Q&APep Lijnders and Vitor Matos in conversation: Improving, youngsters and new season
Enjoy a fascinating conversation between Liverpool coaching duo Pepijn Lijnders and Vitor Matos in full.
The Reds' assistant manager and elite development coach sat down with Liverpoolfc.com for a wide-ranging chat during the team's training camp in picturesque Saalfelden.
Read on as the pair discuss the work performed in the pre-season, fresh faces in the squad and look ahead to a unique 2022-23 campaign.
The boss has spoken about using the pre-season to improve as a team. What kind of stuff have you been working on to raise the levels, which were already at an unbelievably high standard?
Matos: Like in all pre-seasons, there is always space to improve – that's the most important thing. I think everyone recognises that. Also, it's important that everything comes together, related to the way we want to play, related with your style. We build again on that, that the players adapt to that, so physically, mentally, psychologically and as well how they look to the game. So it's quite important that we do all these steps and it's been really good.
Lijnders: With one goal: to be able to press over 95 minutes. Result-wise, concede less and score more against direct top-four opposition – that's for sure, haha! Performance-wise, for example, finishing better our counter-attack moments, making sure we play the extra pass. I think offensively the main improvement point is having less players but more initiative in our build-up to outplay the deep-defending sides better, a flexible structure to break the opposition last line more easily. There are so many points we are trying to improve, to be honest. In the end, it's always about, 'How brave are we?' We are working hard to make these next steps in training and meetings – Austria is great for this. The players are so open and willing – they make all our ideas 90 per cent better! That's the nice thing when you work with top players, in the end their creativity will make the difference, so we have to keep stimulating this part.
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Over the summer there's quietly been a lot of change in the squad. What will the new arrivals bring to the team and just how are you looking to develop?
Matos: All of the new signings are top quality, so different positions, different profiles as well. Darwin is an aggressive player in terms of offensive and defensive – he's a proper No.9. Fabio is a player who can play between the lines and has a really good technical level, so he's a player who can play in different positions as well but he feels really comfortable between the lines. And Calvin didn't start training but we are really looking forward for him. So when we have new signings, it's always about how the team adapts to them and as well how they adapt to the team, so these relationships are quite important and that's why the pre-season is important as well. So it's good that we are working with them already now.
Lijnders: I think that's a big compliment to our scouting department and our sporting director – that the players we wanted as a club, as a group, that they came in for the first day of the pre-season. It makes a massive difference. How Vitor says, the players have to adapt to our style and that only comes with time, and this time you only have with the pre-season. We saw it last year with Ibou and how his season goes, we saw it with Jots and hopefully now with Fabio and Darwin. So with time, all the qualities they have, all the extra things they have, all the new things they have fits really well with the style we want.
And the core principles stay the same...
Lijnders: Yeah, we want to chase, we want to fight, we want to show our emotion, we want to show our hunger. We want to have the ball. We believe [in] that mentality to constantly want the ball; if we lose it, that we get it back as quick as we can. This style, this hunger, this mentality of wanting to have the ball, that's the basis of everything. But with this, the players get a lot of freedom as well. I think that's really important that they always get the chance to show their magic basically.
Matos: There's no reason to change when you believe 100 per cent in what we do, so that's the most important thing right now.
This is Luis Diaz's first pre-season with the club. You've both worked at FC Porto and still have contacts there – what did they tell you when you were thinking about signing him?
Matos: All good words, and that they were not really happy because they lost him in January!
Lijnders: I have to say, I was really happy that they still became champion. That says how strong Porto is as a club, how strong they are with recruiting players and how strong Sergio Conceicao is in building the team again because he did that many times in a row now.
What will a pre-season do for Diaz? He was already so good when he came in…
Matos: Like all the other players, there's times where they need to rebuild again what they have inside of them but always with a collective perspective. So they need again to adapt high pressing, they need to adapt to counter-pressing...
Lijnders: Yeah, without losing his joy in his feet!
Matos: That's the most important thing. That's why the pre-season is important as well. One thing is arriving in January, where he played he was the best player of the league. Now arriving in Liverpool, the quality of the team in terms...
Lijnders: Don't tell Darwin he [Diaz] was the best player in the league!
Matos: But this is always different timings. It was really good when he arrived [but] there's always space for improvement, so that's most important.
Lijnders: Even when you get older, there's so many things to learn and so many things to become better [in].
On Nunez, what's it like having a Benfica boy in the squad for you, Vitor?
Matos: That's a good question.
Lijnders: He's not a Benfica boy, he's a Liverpool boy. We forgive him, haha!
Matos: It was a passage in his life, on his journey to arrive at Liverpool, so we are happy with that.
Lijnders: That's a good one. We're really happy with Benfica because it brought him to Liverpool.
You work with the youngsters closely in your roles. Given the way the Academy is set up and how they replicate the first team, how helpful is that for the youngsters that they know the exact style of play when they come up to the first team?
Matos: I think that's most important and that's one of the biggest advantages of an academy, because you develop players in your own way. You develop players with the identity that you want. That's what you can gain by having a good inside pathway. We can see how easy the transition is, how smooth that will be. It's a completely different idea when a player is playing in a similar way from the youth until the first team. And when he arrives in the first team, everything is much more, not simple, but much more easy for him to learn, to keep improving, and he completely feels free – that's the most important thing for a young player.
Lijnders: But for a club like Liverpool, it's a must. It's not a 'we should try' or this. The biggest players, the biggest icons, the most influential players for the club in history came through the youth, so we should always respect that pathway. Because we think it makes us able to win more games. In the end, it's always about that the boys are good enough, that we give them time. We really believe that with time, with the right atmosphere and structure around them that they can become a new player basically.
We've seen some of the youngsters catch the eye this summer – Stefan Bajcetic in the No.6 role and Isaac Mabaya getting so many opportunities down that right-hand side against Red Bull Salzburg, for example. How impressed have you been and do you feel that they would be ready to contribute this season?
Matos: How I say it, they are still in a development point for the medium term and long term. I think what they have done in this pre-season was something that we could say that we expected, considering the last moments of the last season. We recognise a lot of talent, different kinds of profiles as well individually. Like, Stefan is a really balanced No.6 and has a lot to grow as well but how he is right now, he's in a really good moment. Isaac, his physical attributes are really, really good and he's someone that can really give life to the right side of a team.
Lijnders: The right side becomes a highway!
Matos: So that's good. We are really happy with them. Like in the last seasons, we had different young players coming through and doing the pre-season. So I think most important is that we, as a club, give the opportunity for these talents to come, to do the pre-season, to keep developing them. And at the same time, they can have the opportunity to be surrounded with this environment.
Lijnders: You know what's the worst thing about when new players come? It's that you forget the old 'new' players. That's the good thing we have, that we have so many. So Conor Bradley goes on loan to Bolton, it's a really important step for him. Then we have Owen Beck, who goes to Famalicao, we have Rhys Williams. The only reason why they go is to come back.
When young players come here, the environment is perfect. It's welcoming but also fiercely competitive and helps get them ready for first-team football...
Matos: Yeah, there's a sentence that the gaffer said in the meeting, it was, 'You always receive as we wanted to be welcomed when you go to a different place.' I think that is the philosophy around everyone here. I think that's really important for the new signings, as well as the youth players.
Lijnders: With the right character. So you have to be humble, you have to give your all, otherwise you're not accepted – because the players who come in show all these characteristics of being a real team player, no ego, fighters. So Luis, Darwin, Fabio, all the guys, they show this. What I'm trying to say is that it's a compliment to them as well, to their personality. We've always said we always have space for the passionate ones. We need this soul, you know, this fighter's soul in our team, and all the boys who come have this, because that's us.
What are your thoughts and expectations for this season, which will be a unique one because of the World Cup?
Lijnders: Last year felt like a marathon, or better probably an Ironman. This one will probably be two sprints. So one sprint until the World Cup and then this real break – not a break for the national [players] – and then another towards the end of the season. What's always important with a sprint is that you start fast.
Matos: Expectations are always about what you can deliver on the pitch. It will always be related with that. What we always try to achieve in every session and every exercise is that we do it 100 per cent with what we have, so that's the most important thing.
Lijnders: It's how Jürgen says: what we do, we do 100 per cent.
Aside from Jordan Henderson lifting every trophy, is there anything in particular you'd like to see from the season? Pep, I remember your wish of a 'full-back to full-back' goal from a few years back...
Lijnders: I want to see us as a club, as a team, as a group of people who can represent Liverpool again this season in the best way possible. Through ups, through downs, show what we are really about. If we are the team who can play each game with this attitude, with this hunger to show our style, our way, our talent, if we can see and keep this mentality that we see each game as a final, starting from City on Saturday – which is a final, of course – but this mentality, this hunger as a group, representing the club in this way, then I'm happy whatever happens.
Matos: I just look forward to the book! That's more important.
Lijnders: You know what he said to me? He said, 'It's the best football book I ever read!'
Matos: It's true.