In an exclusive interview with Goal, assistant manager Pep Lijnders reveals the secrets behind the Reds’ remarkable success.
Pep Lijnders does not hesitate, not even for a second.
“Leicester!” he smiles. “Definitely Leicester.”
Goal has asked Liverpool’s assistant manager to pick one game, one performance to sum up this Reds team and their remarkable success this season.
“That was the one,” Lijnders says, his mind drifting back to that Boxing Day massacre at the King Power Stadium. “I had many proud moments this season, but that was definitely one of them.”
Few who witnessed it would disagree. They were already flying, but this was the night Liverpool confirmed their status as Premier League champions-in-waiting. First against second? Men against boys, more like.
There had been talk of jetlag and tiredness heading into the game. Liverpool had been in Qatar for the Club World Cup the previous week, playing tough, high-intensity games against robust opposition in Monterrey and Flamengo. They had injuries and they had pressure. They had won 17 of their first 18 games, and 25 of their previous 26, but their luck had to run out some time, surely?
Not that night. Jurgen Klopp’s side won 4-0, with Roberto Firmino scoring twice and Trent Alexander-Arnold producing one of the great individual displays of the campaign. It was December and nobody wanted to say it, but everyone who left the stadium that day knew: Liverpool would be champions.
“We never gave them a sniff,” Lijnders remembers. “We really pressed them, counter-pressed them, played with direction with the ball, we were unpredictable.
“We were, like Jurgen always says, a really ugly team to play against. Yeah, that was the one.”
There were others, of course, and over the course of an entertaining, enlightening, hour-long interview, Lijnders will reveal more of the secrets behind Liverpool’s success.
This is the inside story of the Reds’ first league title since 1990…
The start of the journey
Lijnders was already on the staff when Klopp arrived at Anfield in October 2015.
He had joined Liverpool as Under-16s manager in 2014 before taking up a role as first-team development coach the following summer.
His work as a hands-on coach, with an emphasis on developing younger players, had caught the eye quickly. So when Brendan Rodgers was sacked, and the majority of his backroom team followed, Lijnders was retained.
“[Owner] Mike Gordon 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’ influence grew until, in January 2018, he accepted an offer to manage NEC Nijmegen in his homeland. He learned a lot, he says, but was sacked after just four months having failed to secure promotion to Eredivisie.
A few weeks later, he was back at Anfield. Zeljko Buvac, Klopp’s long-time No.2, had left his role at the end of the 2017-18 season, and Lijnders was to be his replacement.
“The environment we created in that first pre-season was so positive,” he remembers. “The trust and the relationship between the players and the staff improved a lot.”
Liverpool had impressed in reaching the final, but had been undone by individual errors, Mohamed Salah’s injury and a tactical and defensive naivety that Klopp and Lijnders sought immediately to fix.
“It was about speed, but at the same time patience to play from the back,” Lijnders says. “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.”
The results since have been there for all to see. Liverpool have played 76 Premier League games since Lijnders returned, winning 62 of them and losing just four. In 14 months, they have won the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cup and Premier League.
Whatever they did in the summer of 2018, whatever they have done since, it has worked.
The cat, the tower and the lighthouse
Of course good football and good results is only possible with a good team, and by the time Lijnders returned to Liverpool, they were assembling a brilliant one.
Virgil van Dijk had arrived in January 2018, a transformative signing at centre-back for a world-record fee. That summer he was to be joined by a new goalkeeper in Alisson Becker, and a top-class holding midfielder in Fabinho.
Big signings in big positions, for big money. Liverpool had always been exciting, but now they had the spine to go with it.
“The impact of Virgil on the dressing room – his calmness, his professionalism, his love of clean sheets – that was big,” Lijnders says. “He is a winner in each vein of his body.”
Tactically, too, he was key.
“He gave us a much higher line to play with, purely from a footballing sense,” he adds. “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 Virg with those big steps, and he can still catch you!
“Then there’s the impact of Virg on our build-up game, the way he steps out, those direct passes out to Mo [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!”
Lijnders is similarly gushing about the impact of Fabinho, who after a slow start has emerged as one of the world’s best in the ‘No.6’ role in midfield.
“He is a real positional player,” he says. “He plays the ‘six’, as we said before, as a lighthouse. He guides. 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.
“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.”
And what about Alisson, the man charged with providing the last line of protection?
“What can I say? He’s a cat!” Lijnders smiles. “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, more humble 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.”