A leader’s assistant should be just as influential as the man in charge himself. An assistant should be able to challenge the leader’s opinion, offer advice, and give the whole situation the perfect different perspective. The right combination of a leader and his right-hand man will only lead to success and the achievement of the very best, a theory proven by Pep Lijnders and Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool.
Lijnders- a young, enthusiastic and tactical minded professional for Klopp to pick the brain of- combines perfectly with the German to lead what has become the best team in the world of football. The pair seem to share a unique passion for all elements of the game, creating a partnership made for accomplishing something Liverpool fans could only dream of three years ago.
Learning from the best
The Dutchman’s climb to the top began all the way back in 2002 where he became a youth coach at PSV Eindhoven. The current Liverpool assistant played a part in the graduation of several high profile players that we see today at the top level. The likes of Memphis Depay and Patrick Van Aanholt developed under the guidance of Lijnders and co at PSV before moving onto play at the highest of levels.
It was clear from those two products alone that Lijnders was doing something right and had perhaps found his best self as a youth coach. And five years later, his talent was recognised after draining all of the success possible out of the Eindhoven youth set up. It was time for the Dutchman to move on, so when Porto came calling, he couldn’t resist. There he progressed more than ever, using the methodology of Victor Frade as inspiration for his present-day tactical knowhow. Frade’s methodology consisted of combining all phases of the game instead of separating it into three parts of physical, tactical, and technical training. Frade’s method allowed tactical thinking to become the forefront of every training session.
By combining his newfound inspiration with those that taught him in the past, Lijnders reached a new level. He even stated in an interview with The Athletic: “I had my own ideas. I admired Coerver and his attacking philosophy. That if you want to play an attacking game, each player needs an all-round technique and spirit of initiative. That in each position we needed attacking impulses.” Coerver’s method is something that has never left Lijnders’ tactical mind and is something he implemented in his early days at Liverpool, where attack was the first rule of play.
The Dutchman then went onto talk about the influence of Johan Cruyff, stating: “Of course there was Cruyff who taught the false nine and the three diamond three.” Even today, Cruyff’s method of the false nine is often seen in the current Liverpool setup, with Roberto Firmino playing the role almost perfectly. It was this teaching that really helped Lijnders to mould his own coaching methodology that we see today at Liverpool.
Frade’s influence and Liverpool’s call
Victor Frade is perhaps the most important figure of the lot, however, as the Porto man helped to bring these ideas together in a logically structured way. Lijnders stated that he was “an individual coach but he (Frade) made me look at the collective”. This influence of Frade helped him to play a key role in the Porto youth set up and the graduation of some pretty recognisable names; Joao Felix, Ruben Neves, Andre Gomes, and Diego Dalot were all helped onto the road of success by Lijnders and co in Portugal.
By the time Lijnders swapped Porto for Liverpool in 2014, he had won five league titles and a Europa League. And, whilst most of the credit will not go to the Dutchman for this success, he certainly played his part during one of the high points of his career. In truth, the Dutchman could have stayed in sunny Portugal with the stability of back to back league titles but, the fact is, he wanted more and desired the next challenge.
And that’s when he received a phone call from the Liverpool academy manager, Michael Beale, who offered him the u16’s coaching position. After one phone call and an unexpected meeting in Wales, Lijnders was convinced and ready for the job. The Dutchman went onto turn down the famous academy of Ajax in his homeland for a chance to take Merseyside by storm. As the story goes, Lijnders was in Wales for his Uefa A license when he ‘coincidently’ bumped into Michael Beale who convinced him to take the job. Lijnders recalled the situation with the Athletic, saying: ” I had to call my wife and tell her there had been a change of plan.”
The chance to execute his own methodology
The Liverpool job gave him the desired chance to focus all that he had learned so far on one team instead of a collection of teams. The Dutchman was tasked with managing the u16’s, therefore developing the future of the club. Finally, Lijnders had the opportunity to execute his methodology that combined the teaching of the likes of Frade and Johan Cruyff.
And now, six years later, it’s fair to say he did exactly that. It was an opportunity that he did not waste. Lijnders instantly got to work with what was a talented group of players that included the likes of Rhian Brewster and Trent Alexander Arnold.
Alexander-Arnold, in particular, stands out as a name that featured in the Lijnders team. The now first-team full-back captained the side in the number six role- a role that Liverpool now use very well- and struck up a good relationship with the former Porto coach. After training sessions, the two would stay until the lights went out as Trent strived to be the best. Lijnders recalled in an interview Trent’s passion and that the fullback would shout “again, again” until something was perfectly executed. This winning mentality and never say die attitude is something we see every week from Klopp’s ‘Mentality Monsters’.
After a year with the U16’s, Brendan Rodgers invited Lijnders to Melwood. Here, he blew the Irishman away with his tactical knowhow and counter-pressing methods. It wasn’t too long after this discussion that the Dutchman became apart of Rodgers’ backroom staff, becoming a link between Melwood and the academy. Everything was going to plan for Lijnders; he had taken the perfect career path that led to this role. But, whilst he was progressing, Liverpool were not. And Just four months into Lijnders’ new role, Rodgers was sacked by Liverpool.
The start of a special partnership
This left much uncertainty for Lijnders about both his job and the current managerial position. As the football version of the saying goes, however, ‘one man’s sacking is another’s opportunity’ and an opportunity that Jürgen Klopp took with open arms. The former Dortmund man known for his passion, world-class man-management, and ‘heavy metal’ football entered Anfield as the man Liverpool so desperately needed.
Just like that, Liverpool had found the secret to success after nearly 30 years of hurt; they found their version of Mike Phelan and Sir Alex Ferguson, their very own Batman and Robin. And after just two months together, Klopp showed his appreciation for Lijnders by ripping up a CV sent to him by someone looking to replace the Dutchman. The show of faith sums up the trust between the pair. Lijnders had found the best possible set up. So why leave it all behind?
All of a sudden, he was swapping a job that he loved and a city that he eventually called home to become the manager of NEC Nijmegen, a second division dutch team, with the mission to take them back to the Eredivisie. The decision would have been a difficult one for his career, but one that he had to make for personal reasons. His dad was battling cancer in his homeland of Holland, so family rightly took the priority. Lijnders told The Athletic, “He was really ill and I’m the oldest child, I had felt guilty for a long time that I wasn’t at home to take care of him. If that hadn’t been the case then I wouldn’t have left in that January.”
The stint in management didn’t go to plan, however, and lasted just five disappointing months after failing to secure promotion as a result of a 5-4 loss to Emmen. Lijnders went from being on top of the world to being without a job in the space of a few months. Those five months were likely the worst in his career as he watched his former side blitz through the Champions League knockout stage whilst attempting and failing to take Nijmegen back to the first division. He needed a lifeline, and Klopp provided it.
Reuniting with Klopp and leading Liverpool to number six
After Buvac’s strangely timed exit in the middle of April, the Liverpool manager needed a new assistant. The German was presented with a list of options, but before he could even ask for resumes, he was on the phone to Pep Lijnders. A deal was supposedly made that day with final negotiations taking place in Kyiv. Lijnders was forced to watch on as Liverpool were crushed to defeat by Real Madrid. Some may say that if Lijnders was on the bench instead of the stands, Liverpool would have lifted number six in Kyiv.
A year later, with Lijnders back by his side and a new goalkeeper between the sticks, Klopp lifted the Champions League trophy. Liverpool had found the perfect combination of management, backroom staff, squad and performance to finally bring home number 6. The Reds, a year on from Madrid, are the newly crowned Premier League Champions and have also added the Club World Cup, and Uefa Super Cup to their trophy case this season- accomplishments that Pep Lijnders has played a huge role in achieving.