A collective desire for further improvement has been the key to Liverpool's impressive early-season form, believes Pepijn Lijnders.
The Reds are preparing to resume action after the international break on Saturday against Newcastle United at the top of the Premier League table after four wins from four.
In addition, the UEFA Super Cup was secured in August with a penalty shootout victory over Chelsea in Istanbul.
Liverpool’s backroom staff have seen enhancements within the team’s play after last season’s outstanding campaign, according to Lijnders – but agree there is much more to come from the squad in the months ahead.
The assistant manager sat down with Liverpoolfc.com during the international break to offer an assessment of the opening weeks of 2019-20, look ahead to the next phase of the campaign, and provide insight into recent training sessions at Melwood and much more…
Firstly Pep, it has been a strong start to the season. What’s the coaches’ verdict on how the team have begun the campaign?
The pre-season process becomes more complicated each year and we had to prepare the team without a lot of time, so we should be proud of how we’ve started. In the first games we were very intense, especially when we lost the ball, and there were not many times where we lost concentration. Now, the verdict is we will need everyone in this shape, in his best counter-pressing shape, in all competitions, wherever we go, whoever we play.
What has been the most impressive, or most pleasing, aspect of the team’s start to the season for you?
The way we dictate play and search for attacks; how we control space, prepare and apply pressing moments; the way we react on what each game needs tactically; the way in which each individual puts the team first. How we are still improving our way, trying to become a machine again; you see it in our second-ball play, our three front players are fighting for each second ball as if it’s the last ball of their lives. We’ve made a step again. And then, of course, winning the European Super Cup, we really wanted that prize. Now the Club World Cup is coming up later this year and you can’t imagine how proud we are to compete with Liverpool FC for the World Cup of teams. These opportunities we earned ourselves and that makes it special.
How important was the work done in the pre-season to how the team began the season?
Development is key, always [keep] improving. We became better last year, that’s why we won [the Champions League] in the end – because we evolved. Especially the aspects that characterised our best games, we just kept improving them. Last line making the pitch small, pressing high with the highest intensity, never giving up and never giving up our way of play, being dominant with the ball based on organisation and creativity. And in all game moments, trying to be more intense than the opposition because our identity is intensity. Exactly here lies the need for dedicated specific team training because you can only be really intense with stability, organisation and the right distances. That’s what pre-season is all about: being clear in training; remind them; repeat, repeat, repeat what makes us strong and correct immediately those who don’t move or think in a coordinated way. Intentional movement is what makes a team a team, in my opinion. Everything in the highest intensity and with maximum concentration. Specificity was key. The week leading up to Arsenal, by the way, felt like pre-season still. Each full week to train feels like pre-season, to be honest! Pre-season is the moment to make new steps, to implement new ideas, you have to use the time wisely, the moment to adapt to the new rules.
How pleased are you and the coaches by the way in which the team can react to different tactics and formations from the opposition, Arsenal recently for example? It shows an ability to adjust...
It’s all about a winning attitude, an attitude to adapt. Our identity has this variability. [Laughs] It’s like a chameleon, it changes colour but always knows it’s a chameleon! You need to know your own mind best, but learn in and from the game. It’s important because more and more teams change their set-up against us. For me, that’s a good thing because they worry more, which means that we are becoming better, which means we are on the right path!
There have been some guys from the Academy training at Melwood this week. Can you tell us what they’ve been doing alongside the likes of James Milner, Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah?
Two days of intense training. We have specific exercises like the ‘counter-pressing rondo’, the ‘identity game’, ‘organised chaos’ or the ‘high-intensity game’. They all experienced these specific exercises throughout these two days, it was like a little training camp for them. There is no better education than good role models, so for them to train with our seniors is irreplaceable. In the ‘identity game’ – a set-up of three teams fighting to earn the right to attack – our seniors were divided over three teams as the captains. You see so many incredible processes happening in the rest periods. Leighton Clarkson, who sees with his own eyes the constant runs of Sadio and Mo in behind. He has the capacity to play the passes these type of forwards like to receive, he is the type of No.6 we really like, the one who can dictate play, but dictate with direction, who can speed up the tempo of the positional play, the one who has always time on the ball. Again, talent needs good role models, much more than criticism. Then you see how special our seniors are. The boys receive the treatment they earn and deserve, equal to our seniors, equal to everyone, it works accumulatively. I’ve said it before, the character of Jürgen becomes the character of the team and luckily that’s a good thing. It’s the thing that makes all the difference.
It is fair to say Adrian has had a very interesting start to life at Liverpool. How do you assess his first few weeks at the club?
Yes, he is an experienced goalkeeper but still very passionate, and the passionate ones will always have a spot at Liverpool FC. For me, it says a lot about our team that this adaptation process went like that. By the way, sometimes it’s just better to have no time to think to enter a situation of high pressure and handle everything on your intuition.
We come into a busy period of the season now with three games a week until the next international break. How does that change how you and the coaches prepare and manage the training sessions?
Our game needs 100 per cent freshness, so recovery is important; I don’t mean only physical recovery but especially emotionally, too. The higher the level, the pressure, the more fatigue because intensity is mainly highest levels of concentration to think all in the same way. How we say: 11 pressing, but with one mind, a quick mind. We will enter now in a period of many, many games, we prepare to be ready for these periods, that everyone is in his best shape and can contribute with 100 per cent intensity.