Though Jurgen Klopp‘s time at Liverpool is hopefully still in its infancy, with the German expected to depart in 2024, is Pepijn Lijnders shaping up as an ideal successor?
In Liverpool’s most successful era, the famous Boot Room bred an enviable tradition via a strategy of promotion from within, and with the club back on their perch, the obvious candidate in this respect would be Steven Gerrard.
In many ways, Lijnders is the antithesis of the legendary midfielder; he is a career trainer who has built up his name across the continent due to his work behind the scenes and on the training ground.
Lijnders’ own footballing career was far less illustrious than Gerrard’s, being brought to an unfortunate end just as it was beginning after suffering a severe knee injury at just 17.
And yet when one door closes, invariably another opens: it was the making of the Dutchman.
Due to his injury, Lijnders began coaching almost immediately, and at an incredibly young age, with amateur Dutch side SVEB, before quickly moving to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven in 2002.
From there, he would be headhunted for an academy role with Portuguese titans FC Porto in 2006, before being canvassed by Liverpool in 2014 to work under Brendan Rodgers.
Lijnders did not have a big name to draw on, yet he found his way into two of the finest academies in Europe at a time when he was only marginally older than his students. Such early success was based on his raw training ability.
‘Kidnapped’ by Liverpool
On the verge of leaving Porto to sign for Ajax, ex-Reds academy coach Micheal Beale recently revealed to The Athletic that he had to quasi-kidnap Lijnders from a football conference the pair were attending in Wales.
He did so by bundling him into a car and driving him to straight to a Liverpool hotel, declaring “I wouldn’t let him leave until we’d had the meetings.”
Lijnders was swayed by an opportunity to implement his vision on a Liverpool youth team, revealing: “I wanted just one team to put into practice all I had learned over the years at PSV and Porto.”
Initially working with the under-16s, including a young Trent Alexander-Arnold, Lijnders’ talent as a trainer was evident to all, and Rodgers quickly elevated him to a role with the first team.
Near the conclusion of Rodgers’ reign several calamitous decisions were made, but Lijnders has proved to be a masterstroke.
The young Dutch coach served as an important intermediary between the Rodgers and Klopp eras, a vital link of continuity at a time of great upheaval.
By this point, Lijnders’ talent and character had made such an imprint on Liverpool president Mike Gordon that he would declare to Klopp “Pep has to stay,” adding the caveat, “I promise you’ll like him.”
A few weeks later, Klopp would ring Gordon back to tell him, “Mike, you were completely wrong, you told me I’d like Pep…” before breaking the tension with the pronouncement: “I do not like Pep, I love him!”
But just as he was rising to play an ever more important role under Klopp, Lijnders faced family issues with his father battling cancer back home.
Thus, when he was offered a job at NEC Nijmegen in January 2018 he jumped at the chance. Not only did he want to test himself as the ‘main man’, but he would be closer to his ailing father.
For Lijnders, looking back on his Nijmegen experience, he reflected: “I asked a lot, that’s my nature.” But he also gained a new appreciation for Klopp once he had to deal with all the club-wide responsibilities that come with being the leader off the training ground.
It was during this period that Klopp’s long-time assistant Zeljko Buvac would make a surprise exit, and Jurgen would contact the Dutchman, announcing he had drawn up a list of candidates for Buvac’s replacement with only one name on it: Pep Lijnders.
Showing his trust, Klopp gave Lijnders complete responsibility for the training process.
Pep’s experience in Holland had steeled him into an epiphany: he would be making “no more concessions.” “We do it like I want in training,” he explains, “nothing else, convincing each day…we play everywhere we go in the same manner, full energy.”
As they have become more dominant, Liverpool have had to develop into a ball-playing, possession-based team, but Lijnders demands they retain the aggressive counter-pressing and transition game of Klopp’s heavy-metal football in the process.
Ultimately, Klopp and Lijnders agree on one principle: “Our identity is intensity.” And this now comes back to every single drill, “no more concessions.”
It is this utterly ruthless approach to development and training which has played a key role in Liverpool winning four trophies in the past 16 months, including the drought-breaking league title No. 19.
The Legend or the Wonder-Trainer?
In his autobiography My Story, Gerrard explained he could never see himself being “a coach who puts up the cones, takes sessions, sets up possessions, shooting practice and all the routine day-to-day drills.”
While his experiences on the Liverpool youth pitches would have changed his opinion slightly, he is presumably never going to be the obsessive hands-on trainer that Pep Lijnders is.
Gerrard might have been unable to see himself putting out the cones and taking the drills, but that is the domain where Lijnders has always been king.
Ultimately, as things currently stand, Gerrard and Lijnders both possess different qualities, echoing successful figures from Liverpool’s past.
Lijnders offers himself as a more credentialed and experienced coach who would offer a near-seamless transition from Klopp, reminiscent perhaps of Bill Shankly passing the torch to Bob Paisley, recalling the fabled Boot Room tradition of the club’s most successful dynasty.
The wheels are already in motion in this respect, with Lijnders enamouring himself to all who will listen whenever he conducts press conferences in Klopp’s stead.
Meanwhile, Gerrard’s path has been walked before by Kenny Dalglish, who made a successful transition from star player – king on the pitch – to being a successful manager and leader off-field, creating arguably the greatest footballing side Liverpool has seen in the process.
Ultimately, if one of these men were to manage Liverpool, the heart says Gerrard, but the head says Lijnders.
It may prove to be that neither succeeds Klopp, when the German is reluctantly allowed to leave Liverpool as early as 2024.
But in Lijnders, the club appear to be grooming an ideal replacement in terms of ethos.