After conquering the world, Liverpool is now the best team in their own country as well. After waiting for 30 years, they sealed the English Premier League title in a season in where they showcased their unique qualities week in, week out. In the last few years, Liverpool have become a very dominating force and their high counter-pressing style has been elevated to the status of art. Pepijn Lijnders works every day to refine its model and creates forms that help the Liverpool players master the system in all its details. It has been gradually interweaved into their philosophy, with Lijnders explaining how their “identity is intensity.” The Dutch assistant coach has been working with Jürgen Klopp for more than four years and they hope to inspire the club to even greater heights in the following seasons.
Although only 37, Lijnders has been coaching for a quite a few years already. When he was 17, he was forced to quit playing football after sustaining a serious knee injury. He quickly moved into football management and soon became a youth coach at PSV Eindhoven. In 2007, he went to FC Porto to become their academy’s head of individual development and there he also managed the youth team. In 2014, Lijnders moved to Liverpool where he became responsible for the under-15 and under-16 teams. Only one year later he was already promoted to the first team. When Klopp arrived at Anfield shortly afterwards, he realised he had inherited a bright young coach in Lijnders and kept him in his role as first team coach. Lijnders left Anfield in early 2018 to manage Dutch side NEC, but only half a year later he came back when Klopp asked him to become his right-hand man. Since then, Liverpool has improved even further and has won the Champions League and Premier League. Lijnders realises the significance of those feats for everyone connected to the club, while the trophies also feel as a huge reward for all the investments made by the players and staff.
Can you describe what the Premier League title means to you?
You’re working so hard to achieve those kind of moments. Normally you’re working day in day out to develop the team; you’re continuously focusing towards the next game. During the season the focus is key and there is not much room for relaxation, perhaps a loose hour here or there, but for the rest there is the pressure to prepare the next game as perfect as possible. Every minute of training has to be good. It’s really satisfying to see that our way of training has paid off during matches. If I think about the steps the team have made technically and tactically...wow. Now it’s time for relaxation, to have a drink and a dance. Our identity is intensity; hopefully that also applies to the parties in the coming period. Haha!
If you look back to the last two years since you came back to the club, how would you describe the overall development of the squad?
For me, personally, the thing that has made the difference in the last two years has been the overwhelming desire of the team to improve themselves. Like the mutual goal to try and make every game our best counter-pressing game so far. This victory comes with great commitment, like a huge dedication in training and game preparations. During those two seasons, we’ve moved forward in many good ways. The team has grown so much. You can’t compare them and the way they played two years ago. For example, our positioning play has improved a lot. It’s incredible now we’ve won the Premier League. It’s not going to get any better. It’s so important for the city and all the fans... Finally we got it!
How do you look to the future? How difficult will it to be to win the Premier League again?
It will be important to remain humble and work hard to keep progressing. At the same time, we shouldn’t forget where we’re coming from and remember the experiences we already gained in the process. All those insights are vital to keep growing. It will offer us a chance, but we have to realise as well we have to earn it all over again. You can’t control everything in the Premier League, but as long as we fight in those important moments, we can keep winning points.
Lijnders has been praised for his tactical insights and his meticulous match preparations. He argues: “You’re not as good as your last match, but you’re as good as your next match. Because that’s something you can influence.” In Lijnders’s case, that can even mean possible matches in the future. Long before Liverpool reached last year’s Champions League final, preparations for a possible showdown in Madrid were already made by the Dutchman. The two semifinals against Barcelona still had to be played, but Klopp’s assistant was already contemplating what could be the ideal preparation. He thought about the option to invite another team that could mimic either Ajax or Tottenham Hotspur’s style, to give Liverpool an idea what they could expect if they would overcome Barça.
What were the exact considerations crossing your mind while working on this plan?
If we would reach the final, I really wanted to organise a game because otherwise it would have been three weeks without any competitive action. I wanted us to play a similar team to the opponents we could face in Madrid. The idea was to privately invite a team to train three to four days in the way we wanted them to play us in a friendly.
After beating Barcelona in a historic comeback, you could fully execute your plans. How was everything organised in the end?
The second team of Benfica was invited to come over to our training camp in Marbella and we managed to keep everything secret. We gave a presentation to their manager about how they had to play. It had to be like Tottenham, with their set pieces, footballing intentions and defensive organisation. We played that game behind closed doors. We even built higher shields so no one could see anything. The match took place exactly one week before the final and we prepared everything the same like we would do during the day of the final.
It all paid off after Liverpool won the final by beating Spurs 2-0, having won the match against Benfica B with 3-0. In both games, Liverpool took an early lead by winning possession on the halfway line and directly playing the long ball to Sadio Mané. How do you analyse those particular situations in both games?
In both moments, you could clearly see how we positioned ourselves to be able to dominate the second ball game and directly searched for Sadio into the free space behind the last line.
How do you look back to that whole European season?
The whole route to the Champions League victory was incredible. As a manager, you have to make so many decisions and luckily during this Champions League many turned out well. We really grew as staff and players, and all those things made me the most proud. Not the trophy itself. Of course, that will mark the rest of your life, but the route towards it was unbelievable. You can’t compare the team who started this competition with the team who ended it.
Speaking about the staff, how do you work together on a daily basis?
Jürgen is the leader and face of the team, the one who defines the character and who stimulates everyone. And he is innovative as well, as he is always searching for the next step and how we can improve. Pete (Peter Krawietz) is responsible for the analyses and prepares everything in regards to videos which are shown to the players. I’m responsible for the trainings process. Together we decide what kind of aspects we want to develop for the team and then I create the exercises. It’s quite simple; it’s just about the continuing stimulation of our mentality to conquer the ball as quick and as high up the pitch as possible. That element comes back in every exercise. We as staff always try to find ways so the players can be more spontaneous and more creative.
Two years ago, you left Liverpool as first-team coach to manage Dutch side NEC, but you came back six months later after Jürgen Klopp offered you a new role at Anfield. What made you decide to return so quickly?
Jürgen wanted me to come back to become his assistant. He said we could both become responsible for everything inside the club. He was very clear what he wanted. He was convinced we could bring the club even more forward and that we could conquer a lot together. I also had a picture in my head of how it could look like. At that specific moment, it became actually clear for me. Jürgen can touch someone straight to the heart. He knows exactly what he wants and when we were on the phone it felt just right.
Since then, Liverpool have won quite a few trophies while even further refining their attacking playing style. How would you describe that philosophy?
We always focus on ourselves, attack the opponent with, but especially without the ball, a chasing attitude over 95 minutes. We want to be dominant against every team, in every moment of the game. So we want to play on the opponent’s half, lock them down, and play with great variety from the back. We need to be really aggressive in the moments when we lose the ball. Those moments requite very high intensity, without losing any concentration. We want to do that against Barça away, Barça at home, just everywhere and against everyone.
Do you have examples of how you try to create this chasing attitude in training sessions?
You have the 5vs2 rondo, for example, which in fact is a pressing rondo. Our game is about movement and speed, so with only five players you have to run down the sides of the rondo nonstop. The two guys in the middle are encouraged to make an interception within the first six passes. If they succeed, they can go out both at the same time, otherwise only the player who intervened is allowed to leave the middle. This all stimulates our counter-pressing vision where we try to disrupt the build-up of the opponent inside their first few touches.
Another example is a counter-pressing rondo where two teams of three compete against one team of three until the latter conquers the ball and replaces the team who lost possession. The challenge for the team who loses the ball is to not dwell in any kind of disappointment, but to react straightaway and try and win it back. That rondo indicates the way we want to play.
In other training games, goals only count when all the players have crossed the halfway line. What is the idea behind that?
Purely to stimulate the team to push up quickly and be ready to counter-press. Counter-pressing is only possible when you are together at all times. People say Liverpool are good at this or at that, but I always say the main thing we are good at is that we are always together, wherever we go.
So our way of playing is a central element in our training sessions. But I also look to details of opponents which can give us an advantage, like spaces they might leave open or other weaknesses which we can exploit. I always try to interweave those elements in our sessions without the players noticing it. Many teams adjust their game when playing against Liverpool. So, for instance, they sacrifice a forward to mark our No. 6, so their system changes from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1. Or they play with five man at the back. I think 75 percent of the opponents we’ve played against so far in the Premier League changed something in their formation beforehand.
What is the key message you want to convey to the players during training sessions?
They first have to understand the importance of counter-pressing to our team. They have to feel it, not with the head, but with the heart. They start the exercise with the idea to keep the ball, but in the event of losing it, they have to be directly on top of things.
It’s this continual awareness that the technical staff emphasises on, time after time.
When a team loses the ball, you will hear me, Jürgen or Pete screaming: “Gooo! Get it back! Don’t stop!” You’ll even hear that in Manchester. Haha. They have to understand why it’s so important. That power and emotion is our game. Because our identity is intensity. That comes back in every drill. And that’s what I like about coaching, that you can stimulate certain common behaviour and create a lot by specific team training. That’s what I live for.
You have many years of experience to call upon, but to what extent are you inspired by others in your daily training programmes?
Quite often I’m actually brought ideas by the players themselves. The 5vs2 rondo is a good example. It’s actually called Milly’s rondo now, after I got inspired by James Milner. Because he always intercepted the ball within the first few passes. He was really quick and brought the focus of the rondo to a complete other level. I was like: “How can I come up with a rule that everyone will execute it with his kind of intensity?” So I gave an extra incentive for the two players in the middle if they would intervene within the first six passes. So I told Milly: “This is your idea!” The other players loved it.
It looks like there is a strong connection between players and staff. How is everything interweaved with each other?
The heart of the team is the heart of the coach. That’s it. Because there is no stronger weapon than your own example. If I’m a disciplined coach, then I don’t need to discipline the players. Our captains Hendo (Jordan Henderson) and Milly, together with Virgil (van Dijk) are so disciplined, which means the rest of the group doesn’t need to be disciplined. There is a saying from Theodore Roosevelt which says: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Jürgen does really care about the squad and his staff. Players will understand and absorb more of our philosophy when they feel how much we care about them. So in the first place, it’s about the personal relationship between the coach and the team.
Which other qualities does Klopp have that make him such a good manager?
The ability to understand and change the game is something really difficult to have as a coach. You can be a leader, you can understand about a training process, but in the end, the way you can change a game makes a real difference and Jürgen has this. He has a very clear structure how he wants to play. And he is able to give a complete different perception to a situation inside a few minutes. Last season we lost 3-0 away to Barcelona, but afterwards Jürgen said in the dressing room: “The only team in the world who can overturn this defeat against Barcelona is us.” It gave the squad a boost, also because of the way we had played that night. When the players walked towards the coach, there was already a different feeling among them. Jürgen solves problems before they occur. He anticipates on those things really well. Often at the start of the week he mentions the potential pitfalls for that week and then makes sure they don’t happen. In terms of leadership and motivation, he is one of the best in the world.
Would you describe your professional relationship with him also like a personal friendship?
I think that if you’re on this level, you need a high level of trust between each other. It’s much more than a professional relationship, it’s a bond. We discuss and talk a lot.
You have told before how you and Jürgen are even spending your downtime together by playing paddle tennis at a specially designed court at the Melwood training ground. What do you particularly like about that game?
It’s a combination of tennis and squash and because of the glass walls the ball can bounce which keeps it in play. The court is actually meant for two vs two, so it’s not only a battle against each other, but also against yourself. It’s fantastic. Perhaps we play two to three times a week, but sometimes more often. Haha. To do this in between meetings and training sessions is a perfect way to switch off. You can’t play that game without 100 percent concentration. For us, it’s great to just think about nothing during those games. And sometimes it is in these moments that we actually find a brilliant solution for something.
Whether on the paddle tennis court or on the training pitch, all their creative ideas contribute to an even more advanced playing style. In everything Liverpool does, preparation is key. And Lijnders has learned that the smallest details can make the biggest difference. On the day of the return leg against Barcelona, he sent a message to the club’s staff to instruct the ball boys to throw back balls as quick as possible. “They can make a difference tonight, we need everyone on the top of their toes...” Lijnders wrote in his personal message.
And so it happened. The deciding fourth goal came after Trent Alexander-Arnold received the ball very quickly from a ball boy to take a corner that Divock Origi slotted home. So, the final, which many thought would be impossible to reach, became a reality and enabled Lijnders to continue working on his already-well-advanced preparations for the showdown in Madrid. And in the Spanish capital, it was after only 21 seconds into the game when he realised that those early investments had paid off. The puzzle was complete.
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