There was a time when many thought that the departure of Jurgen Klopp’s longtime assistant Zeljko Buvac would be hugely detrimental. Then Pep Lijnders stepped in, and we reached the highest points tally in the club’s history and added a historic 6th European Cup to our cabinets. Things have turned out just fine since that moment and since the Good Pep has stepped in and things look to be continuing on that road as the Liverpool senior men’s team sit top of the Premier League with an eight point cushion.
Lijnders spoke to The Guardian about the preparations the club made ahead of the Champions league Final in June, their methods of training to maintain that famous intensity, and the sport he and Jürgen Klopp use to clear their minds. Going back to May, Liverpool made the trip to Marbella ahead of their historic final against Tottenham, and Lijnders had one thing in mind — find a team that could mimic their opponent.
“I really wanted to organise a game because otherwise it would have been three weeks without any competitive action,” Lijnders said.
“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 the friendly.”
“Benfica B came over and everything remained secret,” Lijnders continued. “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 like we would do during the day of the final.”
Liverpool would defeat Benfica B 3-0 in Marbella before defeating Spurs in Madrid by 2-0, and both games have a familiar build up pattern.
“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,” Lijnders explained.
Back at Melwood, Lijnders spoke about the roles that each coach has within their managerial structure. Everyone has a part to play, and plays their part well, and exercises their influence over the squad to get the results they need.
“Jürgen [Klopp] is the leader and face of the team, the one who defines the character and who stimulates everyone. Pete [Peter Krawietz] is responsible for the analysis and prepares everything in regards to videos which are shown to the players. I’m responsible for the training process,” said Lijnders.
“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.”
Intensity was always the name of the game when Klopp joined the club, and everyone has bought into the now crucial part of the Reds’ match identity. It’s Lijnders’ job to maintain that intensity through training, and find ways to still make it fun and effective for the players. Luckily, he’s trusted enough to do that. He’s implemented a rule that during training, sometimes a goal only counts if every player is past the halfway line.
“Purely to stimulate the team to push up quickly and be ready to counterpress; counterpressing 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.
“Let’s take the five-v-two rondo, which in fact is a pressing rondo,” Lijnders continued. “Our game is about movement and speed, and with only five players those five have to run non-stop. 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 counterpressing vision where we try to disrupt the buildup of the opponent inside their first few touches.”
There’s quite a few other exercises that Lijnders mentions including one focused on quick transitions not dwelling on lost possession. Keeping with the whole “intensity” theme, there seems to be a lot of screaming at Melwood. Lijnders argues, though, that it’s all about making sure the players know the importance of what they’re working on.
“The players first have to understand the importance of counterpressing to our team,” the Dutchman said. “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.
“When a team lose the ball in training, you will hear me, Jürgen or Pete screaming: ‘Go! Get it back! Don’t stop!’ It’s so loud they’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.”
Lijnders’ relationship with Klopp didn’t start until the German joined the club, as Lijnders had been with Liverpool long before then, but is likely to endure. And with his influence helping Liverpool reach the highest heights they’ve ever reached, it seems to be a beneficial partnership for everyone involved. Especially Pep.