This is just brilliant. Jurgen Klopp and Pep Lijnders interview on Sunday Times
‘Football has too much money but you can still be a special player without bling, bling, bling all day’
Jurgen Klopp has total faith in Liverpool’s youth system, as Plymouth will find today.
Four- Deutsche Marks and a winter jacket. On comes that full-beam headlights grin. Jurgen Klopp is remembering his start in coaching. The misconception is he began at Mainz. No, his first job was years before that and in Frankfurt — in charge of Eintracht’s under-10 team.
“I loved it,” says Klopp, smiling the fondest smile. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do something like coaching but I needed the money. Ha! Ha! Ha! I got 400 marks and a winter jacket. Ha! Ha! And a season ticket.”
Life was not easy. “[Sessions] three times a week. I studied at university. I played third division football for another club in Frankfurt. I had to get through the rush hour [to his own training, after coaching the kids]. It was intense. At home I had my wife and son to support.”
He was little more than a kid himself. “I never had a philosophy or something but I had this team. After the first season the club asked, ‘How many new players do you want?’ I said, ‘I don’t need new players.’ ‘But every year we change.’ I said, ‘Well, this year don’t.’” The grin again. “My first decision in coaching — to keep the same squad for the following year. I was 21.”
Keep your talent. Grow your boys. Don’t change players for change’s sake. Before sitting one-to-one with him, I knew Klopp was a different sort of manager; after, it was clear how different. His principles, based around developing people, run through his very grain.
Today’s FA Cup tie against Plymouth showcases something fundamental happening to Liverpool under Klopp. It is epitomised by Ben Woodburn, the shy 17-year-old winger-striker from Cheshire who became the 10th academy graduate to be given a debut by Klopp when he came on against Leeds in the League Cup in November. Woodburn’s joyous gawp after netting in front of the Kop was an image to warm the coldest football heart.
Woodburn could feature today, alongside two other golden kids, Trent Alexander-Arnold, 18, a versatile player who grew up a mile from the Melwood training ground, and Ovie Ejaria, 19, a creative attacking force prised from Arsenal three years ago. Under Klopp’s direction the trio gave their first major interviews to LFC TV on Friday, and inside the club they know more academy talents will soon take the spotlight too. Remember the name: Rhian Brewster.
This is why Klopp has a net spend of just £6.46m since arriving. Develop your people. The fan who craves transfers will be disappointed but Klopp’s strategy for Liverpool rests on growing players and he has been this way since coaching nine-year-olds.
Dortmund reached the 2013 Champions League final with three academy products and seven footballers Klopp signed aged 21 or younger, playing regularly. “The biggest stories are written by local players,” Klopp smiles “If it’s Barcelona, if it’s Ajax, if it’s Manchester United, if it’s Liverpool I don’t know how long ago . . .
“Dortmund was like this. The ‘boys of 88.’ A special year, because my son was born and a lot of those guys were born in 1988 too. It’s not the most important thing in football, but it is nice [those Dortmund players] are friends for life.”
The dream: Liverpool growing a team the same way. “First you should try to be successful. At Liverpool we need to be successful,” he says, “but you should try to be more independent of the money. Because in a world of money it looks like everybody in football has more than they need. Each club can buy who they want, but in the end it is always short-term thinking. The world can change and that’s why you should create your own values. On the money side and the attitude side: what do you really want? What do you stand for?
“Liverpool have always a special identity. That’s why I loved this club even before I was here. My first responsibility is to use it, to keep it and, if possible, make it more special. Not all old things are bad.”
Tradition is important, he means. Liverpool’s is success through evolution, the boot room, Steven Gerrard coming through the ranks, Billy Liddell arriving on a train from Fife at 16 and becoming father of a way of playing. “We try to do it differently here,” says Klopp. “We try not because it’s about being different, but because it’s what we believe in.”
We are in a Melwood meeting room. A few yards up the corridor is Klopp’s office, outside which it is common to see a waiting parent and child. Even the youngest signings get personal introductions.
Klopp views every youth game. On his first full day in October 2015 he stood with the academy head, Alex Inglethorpe, and first-team development coach, Pepijn Lijnders, watching Liverpool Under-18s play Stoke. The three have formed a powerful alliance. When Klopp attends under-23 games he gets beside himself with excitement. “This team could play in the Premier League,” he’ll exclaim, leaning over to paw Lijnders playfully when a player Lijnders has championed does something good.
Among Lijnders’ duties is linking Klopp to the academy and the Dutchman leads a “talent group” of handpicked prospects from ages 15 to 19 who train with the first-team every Tuesday. Alexander-Arnold, Woodburn and Ejaria were once members but are now at Melwood every day.
The talent group gives Klopp knowledge of who is emerging and he will buy only if the youngster coming through in that position is not ready. “There is not pressure,” he says. “We can wait. We don’t say you have to be this player at this age. I don’t like when people are judged too early. I’m a man for the second chance. I had so many second chances in my life. My God, if someone judged you at 17 where would you be?”
He mentions Kevin Stewart, discarded by Spurs’ academy but now building a first-team squad role at 23. “My God, how old was he when he came? And he’s going to have a very proper career, somewhere in England, if not here then somewhere else. Two years ago he didn’t play at Swindon Town. Nothing against Swindon, but that’s how it is in football. The door is often locked.
“It is my strength and maybe my weakness that I feel absolutely responsible for these boys. That makes life not always easy for me — but for them it’s a big chance.” What does he look for?
“Of course, skills set. Sometimes I look in Pep’s Talent Group and say ‘My God. He’s 15... you can’t believe it.’ But skills are only one thing. Attitude is what they should bring. If you have to force somebody to work... it’s no problem, once, on a bad weather day. But if you have to do it every day the boy has no chance. Being too cool, too early, is always a mistake.”
What made him feel Alexander-Arnold, Ejaria and Woodburn were ready for League Cup exposure, and the bench in Premier League matches? “Quality. You watch them training and if you are not blind you see that it’s close [between them and senior players] and getting closer.
“The good thing is they don’t feel pressure. Every day [at Melwood] is nice, every day is Christmas and birthday. I am here! This is Daniel Sturridge! All that stuff. All their doubt problems will come and we’ll deal with that, but at the moment they’re free.”
Klopp dislikes loans and has drastically reduced the number of youngsters Liverpool lend out. He believes in the under-23 league and wishes other managers were similar. “Now it’s the transfer window. Twelve clubs asking for players. Maybe we’ll do it with one [that day Pedro Chirivella was loaned to Go Ahead Eagles] but only if it makes sense for that individual. I decided on a real strong second team. In England, in the under- 23s, the best players are out on loan, so who is left? Too young, not good enough or whatever. You keep good players and they improve together.”
Woodburn and company are protected. “We live in this crazy world so we cannot let them do the normal stuff and say, make an interview there, TV here. No. It’s not because they’re not smart enough to do it — they are. But they go back to normal life, school, friends, that stuff. And if each thing you do is already special because you play for Liverpool, and now you’re on TV as well, on the smartphone and people can see you always... no. There’s enough time for this [in future].
“We have a special kid. I won’t name him. But everyone was asking about him... now, now, now. Nobody has time any more. If it’s a good story, that’s nice. But if the next day the player couldn’t perform and it’s a bad story? A young player can’t deal with that, eh? Nobody is really interested [in the person]. That’s what you feel. That we [in football] are sometimes the clowns in a circus and you have to perform, perform, perform and if you do that’s good but if not... boof.”
He talks about the mentoring roles senior players such as Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana and James Milner play. They show the talent group “it’s possible to be a special player without bling, bling, bling all day”.
He alludes to his own upbringing: Christianity, a father who was loving but always demanded he did his best, good teachers, good coaches. “I was a lucky guy.” Klopp has an educator’s heart. “That’s what life should be: that you make your own experience and if it’s good or bad you share it. The problem in this world is everything is so quick. Everybody wants everything in this moment. Nobody gives you time to develop. Usually.”
He is conscious that one day he will pass Liverpool on to another coach and “the club should benefit from the things we did”. He adds: “Life forced me pretty early to think ahead. When I became a father young and had responsibility for a little boy.”
So what happened to his Eintracht Under-10s? “The goalkeeper made it, had a decent career — third division in Germany. One or two played in Turkey. But I missed contact with them, it was 27 years ago, 28.” Again, the smile, that fondness. “Good boys.”
Ljinders helps Liverpool youngsters to bridge the gap
Liverpool’s owners will build the future around Jurgen Klopp, Michael Edwards, Alex Inglethorpe and Pepijn Lijnders, writes Jonathan Northcroft.
Edwards is sporting director, Inglethorpe is academy head. Lijnders rocketed to first-team development coach under Brendan Rodgers and is prized by Klopp. If Klopp describes Zjelko Buvac, his No 2, as ‘The Brain’ then Lijnders, his de facto No3, is ‘The Bridge’.
The 33-year-old Dutchman is integral to first-team coaching and planning but his other responsibility is linking Klopp to Liverpool’s academy at Kirkby, five miles from Melwood. Klopp’s ideal is youth and first-team at one training ground (the owners are evaluating expansion and new-build options) In the meantime, The Bridge takes him to his best kids.
Every Tuesday, up to 12 academy boys from under-15 to under-19 levels are invited by Lijnders to Melwood to join Klopp’s training. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ben Woodburn and Ovie Ejaria first experienced the first-team environment as part of this ‘Talent Group’.
‘Personal relationships are important. We believe that 30% is tactics and 70% is feeling for each other and the staff. It’s important Jurgen knows players from a young age. If he can’t be in Kirkby, we bring the best to him,’ Lijnders says. ‘We started the Talent Group so we have a 15-year-old training with a 19-year-old because our goal is they play together in the first team and when they do, it’s not the first time.
‘And [on visits] they watch Adam Lallana prepare, Sadio Mane’s little movements to find space, they learn the unwritten rules of Melwood, all the little things. There’s a saying that talent needs models, it doesn’t need criticism. I really believe in that.’
Lijnders was headhunted in 2014 after spells with PSV Eindhoven and Porto’s youth departments. He is utterly inspiring when you talk to him about development. ‘Bringing your own players up creates a father-son relationship with the club, based on loyalty, a really powerful weapon,’ he says. ‘For Porto it was a powerful weapon to compete with Benfica. For PSV, to come back and fight against Ajax. For us it is a new project, creating a new generation of Liverpool players who can compete with the best signings of the other clubs.’
Lijnders initially coached Liverpool’s Under-16s, playing 3-4-3 with a diamond midfield and high pressing game. The key positions in that system are the No 6 and No 10, he says, and his No 6 was a 16-year-old Alexander-Arnold. His No 10 was Woodburn, 15.
The Talent Group, ‘is the icing’ on Liverpool’s development system, ‘the cake is the academy coaches and Inglethorpe.’ Inglethorpe, inset, has reduced numbers at Kirkby to increase the focus on excellence and set £40,000 annual pay limits for first-year scholars to preserve values.
Inglethorpe seeks to keep his starlets grounded. His academy’s social and community programme has taken them on visits to homeless shelters and hospitals.
New initiatives include training with the fire brigade, and they went to Auschwitz and, back in England, heard from a Holocaust survivor. Alexander-Arnold recently returned to his old school to present shirts.