Pep Lijnders, the assistant manager of Liverpool discloses behind the scenes scenario of the Red’s road to the Premier League title.
Goal.com Liverpool Correspondent, Neil Jones questioned Liverpool’s assistant manager to choose one match or one result to sum up this Reds squad and their impressive seasonal progress.
“Leicester! Definitely Leicester. That was the one. I had many proud moments this season, but that was definitely one of them.” – as Lijnders smiled and told Goal.com
Liverpool strengthened their hold on the championship race of the Premier League when they delivered a masterclass on the boxing day. They overwhelmed closest Leicester City rivals at the King Power Stadium and stretch their gap to an overwhelming 13 points. Many would argue, but this was the day Lijnders is most proud of.
The Merseyside won 4-0 against the Foxes. Jurgen Klopp ‘s team finished the match 10 points ahead of the Foxes. The Reds created such a status and supremacy display that it’s almost hard to see how they won’t win their first championship in 30 years.
“We never gave them a sniff. We really pressed them, counter-pressed them, played with direction with the ball, and were unpredictable.” – Lijnders take a trip down memory lane.
“Liverpool were, like Jurgen always says, a really ugly team to play against. Yeah, that was the one.” – Pep added.
The Beginning of the Road to the 2019-20 Premier League Title:
In 2014, he moved to Liverpool and assisted Brendan Rodgers and later Jurgen Klopp as assistant coach. He joined as Under-16 manager for the Liverpool youth team then transformed into the first field trainer with Klopp.
“Mike Gordon (owner) called me beforehand, so I knew how my role would be,” the Dutchman says. “But of course, you have to see how it will work out before you know.
“I was really happy that we got a coach with similar ideas. It sounds ridiculous, but I was happy that we got a coach that really wanted to go forward in everything, with the ball or without it!
“The first meetings with Klopp were great. You just saw a coach who was really happy that he had signed. You saw that in everything, how he spoke and what he did.”
Lijnders took over the management role at NEC in the Dutch Eerste Divisie in 2018. The Dutchman was fired after NEC was not promoted to the first-tier of the Eredivisie.
He returned to the Liverpool coaching staff in June of 2018 after Klopp’s long-time assistant Zeljko Buvac departed from the club.
He was in the final of the 2018 Champions League where Liverpool lost to Real Madrid in Kiev.
“The environment we created in that first pre-season was so positive. The trust and the relationship between the players and the staff improved a lot.” – he recalls.
Liverpool had succeeded in making the final, but was undermined by handling errors, technical and strategic immaturity within the group that Klopp and Lijnders quickly tried to fix.
“It was about speed, but at the same time patience to play from the back. We had to create more build-up situations, but to be more together with it.
“Our midfield, for example, was more spread out so we wanted more organisation there. If you look now, our last line plays much higher with the ball against the opposition, because we are much more together.
“We focused a lot on these moments, with always having counter-pressing in our mind. That is our playmaker and has to stay our playmaker, but the rhythm from having the ball from the back, that changed.
“Having our central-midfielders much more involved in build-up than before, and our full-backs much more involved in attacking than in the build-up phase, that was a big, big change to be honest.”
Since Lijnders returned, Liverpool has played 76 Premier League games, winning 62 of them, and losing only four. They won the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, World Cup club and Premier League in 14 months.
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Virgil Van Djik – The Tower:
In December 2017, it was announced that Van Dijk would join Liverpool in the winter transfer window for a fee of £75 million. The most expensive defender in the world arrived at Anfield and provided composure and stability to the Liverpool’s back-four.
“The impact of Virgil on the dressing room – his calmness, his professionalism, his love of clean sheets – that was big. He is a winner in each vein of his body.” – Lijnders claims.
“He gave us a much higher line to play with, purely from a footballing sense. First you have to outplay our front three, then that’s already a big task because they normally defend five or six players.
“Then you must outplay our midfield three, who are so disciplined at putting pressure, closing the centre space, and then you have to outplay our last line, which plays high, plays offside and all these things.
“But then if you outplay our last line, you have Virgil with those big steps, and he can still catch you!
“Then there’s the impact of Virgil on our build-up game, the way he steps out, those direct passes out to Salah, the passes in behind, short and long. He had a massive impact.
“Oh, and if teams want to try to go long, we have a tower!” – he added.
Fabinho – The Lighthouse:
Fabinho ‘s commanding success at the midfield foundation guided him to becoming an indispensable squad leader. Although a midfielder, he was appropriately backup center-back whenever they demanded.
Since featuring in the final for Tottenham Hotspur, he finished his debut season at Merseyside appearing for 41 games to his credit and the prestigious Champions League winner’s badge.
“He is a real positional player. Fabinho plays the ‘six’, as we said before, as a lighthouse. He is constantly in the right position, and covers for the ones who have to jump from their position to try to win the ball.” – Lijnders on Fabinho.
“The gaffer called him ‘Inspector Gadget’ with his legs, no? No, that was Virgil. What was it Jurgen called him? Dyson, the vacuum cleaner? That’s right.
“If you are pressing, you can never cover all the spaces, but he is unbelievable when there are bigger spaces. His challenge, his last step to win the ball, is really important.
“He’s our best midfielder in stopping counterattacks, and that’s important because 80 per cent of the teams we play search only for counterattacks. They don’t play any more. They have 15 metres between the lines and search to break quickly. He had a massive impact on counterattacks, so there’s where we improved a lot – our protection.”
Alisson – The Cat:
Liverpool commanding goalkeeper Alisson Becker He received praise for his subsequent consistent performances between the sticks which saw him keep numerous clean sheets. Despite his height (6’3”), strength, size, and his large, powerful physique, he is also an agile and athletic goalkeeper.
“What can I say? He’s a cat! When you look back to all the decisive moments we had, you will always find one, two or three moments from Alisson, and you will not find a more professional, humbler person than him.
“We walked out at Arsenal, and me and Jurgen were standing in front of the team before they left the dressing room. We said the things we needed to say, and then I heard him say to all the team ‘Guys, no arrogance here, we have to be humble. When we have to run, we run. When we have to be together, we are together.’
“I hear it in my right ear and I look at Jurgen. It went in, you know? He’s talking about us being humble, and therein lies the secret to the future, to be honest.
“He doesn’t speak a lot, but when he speaks, he speaks the right things. I like him a lot, and not only because of what he brought us, but as a person as well.”
Liverpool’s name on Champions League trophy! 30 years. No Premier League:
Liverpool had a couple of chances of winning the Premier League early on. Liverpool had a great run under Gerard Houllier, Rafa Benitez and Brendan Rodgers but failed to win the Prem title. However, under Klopp and his ‘tower’, ‘the lighthouse’ and ‘the Cat’ at goal helped them achieve the long-awaited title.
In 2018-19 they were excellent, suffering just one game in the Premier League and winning 97 points. They looked like a team with purpose.
“I think that was really, really important for the players and for Jurgen. You have to earn confidence, and you earn real confidence with proper work.
“You can only earn it by the things you did before, so knowing why we beat Barcelona, why we had these performances against Napoli or Porto or even Tottenham in the final. Winning that gave the group the real belief that the next prize is there if we keep doing the things we are doing.” – Lijnders said.
Notably after all, no major changes to the main Liverpool squad were made.
“If you win finals or have a super moment, the key thing is that you keep your core group together. That’s the most important thing.” – Lijnders added.
“If you are successful as a sub-top side in Europe, they take your players. The change we had to make in the last years was to go from being sub-top to top, and if you want to stay there, your biggest signing is to keep your best players.
“We felt that confidence after the Champions League final, to keep the group together and go for the next season. That was really important in my opinion.”
The ‘Moneyball’ technique:
Billy Beane, the guy who developed the ‘Moneyball’ recruiting technique in the United States. Beane’s methods as the GM of the Oakland Athletics in Major League Baseball turned him into a managerial legend. He used sabermetric principles to run his team in a cost-effective way. This allowed him to be successful despite his financial constraints. Oakland Athletics dominated MLB despite getting a significantly smaller budget than other competitors.
Some of the clubs to profit from such a strategy is the newly-crowned Premier League champions Liverpool. Merseyside club benefit from this approach as the owners already control MLB side Boston Red Sox from FSG. Liverpool transfer strategy was not about sign Neymar’s and Ronaldo’s, but the main focus was on the team working as a unit.
“I still believe that the best signing you can make is the training process. The only way to play like we do is to train each minute of each session with these principles.” – Lijnders told.
“It makes me most proud that when I look, you cannot compare the team now with the team two years ago. The way we play, the way the team developed, you cannot compare.
“You cannot compare each player with two years ago. Each player improved, each player made a new step, the next step.”
How did Liverpool managed to win the Premier League?
Neil Jones asked: “So how did Liverpool manage that?”
“Training!” Lijnders adds. “These players, they make everything competitive!
“Let me give you an example; if we play 10 vs 0 and there’s no opposition, and Robbo puts in a cross for Bobby to head in. Robbo will walk back and I will hear Virgil say ‘are you really happy with that cross Robbo?’
“It might have been a good cross, but it can be better. They constantly push each other. A rondo – five vs two – they play like a final!
“If you train, you have to do so with your whole body. You cannot train with just your legs or your head. And the only way to get the whole body into training is competition. That’s the only way. Winning, losing, going in, going out. That means they train with everything they have, and that’s the only way to improve, to give a little bit more, a little bit more.”
‘Winning is 90% mentality and 10% skills’ – according to some legend. Liverpool players were mentally prepared says Lijnders.
“They are machines, honestly!” – Lijnders jokes.
“What they learned and installed in themselves is that they see each game as the next final. And they never lost this focus.”
“We didn’t mention City. Maybe the players did among themselves, but I cannot even imagine that to be honest. The only moment I remember was when Jurgen text me. City had lost, it was probably around January time. He said ‘OK, now we have to manage expectations. But it was never even the slightest issue.”
The Klopp Effect:
One of Klopp’s biggest achievements was to build an atmosphere where everybody is respected, where everybody knows they have a part to play, be it from the start or from the bench.
“Before each match, we play a game in training,” Lijnders says. “Starters against non-starters.
“We call the non-starters ‘the yellow team’ because they wear the yellow bibs. And they play always in the style of the next opponent. They have maybe four minutes where they get information and then they have to play like the other team.
“And I can’t tell you the amount of times we walk off the pitch, or even during the session, and someone will say ‘wow, I’m so happy we don’t have to play the yellows tomorrow!’
“The level is so high. The ones who aren’t playing have the mentality to create as many problems as possible for the starters. And even boys who are disappointed, in three or four minutes they can change that.
“Everyone who is in team sport knows that is key, how the group is together, the relationship between the ones who play and the ones who do not. We won four prizes, and that has to stay. It cannot change.
“If you play for a top club like Liverpool, you know that even if you come on just for five minutes, it is to make a difference, and a lot of times that happened. You need to be prepared always.
“It’s not easy, so a lot of respect goes to them. You need this mentality, to want to be part of this team.”
A ‘Dream’ into ‘Reality’:
Liverpool were crowned champions of England for the first time in 30 years after Manchester City lost to Chelsea.
Klopp, his teammates and staff experienced together the joyous moment as they celebrated and dances at Formby Hall Hotel and at Golf Resort.
Lijnders went with common emotions.
“Oh wow, it was emotional!” says Lijnders.
“I called my wife after the final whistle and I couldn’t speak. It was just unbelievable. I feel it now speaking about it, to be honest.
“It was probably the most intense game I ever watched. I had a real pain in my head during it.
“There was a moment when we felt Chelsea had more control of the game after the big chance missed by City [Raheem Sterling hitting the post]. Then the moment, the whole scrimmage [for the Willian penalty], you think ‘again?’ and then he gives the handball! I didn’t see it. I had run to the television but I had already turned my back. And then I saw that it was a penalty. Then we knew.
“It was special because we were together with the staff and everyone involved with the team, seeing their emotions during the game.
“Listen, you want to become champions with the fans, looking them in the eyes and seeing and feeling what it means, but to be together and feel this natural, conscious feeling was good as well.
“For me it was a big relief, but the pride I had when I saw everybody together, jumping around, searching for each other, saying the words that needed to be said, that will stay with me.
“It was a strong night!” – he added.
The Future of Liverpool:
Neil Jones questioned: “Where do Liverpool go from here? Klopp insists they can still improve, but where? How do they ensure this success continues?”
“Unpredictability,” Lijnders says. “That’s one. Having more solutions for the problem’s opponents give us.
“If you go two years back. What did we really want to improve? One was set-pieces. We really wanted to improve that. We want to create them, use them and make them decisive.
“Two, throw-ins. We really think this is an important part of the game where we can create for ourselves and stop the opponent from creating. So, improve that, which we did.
“Three, our build-up with Alisson, with our full-backs. How do we create a way where we can bring the ball anywhere, we want to bring the ball, organised but not predictable? How do we find a better way of playing, because teams will drop more? They are going to set up to annoy us, to stop our way of playing.
“Four, our pressing. We wanted to stay longer in the opponent’s half, stop counterattacks better. They were big improvement points.
“Where do we want to improve now? I’m not going to tell you! But we know the areas.”
The involvement of young players like Curtis Jones, Neco Williams, and Harvey Elliott-can support the transition. Lijnders’ jaw drops as he talks about the trio of gifted youngsters in Liverpool.
“Our future looks really bright. We have, in three positions, players who can make us better.” – he said.
“Don’t tell them that, but they have something. They have Scouse blood; their heart is in the right place and they will run through walls for us. They will try things a more experienced player will not try. That’s what I like. It gives colour to our game.
“Everyone is seeing Curtis in the last half-year, but we have been busy with him since the Talent Group, four years ago. We try to bring these players through, to force them into our way of playing.
“There are three good examples at the moment; Neco dominates a wing in a very creative way, Harvey in the final third is like a little diamond – he’s cheeky but at the same time he’s responsible – and Curtis, who gives us risk in one-v-ones and a last pass like few players we see on the market.”
This sounds like a topic appropriate to finish on. A wink to past success and current glory, but a glance to the future, and all it can offer.
“That’s the aim,” Lijnders smiles. “Let’s create more memories!” – Lijnders concluded.