John Achterberg is the longest-serving member of Liverpool’s first-team coaching staff, having served in his role as goalkeeping coach for the Reds for over a decade now.
When This Is Anfield sits down with the big Dutchman at the Titanic Hotel in Liverpool it’s the middle of the international fortnight, a rare time for a break for some players and staff.
Achterberg, though, has been keeping busy, spending time in Malta as a guest of the Official Liverpool Supporters Club on the Mediterranean island.
When he arrives, he’s just finished filming with The RedmenTV at the Reds’ training ground. His passion for the club and openness to fans is clear.
We’re here to talk about Liverpool’s best European nights in recent years, but before we get to that we have a chat on all things goalkeeping.
Liverpool’s ‘keeper department
Achterberg heads up what is quite a unique setup at Liverpool, with three first-team goalkeeping coaches and a large amount of ‘keepers in the Reds first-team and academy squads.
Jack Robinson was added first in 2018, with the more recent addition of Brazilian legend Claudio Taffarel. No other club boasts such a large goalkeeping department.
“Now that I’m older we looked to bring a young coach in and it was between the Southampton coach and Jack [Robinson],” explains Achterberg. “We took Jack in the end. It helps the training, the intensity, the speed.
“Then we decided to bring Taffarel in after speaking with Alisson because he has a special way of working as well and Ali likes that.”
Liverpool have had a lot of success with goalkeepers recently, and that doesn’t just include those who have represented the Reds.
“Quite a few have made it in the leagues – I think there must be about 10 now,” says Achterberg. “Obviously [Peter] Gulacsi was with us and Kamil [Grabara] as well.”
Grabara is now first-choice at Danish club FC Copenhagen, while Gulacsi has had a hugely successful career with RB Leipzig – making over 200 appearances, 29 of them in the Champions League.
Then there are the likes of Shamal George (first choice at Colchester United in League Two), Lawrence Vigouroux (Leyton Orient), Andy Firth (Rangers), Ryan Fulton (Hamilton), plus Brad Jones – who went on to have a very successful career with Feyenoord – and Danny Ward – who the club earned £12.5 million for when he was sold to Leicester in 2018.
“We always try to create the goalie for Liverpool, but to become a Liverpool player in the squad is not easy,” the 50-year-old explains.
“So what we tried to do was put all the things we want from a Liverpool goalkeeper in with training and then they have to reach their own level eventually. If that means League Two, League One or abroad. To make a good living as a professional is the aim.
“We work a lot on tactical and positioning and we want to improve all the aspects of the goalkeeping. We think about what happens in the game, putting them in match situations in training; what is the best body shape? What is the best foot positioning or hand positioning to have the best chance to make the save?”
“For Liverpool, you have to be left foot, right foot, dealing with crosses, one-on-one situations and you have to play with a high line,” details Achterberg, who coached at the Reds’ academy from 2009 before being promoted under Kenny Dalglish‘s time as manager.
“I was always a coach who played with high lines so my philosophy is the same that Liverpool wanted.
“If you teach your goalkeepers to be all-around ‘keepers in training, they can play in any team. If you have one who stands in goal for a defensive team, then it will be difficult if he goes to a different team with a high defensive line.
“If you stick with your beliefs it will create goalkeepers. All the goalkeepers in the academy have to have the same way of working as everyone at the club, on the programme we have discussed with the coaches.”
Liverpool’s approach to goalkeeping is impressive. Jurgen Klopp explained after the appointment of Taffarel how “we really want to really be a proper goalkeeping school in world football.”
It is also hugely different to when Achterberg was a young professional.
“I was my own coach until I was 18,” he says when asked about knowing what he knows now as a coach and with the coaching the young goalkeepers now receive.
Instead, Achterberg began coaching when he was young – at PSV Eindhoven in his early twenties:
“When you work with kids you start thinking about details: how to position, how to attack the ball, and so on. I can say I am pretty well school. I could write a book about the specific details.
“There’s so much more detail to it than just ‘shoot the ball’ because if a goalkeeper is in a good technical shape he will make less mistakes than if he is in a bad shape.
“You have goalkeepers who fall backwards, which means 90 percent of the balls they save, they cannot hold, so they give a second chance [to the opponent].
“They say it’s a great save, but if he’s in the right shape he can catch it or deflect it to an area where there is no second chances. There’s a lot of tactical thinking and positioning.
“A lot goes into it: thinking where all the players are, where the best position is for me to be. I need to know that if the ball is on one side, how many players are going to be in the box, because then I know where I roughly have to be.
“If there are only two players in the box then I need to be in a good position in between the two of them, so I can deal with both if it goes to either post. In one-on-one situations it’s the same – it’s a mind game.
“All the things you learn over the years you use to help others, but obviously they all improve themselves by looking at each other and talking to each other.”
There’s no wonder that Achterberg’s former manager at Tranmere, Brian Little, described him as “the most professional player” he ever worked with.
Klopp, too, has had glowing praise for the man from Utrecht. “John has proved to be not just a great goalkeeping coach but a great guy, a great person,” praised the boss.
“Since I arrived I’ve noticed he’s loved by all here. He leaves me very calm and relaxed on a day-to-day basis and we learn from each other’s work.
“I’ve pointed out some areas that contribute to his work and likewise he has helped me with things I can improve in on the pitch.”
“It was a tough season because of the way everything went: injuries left, right and centre, Ali losing his dad in a tragedy, it was a really sad time,” recalls Achterberg.
“We were fighting to get in the top four, and in the end, we needed to win that game to stay in the race, and from that moment it gave the team a boost.
“Football without fans is not great. Everyone missed that and hopefully that will never happen again but there’s no guarantee. We have to be happy that the supporters are back to lift us again.”
Milner can complete his set!
We know that goalkeepers sometimes fancy themselves outfield – and let’s be honest, Alisson could probably do a job for some teams with his passing ability, but we ask John who from the current squad might get the nod if ever an emergency situation arose.
The answer is the man who is always the answer: James Milner: “Aggression-wise, Milly would want to do it and he is a guy who can do everything. I think he has the right mentality to want to keep the ball out of the net, so that will help.”
Wouldn’t that just cap off Milner’s career, meaning he’d played in every single position.
Milner would get the nod because of his mentality – something that separates the average from the elite as a goalkeeper:
“That is part of being a goalkeeper. The best goalies make the fewest mistakes and that’s how you drive yourself: ‘I don’t want to make mistakes, I want to keep clean sheets, I want to keep everything out’ – it’s a mentality.
“You can be really good technically or tactically as a goalkeeper, but if you miss that little bit of heart that wants to keep the ball out of the net, you will be an average goalkeeper.
“They are always remembered by how many clean sheets they make or how many times they make saves and no mistakes. That’s the life of our job and we have to deal with it.”
Liverpool’s goalkeepers are certainly dealing with it well at the moment.
Keep your eyes out next week, when John talks us through Anfield’s biggest European nights under Klopp.