Pep Lijnders on Liverpool's collective identity, their new signings and tactical template
Pep Lijnders’ voice has been the most distinct during Liverpool’s pre-season preparations in the United States. Even as the roar of plane propellers dominate overhead at the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the Dutchman can be heard thunderously delivering his tactical memos.
The first-team development coach embodies everything he demands of the players in their drills: he is intense, fiercely committed, unwavering in his methodology and incredibly sharp. Lijnders is a core part of the club’s plan to make a statement on the training field rather than in the transfer market, and is a crucial link between Liverpool's most talented young players and the main squad.
In the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in East Palo Alto, the 33-year-old talks about the Anfield side's collective identity, their tactical blueprint and why he is confident they’ll have the edge over their opponents in 2016-17.How has the group been responding to the taxing sessions thus far?
The players come back after a period where they were completely off or were in different styles of play because they went to the Euros or the Copa America. And then of course you have the young players. In this first period, if you talk about intensity, it improved because the players starts making decisions based on the collective references and intentions of our specific way of playing. The intensity goes up because the lines, the sectors, the inter-sectors and the players individually start working better together. That’s the main thing in this first period – that everyone starts making decisions individually because of the collective idea and references. Pleased? Yes, of course, because there’s a big development in that part. We are very clear in what we want: how we want to prepare pressing situations; how we want to move the ball gradually up; how we can advance as a team using the free spaces the opponent leaves in their organisation; our positional play. The intensity is high, because they start playing better together.The drills are quite repetitive, is that to ensure that the solutions players find in training then become second nature?
There’s a saying that success is repeating a few disciplines, but really well and constantly. It’s repetition but we don’t want a linear or mechanical style of play. That’s why we focus on principles and the principles are basically tactical patterns which give the individual stability in an unpredictable game. You saw against Chelsea that it was permanently unstable and we want them to make it more stable because of the focus on those principles and tactical patterns.When these scenarios happen in a game, will they draw on the habits they’ve picked up in training?
That’s it, but the creative development takes time because we don’t want to make it linear or mechanical. So it takes longer. It would be easy to say ‘A, B, C’ but football doesn’t work like that, especially in our situation with Liverpool FC having so much talent. We want to give them the freedom of expression to be constantly unpredictable and constantly searching for limits, a constant gain of individuality in that collective identity and way of playing. Where it’s very clear as a collective how we want to approach each single game. The exercises have character because it’s a direct reference to our way of play. The way of play is basically like a lighthouse guiding us as coaches, prioritising and creating specific exercises towards creating that common goal and common idea between players. That gives the players stability.Young players have stepped up in pre-season. Has the level of their performances surprised you?
Surprised? No, because I know them really well. We have so much talent in our Academy and so many players who need guidance. You see what happened in three or four weeks with Ben Woodburn, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ovie Ejaria – that’s gold in terms of development because that’s probably half a year of development in the Academy. Just because they see Phil Coutinho using the free spaces, they see Adam Lallana turning and protecting the ball. Trent sees how Emre drops into the defensive line to circulate the ball to get higher as a team. There’s a saying that young talents need models, they don’t need criticism. That’s what we want. We want to create by bringing them up. We brought the boy up from 16, that’s Ben. We brought the boy up from 17, that’s Trent. And we brought the boy up from 18, that’s Ovie. It’s interesting because indirectly we also want to influence all the other boys who stay behind, because they see it’s possible. And we want to bring boys up who love adversity and overcome adversity constantly, who adapt really easily to a quicker style of play. Of course, we prioritise. Sometimes they have more time off than the others, sometimes they get a morning off because if you always played at 15km/hr and then you have to play at 20km/hr, you get tired earlier. We deal with that really well. They made a good impression. Of course, it could be better, as always. But so far, so good.Ejaria looks unfazed…
Step by step. We always say the pitch always stays the same and the ball always stays the same. The opposition can change and the stadium can change, but the stadium doesn’t influence directly if you focus. Then it only has to do with how a player orientates himself, how he sees what happens before the pressure is coming. Can he protect the ball in these situations? Can he still play his own style? Ovie does that really well. That is what we stimulate from a young age throughout our Academy – take initiative constantly. We want offensive aggression constantly. We don’t want to have a ball percentage of 70, it’s about chances created and that’s how individuals get stimulated in the game context, to constantly take more initiative to move the ball forward in the final third or really create. Ovie is a good example. If you can outplay you unbalance the defensive line, that’s one. If you can play quick combinations it tears them apart. But if you dominate both then you are really a top player and he dominates both parts. That’s something we stimulate from a young age in our Academy, to protect the ball and be able to create a forward solution instead of passing it back and then finding a forward solution. That has to do with how he positions himself and can create space for himself. But, secondly, how his touch is to find the pathway forward. That may be one touch in one situation, can be two touches and can also be five or six touches. Ovie is a good example: a link to move the ball forward. That’s situation one. Situation two is outplay and create your direct opponent one v one with offensive ability. Yesterday our positional game was good but can be quicker to open. Is it provoking enough to get them really out of balance? If it’s Ovie or Adam, we don’t treat them like young players. That’s the good thing – they come up and know their part. Everybody thinks intensity is harder running. No, intensity is better co-operation between lines and better working together in prepared pressing situations. But that only works if it’s co-ordinated. Otherwise it’s running and that’s the worst thing in football, if you run without a purpose. I always say that running behind the ball is worse than losing a game if you don’t know what you’re doing. Start enjoying defending in a certain way. If you know exactly that we open up space and set up traps, inviting them into certain areas or inviting certain passes and then we go until we have it. [Whether] it’s deep, in the middle or an offensive pressing zone, it doesn’t matter – we still have control.How good was the Chelsea test for Liverpool, considering the deep defensive line is something the players will face quite a lot next season and Antonio Conte’s side will be right up there in the league in terms of their organisation?
I’m a little bit afraid to be honest. If they are already this organised in three weeks, how organised will they be in three months?! I really believe if you want to improve you have to test your limits tactically, technically, emotionally, individually and as a collective. That game and the next ones are perfect to challenge us. I think we were well protected, our positional game to open them up more could’ve been quicker in certain moments, we could’ve attracted them more to find space on the other side. The moment we became comfortable within their organisation - in the small spaces, under pressure - we were okay, we created and created. The development has been really good in terms of how the team uses the free spaces to circulate the ball, how the team was patient enough to find the right spaces, and have the right times with their passes in playing and arriving for them. It was the same for Ovie, same for Sadio - phwoar, machine!The club have let young players depart this summer, but now have buy-back options negotiated into deals…
We always want to do what is the best for everyone, and that is of course different for each individual. We invest a lot in development and the Talent Group and trying to create a common identity through the whole club. We really believe that creating a new generation can help us and if that means a young player has to go out to get experience and get his career going, but still with the option to come back inside our club, that shows that we believe in this process. Many people say it, but we really believe in development and are doing it. It was an amazing statement from Liverpool to give Jürgen a six-year contract, but what we’re doing now in this moment will influence this club long afterwards. Take Ben Woodburn, Trent or Ovie - this is part of the culture to bring in our young players to compete with our top talent. To be able to compete at that level, you need a quality set-up and organisation of really high standards. They’ve shown we have that because they can compete and they do compete. One day, they will win the competition and play. We truly believe in this. It takes time, like any development, but it will be worth it.While other teams are buying big, it seems Liverpool are building big…
I believe collectively this season, we can have a real advantage over our opposition regardless of whatever player they buy or have. The training methodology - every minute of every exercise - must influence a higher standard individually and together, which is what we are doing. How much are you enjoying working with Klopp and his team?
I can’t describe it to be honest. I think they’ve already put a mark on my personality. I’m enjoying it, I try to help, we are really a team. Jürgen’s creating a family atmosphere, which is really important to being a top team. You can’t just want to be the best team on the pitch, you have to do it off the pitch too. Everything always has to be of the highest standards.How have Liverpool gone about sourcing their new signings?
I think our signings have been top, top! We made a list before and we got what we wanted. Our young players are top. Our selection is top. I’m really positive towards this season. With signings you want a direct influence on the areas you’re already good in, and the ones you need strengthening in. We analysed our game model, looking at how we want to start our attack, how we want to master our attack, inside creation, outside creation, this is how we want to defend, this is how we want to organise pressing situations… So using that, we looked at where we needed development. First, you have the training methodology - you can influence development by creating the right exercises from individual to co-operation to collective. Then, you look to influence it by bringing the right players in. The good thing is, if you have a player who has certain abilities what maybe is missing, that will indirectly influence all the others as they see how he handles situations. [Ragnar] Klavan, for example, they see how he steps out with the ball and how easy and calm he is under pressure to still search for the chance to put Sadio in a one-v-one situation. Don’t forget, the players we already had were top too. I really enjoy working with them, they have the right character, attitude and always are looking to reach the highest levels.http://www.talkaloadofbull.com/en-gb/news/24102/icc-2016/2016/07/30/26074702/lijnders-liverpool-will-have-an-edge?ICID=TP_HN_HP_RI_1_2
There's a video of one of the passing exercises in it too.
Quite a long read, but it's worth it. Would love to have a chat with him, really knows his stuff and I love his vision on football and developing players.
Thought I read somewhere that it is not a closed group of players, but players can go in and out depending on how well they perform in training, how hard they work and how well they develop. They want to keep it an open group so players who are not yet in it, have the feeling that with hard work, they still have a chance to join the Futures group. Obviously the young players who played most of the pre-season games are in it (Woodburn, Alexander-Arnold, Kent, Ejaria, ...) Not sure who else is in it.