Assistant Manager, Liverpool, 2018–
“You’re not going back to Porto. You’re going to call them, and you’re coming back to Liverpool now.”
It was 2014, and I was in Wales to deliver a presentation as part of my UEFA A Licence. Before I travelled, I had been told that the Under-17 job had become available at Liverpool. I had sent in my CV, and Alex Inglethorpe and Michael Beale had received it. They knew of me, which I thought was cool, and said they would send two guys to Wales to meet me.
I gave my presentation and tried with everything I had, as I always do. Afterwards, I met them, and soon after I was in a car to Liverpool with Michael Beale.
They put me in the Hope Street Hotel, and the morning after I was sitting outside with an espresso. The sun was shining, and I called my wife. If this was really going to happen, I thought, it would be the best. The move to a club of the stature of Liverpool, with all its history and tradition, was something I could never have dreamed of.
When you come to England, and you see the games, the stadiums, the pitches, and when you hear the commentaries – it’s just at a different level to anything else in Europe.
But moving to Liverpool was also an opportunity to work with just one team. I had been at Porto for seven years. There, I was working not only with the first team and the second team, but also across the whole academy and with individual players.
I had my own academy team, too. In my first season we didn’t lose a single game, and became champions with one week to spare. The last game was against Boavista, and I decided to mix up the team and put in some younger players. We drew 1-1, and travelled back on the bus. When we returned, the academy director and vice-president were waiting for me.
“Pep, we need to speak,” they said. “At Porto, we play each game to win. We are not changing teams like that. You play to win.”
My first season, and I’m in the vice-president’s office! But I think they wanted to make sure I understood the culture. There is a saying, that we love the ones who hate to lose – and that is what that club is all about.
"i was only 24 when i moved to portugal, and didn't speak one single word of portuguese"
Porto were already winning a lot, but they wanted to take it to the next level. Between 2006 and 2011, they spent five years reorganising and restructuring the academy, the first team and the scouting. And this is one of the reasons they brought me in.
I’ll try to explain. The Porto scouting department is one of the best in the world. It’s not for no reason that Liverpool signed Luis Díaz from them, for example. But your academy needs to compete with the scouting department; if a club already has a young player who is better than a scouted player, then it chooses its own player.
But what if your academy player is not as good as the scouted player? Take Luis Díaz. As a young player, he will have played for six, seven, eight, nine, maybe 10 years, always the best player on shit pitches. He has to do everything himself, so he develops an individual skill on the highest level.
This is what you need your academy to compete with, because in the end the first-team coaches only bring in the players who are going to win them games. If you lose at Porto, you are out.
So the academy needed that impulse to be competitive. They were already so organised – Porto is a tactical periodisation club, and that is incredible – but they needed more offensive aggression, more goalscoring capacity, more initiative to play outside or break lines.
That was why they brought me in, to add those elements to what already existed. And as a young coach – I was only 24 when I moved to Portugal, and didn’t speak one single word of Portuguese – it was a dream to go outside my country and learn. The people there will always be in my heart.
At Porto, I was working every morning, afternoon and evening – but with different teams, and it was exhausting. I still wanted to work every morning and afternoon and evening, but I wanted to put all of the information I had learned into just 20 players. I wanted to coach my own team.
"trent is an inspiration for so many boys in liverpool, and has taken the role of the right-back to a completely different level"
At Liverpool, I had that team! Rhian Brewster, Ben Woodburn, Herbie Kane, Yan Dhanda, Caoimhin Kelleher as goalkeeper… and, of course, Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Trent was incredibly passionate, a right-sided defender who pushed himself to the limits every single day. He always wanted more, and I saw a boy who I felt needed confidence from the coaches. So, the first thing I did was make him captain, and put him in the number-six position in midfield.
I really believe that your best talents have to have the ball most, so I played three at the back, a diamond midfield and a front three. Ben Woodburn played as the 10, and Trent was the six. I saw a player who could play the final pass from almost everywhere, and as the six you have the chance to do that. Rúben Neves had been my six in all the youth teams at Porto, and from the middle Trent has that ability to reach even more positions with his passing. That’s why you see him playing inside for the first team so much now, while Mo Salah plays on the outside.
I had one season with Trent. He scored goals, created goals and played passes, but he also became more responsible because of the captaincy and also the position. With time, I really saw him grow. Did I know then that he was able to go and do what he did at 18, 19 and beyond? Of course not, because nobody can know – but to see that growth as a person, a player and a leader is the most beautiful thing for somebody who works in an academy.
I’m so proud not just of what he has done, but of who he is. He is an inspiration for so many boys here in Liverpool, and he has taken the role of the right-back to a completely different level in the world of football. I’m really happy that I’m still his coach; we speak a lot, of course, and we have a really tight relationship. You don’t get many captains in life. Trent was mine.
If I look back over my coaching career, that first year at Liverpool was one of my crucial years. I went to watch first-team games at Anfield, of course, but I was always so busy with and focused on my own team – that was my passion.
"i asked brendan to make me first-team coach, but not just to watch training. i wanted to coach. i wanted to lead"
I knew Brendan Rodgers was somebody who also really cared about the academy – that’s why Alex Inglethorpe was there, and why Michael Beale was there. The only relationship I had really had with him to that point, though, was back during that first visit to the Hope Street Hotel; Alex told me that Brendan was on holiday, but had asked if he needed to fly back to convince me to come. At that moment, I knew I was at a club that really cared.
Later in my first year, Brendan was thinking about changing to a back three with the first team. He asked Alex to send me in to speak with him; he wanted to know how I set my team up, how I pressed, what my ideas were. It was really just a very nice conversation about football, about life. One and a half, maybe two hours, with a cup of tea and a biscuit – the English way.
That summer, I was on holiday back in Holland and FSG president Mike Gordon called me. He wanted me to speak with Brendan, who was in Marbella. My grandfather was not in a good moment at the time, and I wanted to stay close to him in Holland – but he had been a worker all his life and was a passionate guy. “You are ridiculous!” he said to me. “If the owner of Liverpool asks you to come, you come. You have to go.”
I flew to Marbella with my grandfather in my mind, and there Brendan and I spoke.
“I cannot come to put down cones or do individual work with players,” I said to him. “If you want me, make me first-team coach. I don’t want to watch training. I want to coach, I want to lead. That’s what I love. If not, I prefer to stay in the academy.”
I joined Brendan with the first team for the start of the 2015/16 season. We drew quite a few games, and by October the owners felt it was time for them to change the manager. Mike Gordon called me again.
“Pep, you need to stay and be part of the staff for the new manager. But I need time, so you need to make sure that Melwood runs.”
"as well as being one of the best leaders, jÜrgen is just such a good man"
In the end, that new manager was Jürgen Klopp.
For me, this was like being a boy in a candy shop. To work with one of the best managers in the world; to see how he inspired the team, how he made things clear, the way we structured the week.
I was always a high-pressing coach, I always liked it, but Jürgen brought different kinds of meetings, different analysis… and I loved every moment. Each day I wrote down on one piece of A4 some of the things he was saying, what he was doing. I still have them now.
My dad has his own print factory, and over the years I had made flipcharts – you know, the big ones – and wrote down all my principles as they developed. This is my game idea, this is how I want to create overloads from the back, this is how I want to counter-press and so on.
When Brendan was manager, I had five big flipovers in the office: with the ball, pressing, counter-pressing, the game idea and individual development. When he started, Jürgen came into the office.
“Who made these?”
“This is how I see the game, gaffer,” I said. “This is how I work. You want me to take them down?”
“No, no, no!” he said. “I love them!”
I knew already, this was the right guy. As well as being one of the best leaders, he is just such a good man. I love the relationship that we have, and I love that he has given me freedom and responsibility in my role.
"milner and henderson are the motor of this team. they lead by example and ensure that standards don't drop"
In Jürgen’s first season, we lost the League Cup final on penalties to Manchester City and the Europa League final to Sevilla in Basel. I was not even first-team coach at that time – I was elite development coach, so part of the staff but not responsible for training – but they were still the first two finals I had lost in professional football, and that really hurt.
We went back to the hotel in Basel, where we had a big party organised – Liverpool do this kind of thing really well. Jürgen took the microphone.
“Guys, anybody who thinks this is the end is completely wrong. This is the beginning.”
I thought about that when we beat Leicester on penalties in the League Cup last season. I thought back to losing that first final against Manchester City. When we won the shootout, I went immediately to James Milner.
“We are going to make this right, Milly,” I said to him. “This year, we are going to make it right.”
Of course I can tell you that now because we did! But Milly and Jordan Henderson have been the motor of this team, leading by example and ensuring that standards don’t drop.
When you have leaders like that – and, at that time, Adam Lallana was there too – your life as a coach becomes so much easier. There are so many times I want to shout something to the group, and then I hear Milly has already said it!
A team’s values and standards are made by the people who live them, and with the right players your team becomes almost autonomous. That is why I gave the captaincy of my team to Trent – because I saw the potential he had as a leader, to stand up and fight when games got tough.
"mané was a warrior. he pushes himself and plays on the edge, but he was so well tactically developed too"
So we had that core group, and then over time we added the missing pieces of the puzzle. Virgil van Dijk was one of those, and so was Alisson. In adversity you need leaders, guys with pure character; guys who never hit the brakes, but who will go through walls and give you 100 per cent. That’s the advantage of using players who have come through the academy, too. They will never, ever let you down.
The good times – and games like the 2019 Champions League semi final against Barcelona – only happen because of the work that has gone on in the years before it. Always the same message, always the same ideas, and finding players who can fit in to that.
That first summer after Jürgen arrived, we found a few of those. Gini Wijnaldum had gone down with Newcastle, but we needed a player like him: to balance the team, to link defence with attack really well, to always find the right spaces. He played with a smile and a big heart, and when you said something he always understood.
Joël Matip was maybe the best free signing ever in world football, and then there was Sadio Mané. Machine. I never used to say hello to Sadio when he walked by; I always said ‘Whoosh!’ because he was just so quick. But he was also a warrior, a player who pushed himself, who played on the edge but was so well tactically developed too. What he has done for the club is massive.
I think Bill Shankly said a football team needs three players who can play the piano, and another eight to carry it. But we have had a front three who can carry the piano as well – whether that be Sadio, Mo Salah and Bobby Firmino, all with the capacity to create and score in the final third, or with the different qualities brought by Luis Díaz, or Diogo Jota, or Divock Origi.
As I explained before, at this time I was like a first-team elite-development coach. All of my life, I had been planning, preparing and delivering sessions, but I wasn’t doing that at Liverpool. Jürgen and Zeljko Buvac were leading the team, and I was supporting. I took some sessions, but they were explaining to me what I needed to do, and I had this constant feeling that something was not quite right. I’m passionate, I’m ambitious, and I don’t think anything good happens when you’re in the comfort zone.
"it was not an easy time. the team had dropped out of the first division and the fans were on top of us, very critical"
Then there was my private situation. My dad was very ill, and battling hard, and as the oldest child in the family I was feeling more and more guilty about not being there – not just for my dad, but also for my mum and my brother. I had this huge feeling that I had to go back.
Life is about opportunity and timing, and at the end of 2017 the opportunity came up to leave and go into management with NEC. It was a club that wanted to go up to the Dutch first division, but which didn’t have the best track record when it came to dealing with managers.
As an ambitious young coach, I thought I would be different.
The timing, though, was maybe not quite right. In the middle of a season, for a guy who likes the process, it’s really tricky – but we had an incredible start on a training camp in Marbella. I could be really clear about what we wanted and how we wanted to play.
We won our first game. We played well and the team was absorbing the way we wanted to play. For the rest of the season, we fought through many ups and downs, and I was really proud of how the team dealt with them. It was not an easy time – the team had dropped down from the first division and the fans were very critical, really on top of us. It was understandable because they wanted to go up. They didn’t want to see the team and the city suffering like that.
I also had to manage players and staff who had gone from the first division to the second. Contracts were ending, people didn’t know who would be staying and going, but we managed to stay together and fought until the last matchday.
In the end, Jong Ajax – the second team of Ajax, who cannot be promoted – became champions, and Fortuna Sittard were promoted directly. We went into the promotion playoffs, where we lost 4-0 away to Emmen before winning 4-1 at home. We went close, but not close enough.
At the time, I was in a dark place – but I look back now and I’m grateful that I had that experience. I hope I’m a guy who doesn’t make the same mistakes twice, and the things I learned there – about training, methodology, leading a team, trying to create consistency, staying true to your idea – all helped when I came back to Liverpool as assistant manager.
That ball had started rolling when Jürgen called me towards the end of that season.
“Pep, something is about to change here. I want you back as my number two, and we’re going to conquer the world!”
Pep Lijnders' new book, Intensity, is available to order here
Author: Tony Hodson