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.
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“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.
He attended the 2018 Champions League final, which Liverpool lost to Real Madrid in Kiev, and, that summer, got to work on the training field.
“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.”
Sub-top to top
So with the cat in goal, the tower at the back and the lighthouse in midfield, and with the most productive full-backs and front three around, Liverpool set off in pursuit of glory.
They were fantastic in 2018-19, losing just one Premier League game and earning 97 points. In just about any other season, they would have been champions.
They were not, of course. Manchester City pipped them, Pep Guardiola’s side winning each of their last 14 games to nick the title by a single point. Three weeks later, though, the Reds would get their hands on Europe’s top club prize, beating Tottenham in the Champions League final in Madrid.
“I think that was really, really important for the players and for Jurgen,” Lijnders says. “You have to earn confidence, and you earn real confidence with proper work.
“You can only earn it by the things you did before, so knowing why we beat Barcelona, why we had these performances against Napoli or Porto or even Tottenham in the final. Winning that gave the group the real belief that the next prize is there if we keep doing the things we are doing.”
There was plenty of surprise when Liverpool opted not to make a single major signing following their Champions League triumph. While their rivals spent, the Reds opted for continuity.
Crucially though, there were no big departures. There were no transfer sagas, no Philippe Coutinhos or Luis Suarezes. Barcelona and Real Madrid were not sniffing. Liverpool's squad was settled, happy, here for the long-haul.
"If you win finals or have a super moment, the key thing is that you keep your core group together," Lijnders says. "That’s the most important thing.
“If you are successful as a sub-top side in Europe, they take your players. The change we had to make in the last years was to go from being sub-top to top, and if you want to stay there, your biggest signing is to keep your best players.
“We felt that confidence after the Champions League final, to keep the group together and go for the next season. That was really important in my opinion.”
The Melwood Masterplan
Perhaps the most striking thing about Liverpool’s success over the past two years is that it has been, in every sense, a collective effort.
In one of Klopp’s first addresses to his players in 2015, he spoke of the idea that “everybody is responsible for everything”. There would be no superstars in his group, nobody would be deemed more important than anyone else. If they were to succeed, they would do so together, through talent, through attitude and, most of all, through hard work.
That hard work can be seen each day at Melwood, where training sessions can often be more intense - and sometimes more important - than matchdays.
“I still believe that the best signing you can make is the training process,” Lijnders says. “The only way to play like we do is to train each minute of each session with these principles.
“It makes me most proud that when I look, you cannot compare the team now with the team two years ago. The way we play, the way the team developed, you cannot compare.
“You cannot compare each player with two years ago. Each player improved, each player made a new step, the next step.”
So how did they manage that?
“Training!” Lijnders adds. “These players, they make everything competitive!
“Let me give you an example; if we play 10 vs 0 and there’s no opposition, and Robbo puts in a cross for Bobby to head in. Robbo will walk back and I will hear Virgil say ‘are you really happy with that cross Robbo?’
“It might have been a good cross, but it can be better. They constantly push each other. A rondo - five vs two - they play like a final!
“If you train, you have to do so with your whole body. You cannot train with just your legs or your head. And the only way to get the whole body into training is competition. That’s the only way. Winning, losing, going in, going out. That means they train with everything they have, and that’s the only way to improve, to give a little bit more, a little bit more.”
That they were able to do that all season, despite building up a huge lead at the top of the table, says everything about their mentality, surely?
"They are machines, honestly!" Lijnders laughs. "What they learned and installed in themselves is that they see each game as the next final. And they never lost this focus.
"We didn’t mention City. Maybe the players did among themselves, but I cannot even imagine that to be honest. The only moment I remember was when Jurgen text me. City had lost, it was probably around January time. He said ‘OK, now we have to manage expectations’. But it was never even the slightest issue."
Maybe one of Klopp’s biggest achievements has been to create an environment in which everyone feels valued, where everyone believes they have a role to play, whether from the start or off the bench. Few teams, few managers, are able to strike that kind of balance, where back-up players are as focused and as motivated as the regulars.
“Before each match, we play a game in training,” Lijnders says. “Starters against non-starters.
“We call the non-starters ‘the yellow team’ because they wear the yellow bibs. And they play always in the style of the next opponent. They have maybe four minutes where they get information and then they have to play like the other team.
“And I can’t tell you the amount of times we walk off the pitch, or even during the session, and someone will say ‘wow, I’m so happy we don’t have to play the yellows tomorrow!’
“The level is so high. The ones who aren’t playing have the mentality to create as many problems as possible for the starters. And even boys who are disappointed, in three or four minutes they can change that.
“Everyone who is in team sport knows that is key, how the group is together, the relationship between the ones who play and the ones who do not. We won four prizes, and that has to stay. It cannot change.
“If you play for a top club like Liverpool, you know that even if you come on just for five minutes, it is to make a difference, and a lot of times that happened. You need to be prepared always.
“It’s not easy, so a lot of respect goes to them. You need this mentality, to want to be part of this team.”
The moment of glory
June 25, 2020, a little after 10pm.
Liverpool are Premier League champions. Chelsea have beaten Manchester City to confirm the Reds’ first title since 1990. The party can start.
Klopp, his players and his staff are at Formby Hall Hotel and Golf Resort, watching together. Hoping, waiting, dancing, crying.
Later, Klopp himself will break down during a live television interview. “I was totally overwhelmed,” he said.
Lijnders experienced similar feelings.
“Oh wow, it was emotional,” says Lijnders. “I called my wife after the final whistle and I couldn’t speak. It was just unbelievable. I feel it now speaking about it, to be honest.
“It was probably the most intense game I ever watched. I had a real pain in my head during it.
“There was a moment when we felt Chelsea had more control of the game after the big chance missed by City [Raheem Sterling hitting the post]. Then the moment, the whole scrimmage [for the Willian penalty], you think ‘again?’ and then he gives the handball! I didn’t see it. I had run to the television but I had already turned my back. And then I saw that it was a penalty. Then we knew.
“It was special because we were together with the staff and everyone involved with the team, seeing their emotions during the game.
“Listen, you want to become champions with the fans, looking them in the eyes and seeing and feeling what it means, but to be together and feel this natural, conscious feeling was good as well.
“For me it was a big relief, but the pride I had when I saw everybody together, jumping around, searching for each other, saying the words that needed to be said, that will stay with me.
“It was a strong night!”
The next chapter…
So finally, the burning questions.
Where do Liverpool go from here? Klopp insists they can still improve, but where? How do they ensure this success continues?
“Unpredictability,” Lijnders says. “That’s one. Having more solutions for the problems opponents give us.
“If you go two years back. What did we really want to improve? One was set-pieces. We really wanted to improve that. We want to create them, use them and make them decisive.
“Two, throw-ins. We really think this is an important part of the game where we can create for ourselves and stop the opponent from creating. So improve that, which we did.
“Three, our build-up with Alisson, with our full-backs. How do we create a way where we can bring the ball anywhere we want to bring the ball, organised but not predictable? How do we find a better way of playing, because teams will drop more? They are going to set up to annoy us, to stop our way of playing.
“Four, our pressing. We wanted to stay longer in the opponent’s half, stop counterattacks better. They were big improvement points.
“Where do we want to improve now? I’m not going to tell you! But we know the areas.”
Perhaps the presence of young players – Curtis Jones, Neco Williams and Harvey Elliott – will help the process. Lijnders’ eyes light up as he discusses Liverpool’s trio of gifted teenagers.
“Our future looks really bright,” he says. “We have, in three positions, players who can make us better.
“Don’t tell them that, but they have something. They have Scouse blood, their heart is in the right place and they will run through walls for us. They will try things a more experienced player will not try. That’s what I like. It gives colour to our game.
“Everyone is seeing Curtis in the last half-year, but we have been busy with him since the Talent Group, four years ago. We try to bring these players through, to force them into our way of playing.
“There are three good examples at the moment; Neco dominates a wing in a very creative way, Harvey in the final third is like a little diamond – he’s cheeky but at the same time he’s responsible - and Curtis, who gives us risk in one-v-ones and a last pass like few players we see on the market.”
It feels a fitting note to end on. A nod to the work of the past and the glory of the present, but a look to the future, and everything that will bring.
“That’s the aim,” Lijnders smiles. “Let’s create more memories!”
Liverpool, one suspects, are here to stay.