetuousness got the better of him and produced a flurry of cards. It is a habit that he has never really escaped — he certainly kept Premier League’s referees busy — but, in his mind, he is not the same person he once was.

“I first came to Germany as a boy in 2012,” he says. “In 2023, I’m a man. But that doesn’t mean I won’t do my stuff; I’m the same player. I’m still aggressive.”

Xhaka does not waste words. He does not blink very often, either, and even in English he is very precise in what he says. He talks about his coaching badges and how, shortly, he will begin studying for UEFA A Licence through a session of video calls. He is hopeful, too, that he will have the opportunity to hone his coaching craft with one of the club’s younger teams in the future.

He has a plan for what happens next — that is very clear.

But he also has a plan for now. He speaks of the effect he can have on his new team-mates and what he might be able to inspire and how, potentially, that might not always be the most comfortable process.

“I have a feeling that this team is not at its limit yet. This is part of my job — to push the young players to the limit. It’s also to show them where the limit is.”

If Bayer Leverkusen can find that limit this season, if they can really reach the apex of all their potential, they should be one of the best teams in Germany.



Xabi Alonso’s brilliance has got Leverkusen this far - there’s no doubt he’s going places

(Top photo: The Athletic)