TGG Podcast #53 & #54: Pep Lijnders - Liverpool's intensity identity
Written by Training Ground Guru — August 28, 2023
PEP LIJNDERS is Liverpool's influential assistant and has been described as "unique" by manager Jurgen Klopp.
The Dutchman worked for PSV Eindhoven and Porto before joining the Reds in 2014, initially as their Under-16s coach. A year later he was promoted to the first-team set-up by Brendan Rodgers, remaining under Klopp.
After a short spell as manager of NEC Nijmegen in Holland in 2018, Lijnders was tempted back to Anfield, with Klopp telling him, "I feel we can conquer the world together."
He proved true to his word, with Liverpool going on to win the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup. Lijnders joined us on the eve of pre-season for Episodes #53 and #54 of the TGG Podcast, outlining his career and coaching methods.
Some people have criticised him for doing interviews like these - and for writing his recently-published book Intensity, but Lijnders is unrepentant.
"I am an open guy, I always was. I believe we all have a responsibility to share as coaches. I got inspired by a lot of people, luckily I worked with a lot of good people and it made me who I am and I am never shy to share."
You can listen to the two parts of the interview below and read an edited transcript after that.
Pep Lijnders: This pre-season felt finally like we had our players together for five, six weeks. We had them together 24 hours for 12 days in Germany and even did triple sessions, so it was good.
I felt the team grow as a group. Especially when players leave, new players come in, it is really important that they all think in the same way. You build (fitness) with short doses and more rest in between, but it is always with this idea the full intensity. We start in the pre-season with two minutes (training) and one-and-a-half minutes rest and then we go again, and play eight, nine, 10 minutes in a row. That is how we build it in these five weeks.
Today was our minus three before Chelsea and you see the timings, how the players find each other without looking, how they deal when we break lines, and you see we are close to competition.
DID LIVERPOOL LACK INTENSITY LAST SEASON?
We have it (a sign saying 'our identity is intensity') in our coaching office and on the other side 'together strong'. These two things are really important for us. It lacked the level we reached before. Not as much to do with the opposition, in my opinion, more to do with us, the levels we reached in all game moments.
I read somebody saying you only reach peak performance - performance nobody saw before - if you go through real difficult periods. One thing is for sure, we went though real difficult periods last year. But what I loved and still respect a lot is the passion on the training pitch never changed. The humbleness in the club never changed. It made us believe more and more how difficult it is to see each game as a final.
This feeling that we need to perform over and over again and at the same time introduce new players and create a new team, these things can happen. If I look back now, I hope it made us humble but we have to be ready again and never have that feeling again.
DEPARTURES OF JAMES MILNER AND JORDAN HENDERSON
Big respect for James and Hendo. They were our captain since I was here nine years ago. I really believe that behind Milly and Hendo there was such a strong other group, with Allison, Robbo, Virg, Trent, Mo - you see how many captains we have in our team.
They left a certain level of standards. On our bootroom, just before training when they go out, there’s a clock. Normally James would be always there to see who goes out on time, to control. James left and I was thinking, ‘We have to do something with this clock,’ so I put above it, ‘Standards are made by the ones who need to live them,’ just for the boys to understand we all have to step up when these boys leave.
They marked an era, because in 20 years' time you can name the team who played. I’m happy they could leave with everything we won, the Champions League, the Premier League, after 30 years. There is a moment for all of us that we will leave this beautiful club.
One of our main principles is counter pressing. Jurgen says it isn’t a proposal, it’s a law. That’s what makes us, us. Counter pressing is the moment when you lose the ball. At that moment, do you go back to defend behind the ball, or do you want to use that moment to create and score?
We want to play with a lot of offensive aggression. You use that moment to attack again, because many times the opposition in this moment is not well organised. You want to play in the opposition half and stay there as long as possible, because it gives our front three the chance to express more often.
It empowers and forces the development you want from individual players. Jurgen calls it organised chaos. It is organised because we spend every day working on it; the chaos is for the opposition!
You need to be fresh for that and the players need to feel free. With counter pressing comes protection, which means balance. That organisation is what we really train.
Pressing doesn’t work on 95% - it only works when you go 100%, this peak effort of 10, 12, 15 metres. And if they get out-played, the next player needs to be there. You can see the game as full of mistakes or full of opportunities. We always train these game moments at the same time, because we want fluidity between them and for the team to move together.
We always say pressing and counter pressing make the difference at the end of the season in points; whether you win the Champions League or lose it, whether you win the Premier League or come second.
Today we played out counter-press rondo: three teams, they have to earn the right to keep the ball, because the better they attack and keep the ball the less they have to defend. The ones in the middle really need to try to catch the ball and play with the team that didn’t lose it, so this constant chaos.
We like to work our block, which means seven players, the four and the three, the last line plus the midfielders. They have to close the centre, they have to be able to help our front three, we call them the piano players.
The block needs to help the front three and the front three is responsible for five or six players to chase. But they need to feel help from the seven behind them.
If they feel the help and that we are compact, then they will go again. I like that the offensive team play with our structure, really focused on counter pressing against the seven. The seven need to win the ball and try to find the three forwards, who are not defending but waiting to come alive.
(Today) I put the back three in yellow bibs, the midfield four with orange and the front three with green and they can never play to the same colour. What you create is we want a real flexible build-up. If one centre half cannot play to the other, you need a six giving the angle to support. At the same time we are working our midfield press with the block, even with the seven playing high.
For example, we find Luis Diaz but he cannot play to the strikers, so you need an eight or a full-back to go and you create the outside triangles.
TACTICAL CHANGE IN 2022/23
The big, big change last year was the moment where we find balance again in our team, when we put Trent to the inside and Cody (Gakpo) became the nine, the extra player.
We wanted an extra player but above all we wanted Trent Alexander-Arnold in the middle, because we all know from the inside he can go everywhere. Even the shots from distance. He can find the forwards - he plays the passes the forwards like to receive.
I remember the discussions before and I said to Jurgen, ‘Please, I will give all my salary of next year if it doesn’t work but we have to try, because this boy from the inside will be…’
The team became compact again with the ball; the team became together again, and we were really balanced. We didn’t suffer counter attacks how we did before. A change like that is enough for players to feel free again and comfortable.
At that moment we found that balance and we found success again and with this everybody was like, 'Phew, the counter press is working. Ibou doesn’t have to sprint 60 metres.' It still happens of course, but not with each ball we lose.
The worst thing is - the difference with 4-3-3 and the system we are now speaking about - when you lose the ball and they can counter attack, the counter pressing doesn’t work and there becomes doubt in your team. Doubt is the worst thing in football.
The year before we already moved him (Alexander-Arnold) more often inside, on the 10, in a flexible way. But we felt we needed to do something. I love that, when these things work out, and I didn’t lose my salary, that’s more important!
When we had Bobby Firmino, he connected everything. He was the false nine who made us us, who was like the soul of our team, who glued, the magnet, however you want to call it. He made not a good build-up a good one, because he linked the midfield with the attack and that’s how Sadio and Mo could be Sadio and Mo.
And then with time you start missing this, so you have to find new solutions, but still with the same principles - you want a build-up where you create doubt, where you can control the centre. Cruyff said it really well - if you dominate midfield you will dominate the game.
Some solutions are born after difficulty. Guardiola put Stones there because he didn’t have the full back to go inside any more.Stones does it in a very easy, simple quick-pass (way) - top, what a development he makes.
That’s what I like - each team is completely different because of the individual characteristics. Trent is Trent, who sees passes the stadium didn’t see. I really believe this freedom, this street, this individualism, has to be present in a game, otherwise the spontaneity doesn’t happen.
Opposition analyses from a very high level in each club in the Premier League, so teams know what your ideas are and the differences made. The coach has a big impact but the players, they make absolutely the difference.
The difference between a good team and a top team is the quality of your front three, the piano players, the ones who make music and create.
I ask Jurgen what the budget was last year, because we have a budget to try to do things in the building, to have this neuroscientist or a presentation from somebody, and I said, ‘I would love to build a gaiola,’ which is like a street pitch, but it has to be natural grass, exactly the same as the deso pitch we have.
So now we have a 20x40 pitch, with boarding, on natural grass, with sprinklers so they can water it before, and big goals, only to train this offensive aggression.
We call it the Melwood Arena. I asked the players what we should call it. With boarding, with nets, so the ball is constantly in play and doesn’t go out. 5v5 and three teams, winner stays on, goal on, goal off. If you are not good with your team, out, you don’t deserve to play.
And what I see in these moments… the creation, the type of goals, it just blows my mind. The whole body needs to be in the session and then you stress the defensive part.
You need to create exercises where they have to feel that the better you attack the less you have to defend, and when you defend really well you can attack much more.
That comes from the rondo idea. It took a while to build it, it cost a lot of money, but we had a good budget so that was cool, and Jurgen in these moments is brilliant.
I tell him the idea, ‘This is what I want, because of this, this and this.’ I really believe that we need to be better in the final third, more creative, [that] in the small space we need to hold the ball better.
We can develop 100 exercises, but the best thing would be if we create the street. On the one side it says Melwood Arena and on the other side - and Vitor (Matos) make this quote - ‘This place belongs to the ones who only have winning in their mind’.
Long quote over the whole 40 metres. It comes from Porto, because at Porto we said, ‘We love the ones who hate to lose.’ This club culture, this winning institute created by Peter de costa many many years ago, that mentality of winning and conquering and never giving up. This hunger, this passion.
You need to stimulate something. Each thing we do there is a tactical idea behind. I always put in each exercise one rule - you can play free, but this one rule makes it extra. Your own creativity is the limit.
I really believe the player has to be with all he has into the session, with everything. Not just the legs, not just the lungs, but also the brain, the heart, and I believe you can only achieve that with big inspiration from somebody above, say Jurgen, or with competition, and that is why I love to go back to the old days, where it was winner stays on, the street, tournaments.
We call it our identity game - three teams competing over the whole pitch, where two teams play each other and the other team is waiting on the other half. So one team is always defending the halfway line and attacking the goal; and one team is defending the goal and attacking the halfway line.
When they pass the halfway line, they play against the team there. I love this principle - you need to earn the right to attack more, by defending top. That is how I try then to feel the street. We always say the 30% we don’t have the ball is where we should be different than all other teams in the league and that 30% you can stimulate by these kind of things.
The front three have to defend five or six players of the opposition. What’s really important is they believe we have to win the ball as high as possible and if we play in this way they can have so much more of the ball higher up the pitch. The co-operation between them, their levels of adjusting to each other, that’s why I love Sacchi, because of the way he drilled his players in a totally different system but it marked a lot of coaches.
This drilling of a front three, with the idea that we always defend to attack. The seven behind them, you cannot see them separate. They need to wait but want.
I find it really hard to train the midfield three with the front three in a way without the line. So for example the identity game I make the midfield three, say Macca, Dominik (Szoboszlai) and Cody (Gakpo), our last game, and then Mo, Jota and Luis Diaz, these six together, and I take them and Jurgen takes the other group and I say, 'Right you guys are going to play against two teams of eight and defend the halfway line.'
And now you have to work together and you steal balls. And I make for example a gate in the halfway line for the other team to make it a little bit harder. If it doesn’t work, out, you’re not playing!
Then you correct the ones who don’t move in a co-ordinated way or who don’t apply the principles in the right way. Then the six have to play attack against eight and keep the ball in situations and create by dribbling or outplaying.So you stimulate this individual development at the same time.
That’s what I like about coaching, about preparing trainings.
We have pitch A and B, which are the distance of Anfield, we mainly train there. C is a bigger pitch, the Brighton Stadium for example. We do our minus one, minus three three there, as the distances are bigger.
I said to Jurgen, 'I have this idea, we should create a set piece pitch.' So today, after training, we went for 15 minutes there and what I created was four boxes, with a net between them. On one side they are training only in-swingers, and on both sides I have this basketball net, in the position where I want them to hit it.
On the other box only wide free kicks, and on the other box only penalties and direct free kicks, and in the D a finishing exercise. I swap the players for 15 minutes.
The concentration levels are insane and of course the banter. We try to innovate in this way, with gaiola, with the Melwood Arena. Just competition, you don’t need more.
I believe that football is about honour, you want to be the best you can be. Because how can I inspire Mo Salah, after how many games? But I put Mo Salah in the identity game and tell Mo ‘you pick six players,’ and then I say to Trent, ‘you pick six players,’ and I say to Virgil, ‘you pick six players,’ and play 7 v 7 identity game.
You know how it goes? You know how it goes?! They train with a knife between the teeth! You reach levels you could not reach without that. So I try to play with the honour of the players a lot.
They don’t know, but that’s what I try to do, because that’s the only way to improve.
The scouting department of Porto is one of the best in the world. If you are a manager you are going to play your best players. But these players come from South America or Belgium or France. They come in with such a high level of individual quality that you need to mach that with your Academy.
Otherwise the Academy player goes to the first team, and the coach will decide, 'No, I am going to play this top player from Brazil or wherever,' because the coach needs to win. We needed to increase the individual quality but never lose the collective references.
The Academy normally is a competitor for the scouting department. The big thing there was PJE - potencial jogador elite. So we brought the best talents together in all the age groups to show them to the first-team coach, because the relationship between the manager and youth player, that makes a good Academy.
For example, when Jurgen has to decide to buy a right defender or he goes with the 17 or 18-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold? Who is he going to choose? When he doesn’t know the boy, when he only played in the 18s? He will go for the signing. The scouting will come, 'I have this good right defender, blah blah blah…'
With the Talent Group, we bring them, for example we do the same here. We train at four in the afternoon, at two o’clock is the Talent Group, and then we can see, ‘Ok, these talents are coming and they are already coming with us on pre-season and they stay one time a week when the season starts they train here.’
With this we create a relationship and we create hope for all the others in the Academy. And that makes, I really believe, this inside pathway of the club. If that’s strong, if you produce your own players, they will never let you down, never. They will run through walls for you.
If you tell them to go and leave your man and press in the opposite, they will go with all they have. I really believe in this process and it comes from Porto, because the Academy will never leave you. I feel really responsible for that because I was always on the other side.
Now I am assistant manager and can create this hope and put young players and this is what we try to do from the start. I love this process.
If I now see Conor Bradley, Luke Chambers, Calum (Scanlon), James McConnell, Ben Doak, Stefan Bajcetic last year. You need balls, you need guts to put these young players and that is what we want.
Stefan, play. He is good enough. Ben Doak? He is good enough, play. The balance in the squad between talents and seniors like Milly, Hendo, Mo Salah, if that balance is right, a small squad with a load of talent and then balance it with a core group of between 21 and 25, 26 of seniors, when the seniors feel they become responsible over the talents and the talents feel wow they are my models, these are the guys I have to look how they are going to the gym, how they prepare themselves before a game.
When that balance is right, only growth is possible in your squad. That is why I always search for talent. You need young ones because they have fire in their bellies. They train each day as if their life depends on it, as if it’s their last session. That’s what you need - fire, fire, fire.
We had the luck that our seniors - Milner, Hendo, Lallana, Jinny, Mo, Sadio - they always really took care of the young ones and I think this is one of the reasons we were successful, this balance in the squad.
That’s the good thing of Liverpool - this club is pure humble, this club has high values and we really try to treat people differently inside. If you can produce your own players, you can produce your own coaches. Now we have Barry Lewtas for the U21s, he’s a top one, he will be with a lot of recognition for sure, he does an unbelievable job.
If I see Critch, Stevie, Scott Mason, Tim Jenkins. And then we have in our first team set up so many people - Dan Spiro is one of our analysts, he is a top one. You need good analysts, they make the caching job a lot lot easier.
I had a big big group and said to Alex I want to reduce. It was the first time we bring the best five under-15s together with the five best U16s. That was my idea, because Coerver - you need a high level of technique, so the best players with the best.
“I had Trent Alexander-Arnold at six, Ben Woodburn at 10, Herbie Kane as the right midfielder, Yan Dhanda as the left winger, George Johnston, Conor Masterson and Coyley (Liam Coyle) as the back three.
Harvey (Elliott) and Adam Lewis came, Curtis (Jones) later, Nico Williams, Caoimhín Kelleher we signed halfway through. It was a team with so much individual (talent) and I loved it. I was like ok, three diamond three, we go all in, with a proper nine, a 10 and a six and Trent captain.
Trent was unbelievable and really nice to work with. Big big character and you could never think how players could develop. I am evenly proud about a lot of the others but Trent, it is cool we are still together in this club. He gave a new dimension in right full back - the amount of assists he has and the way he interprets the position.
Trent, I am so proud of him. His attitude, his passion, his unpredictability, his development as a leader. There are more players like him in the Academy, but not many have the same determination as him, and that makes him the best, in my opinion - the passion, the love for the club, for the game, for winning, he is just a superb guy and a lovely family as well.
Through the 16s he just grew step by step by step. A wonderful guy and an incredible player.
I have to say our relationship is really strong, because when you go through difficult moments, then you find out who the real people are in your life. My dad was really sick in the first year Jurgen came and he (Gordon) offered to get my dad treated in America.
We never accepted it, we never had to do it, my dad is clean now for five years, but in these moment, that makes…
(Can you remember when you first met Klopp?)
It was when he signed his deal, so he was really happy! That was a really tough time, because Brendan left. I read it on the news and I call him and say, ‘If you go then I should not be here’ and five minutes later he called Mike Gordon, for sure, because he called me and said you are going nowhere, you stay, you are going to work with the new manager.’
They announced Jurgen four days later probably and then we meet in the Hope Street Hotel in a small room, where we have a dinner, me, John Achterberg, Alex Inglethorpe and Jurgen and Peter (Moore). And the agent Marc (Kosicke) of course.
What we can say is there are a lot of good people in football, but there are a lot of bandits as well, a lot of bad people as well. I worked with five different clubs now and you need to learn if someone is real and what he says makes sense.
With Jurgen, you don’t know how it’s going to be. I thought, 'Ok I really need to try to learn.' Of course i knew the Dortmund team and how they play. Then I saw training and then I saw the meeting and the way he spoke and I thought, ‘Ah, really really good.' I thought, 'How he explains is better than how I do it' and every day Iike this, a paper, a complete A4 full with words, what he said, what he did, training. I still have these books at home.
It was a nice period but unstable, because under Brendan I would be the coach, I would deliver all the sessions. With Jurgen, with time he asked more and more and I gave more sessions, but I was not planning the training, I was just delivering the ideas or the sessions.
I needed more, which is why, in the end, I left, but three months later I was at NEC Nijmegen, beginning of April he called, ‘Pep, I will probably be searching for a number two. I feel we can conquer the world together - what do you think?
My wife was having the best time. She lived in Porto, by herself, we have two kids, the grandmothers were always around now. I dropped the phone and she looked at me - ‘Jurgen called, no? We are going back to Liverpool.’
That moment was cool, because I know I go back to Liverpool. That was a really nice thought. And I go back to something I love, because I am responsible for the training process, the planning, the preparing, the delivering, the execution. Proper trainer, coach.
The training methodology and the way you plan the week - what do you do four days before the game, three days, two days - so similar to tactical periodisation and Porto and the way I worked. If that would not be the case I could not have worked here, because you have to believe in something. And the style.
I had these big flipovers in our coaching office and Jurgen came second, third day in and started reading and, ‘Who are these?’ 'Mine?' 'That’s cool.' 'Do you want me to take them off?' 'No, leave them, I like it.' That shows a lot of character, because that was not his philosophy. But it was nice, I love it.
The love for purely the game, the way we see the game. It is a German and Dutch guy working together which is already very unusual, probably because I am not that Dutch and he is probably not that German, but it works really well.
In time you really find out people, if they are good, bad; if they are energy drainers or givers; if they encourage you; if they are egoistic; if they want to give you responsibility. He has a really big heart.
I said before - I only want to assist Jurgen. After that, I go for myself. If you look to the past of football, what I can judge, Sacchi changed the way of thinking and training and playing in Milan. I think Van Gaal did the same with Ajax. I think Cruyff did the same for barca. He had the ability to change a whole club, a way to look at the game and to think.
I think Jurgen did the same for Liverpool and there are not many who can say that and I hope that this club continues in a way that seeing the game in this way and leading in this way, developing the Academy in this way, continues. This is a big task of course, the club, but you had the big ones with Shankly and Paisley. I hope this club keeps this way of a leader for a long time, and this playing style. I love it.
Chelsea, League Cup final (May 2022), penalty shoot-out. That moment we won it, because I have more responsibility for the League Cup. The Barca game (May 2019) - madness. So cool that we achieved that.