‘It has always been an aim to leave a permanent legacy of my coaching’ - Pepijn Lijnders 

Bold words indeed, but how many coaches by the age of 32 had been employed by PSV, FC Porto and Liverpool? Pepijn Lijnders quietly continues his already impressive foray into the world of coaching. Recent praise from Jurgen Klopp, Lijnder’s superior at Anfield, suggests that future management is certain.

To find out why the Dutchman is so highly regarded, it is necessary to look at the footballing principles which have underpinned the development of Lijnders philosophy.

‘The Next Liverpool Manager May Already be at the Club’

The narrative is perfect. Upon Steven Gerrard’s appointment as u18 coach in April, it would be hard to argue with this view—a local hero and trophy-laden captain returning to eventually emulate his past successes in management. Liverpool’s very own Zinedine Zidane.

But Steven can wait. Another of Liverpool’s coaching staff is in the process of successful ascension up the Liverpool hierarchy. Jurgen Klopp’s contract ends in 2022. If the Anfield bosses decided to promote from within then Pepijn Lijnders is certainly doing himself no harm as a contender.

For a country which has underachieved on the national stage as of late, the Netherlands has continued to produce some of the most innovative forward-thinking individuals in football, leading to radical changes both on and off the pitch. Think of the ambassador of individual skill, Wiel Coerver, or the brains behind ‘Total Football’ - three times consecutive European cup winner Rinus Michels. 

The two form just a small but integral part of the Dutch influence on world football.

It was the Godfather of Dutch Football, Johan Cruyff who said ‘You play football with your head and your legs are there to help you’. Anticipation is key. You must always be one step ahead of your opponent. Be in control of not only the ball, but also the space.

It is the beautiful Dutch interpretation of football which Pepijn Lijnders was brought up on.

Passion does not make any sense if there is no structure.
— Pepijn Linders

It is as absurd as it is impressive; 34 year old Pepijn Linders is 16 years into a career that is still in its infancy.

Born in Venray, Lijnder’s playing career came to an end at the hands of a cruciate ligament injury at the tender age of 17. It’s a shame that the beautiful game can conjure up such a cruel set of circumstances. Many would have turned their back on the game but Lijnders simply got his notebook out. His decision to stay involved in the game only amplified his love for football. 

As one door closed, several also opened—in Holland, Portugal and England. Lijnder’s first step was one of massive responsibility, taking the role of chief of youth at amateur club SVEB. Lijnders persistence to succeed, exceptional response to responsibility at a young age and open-minded footballing attitude meant it was only a matter of time before a top Dutch club came calling.

Perhaps Lijnders’ most important coaching years were at PSV. He studied hard, watched endless footage of past sides, and read endless amounts of footballing academia. With open mind, he first took inspiration from Wiel Coerver, who is considered as a revolutionary in football. He was certainly a pioneer of the famous Total Voetbal. Coerver made football fun. The focus was on individual technical skill in, particularly in 1v1 situations, manipulating the ball and space to beat a man. Coerver also emphasised attacking in groups. 

Defence and organization was the pragmatic norm of Coerver’s era, yet Wiel valued style and performance over results, although he did have success with both. The skills we see every week such as the step-over and Cruyff turn were introduced regularly for the first time.

Lijnders’ early quotes indicate Coerver’s influence. The Dutchman claimed that he preferred the 3-4-3 formation as it helped to put the opposition in ‘many 1v1 situations’ to ensure the opposition constantly have to ‘solve difficult situations’. The 3-4-3 system also requires hard work in the midfield, which we see emphasised by Lijnders still today, with regular reiteration of determination and commitment.

Lijnders’ tenure at PSV laid a solid foundation for his coaching career, showing promising signs that he can improve players technically and instil the correct attitudes. Lijnders also showed how can also adapt his skills to a player, working with youngsters from the age of six to 16, highlighting his versatility as a coach.  He spent five years at the club, working with the likes of a young Memphis Depay. Dutch clubs rely on the likes Lijnders as they do not have the riches or England hence the focus on youth. He excelled in the role. 

If a coach shows any unsatisfactory signs, he’s gone. Lijnders’ commitment to the game meant that by the time he was 23 he had a clear philosophy, style and principles. Hard work, individual skill and the aim of overloading the attack to create 1v1, 2v2 or 2v1 were the basic premise of the Dutchman’s preferred coaching brand by the time he had left PSV.

Lijnders also looked towards conditioning players with a view to them becoming tactically astute, thus one step ahead of the opposition. The right pass, the timing of press, the amount of space you leave open to the exact inch—constantly developing the football mind.

From Netherlands to Norte, the home of FC Porto—the club that love to buy cheap equally as much as they love to sell big. Again, there was clear lineage that represents Lijnders’ progression. He initially took up a role in the u19’s, before progressing to FC Porto B and later the first team. The official role at all three stages was ‘technique coach’.  

Lijnders at this time was showing an exceptional understanding of the game and there are a handful of quotes from Pepijn from his Porto days which highlight this.

“I try to make our players aware how Robben creates space for himself . . . he consciously positions himself, creating space to receive the ball and what he does with it, and how this affects team mates . . . whether it is holding, moving, dropping, accelerating . . . it is all about timing” – Pepijn Lijnders

Due to his own progression, Lijnders’ years at FC Porto were documented a lot more extensively than his previous. Ultimately this period was a continuation of personal development while becoming very assured in his methods. He released an extensive dossier in 2011 by which showcased a plethora of ideas.

One of the biggest debates in youth football is that academies not only take the fun out of the game for young players, but that they may also be guilty of training every player in the same way, with the same methodology and ideas applied to every individual. It is argued that the repetition and constant reinforcement of said ideas essentially prevent a player from using their natural instinct, thus reducing the ‘edge’ some players had. This is particularly the case with forwards. Lijnders agrees.

With claims that the players can indeed see their development stymied by a lack of freedom, Lijnders sought to recreate ‘street academies’. These introduced situations such as 2v2 foot volley, six-a-side tournaments and ‘challenge Thursday’. Matches would be organised between different age groups as Lijnders claimed that there is clear evidence that some players developed through playing against older, more physically imposing players.

Lijnders expressed the opinion that players should become masters in their own position before trying to improve elsewhere, although other coaches argue against this. Lijnders also concentrates on positive feedback to ensure a healthy mental wellbeing.

In the dossier, Lijnders promoted the idea of splitting sessions into four areas:

Connecting Play – exploiting space, through positional player and passing interchanges. Take as few touches as possible.

Creating Individually – Arjen Robben is a player who Lijnders cites on more than one occasion. A focus on how to keep the ball while also aiming to create 1v1 situations (the Coerver influence). Lijnders suggests Robben is the master of this, with his off the ball movement just as important as on it.

Scoring Capacity – Focus on keeping the striker in the game and how best to service him in any scenario. The assist is perfected here.

Condition – Sessions focused on the mobility of players and technical co-ordination, thus improving the individual.

This only scratches the surface. Needless to say, with such attention to detail it was only a matter of time before even bigger clubs would come calling. That call came courtesy of Michael Beale of Liverpool FC.

Current Sao Paulo assistant coach and former Liverpool youth coach Michael Beale was Lijnders’ colleague for around a year or so. He spoke to IBWM about their time together at Anfield. Beale was a factor in prising Pepijn away from Porto through the help of a mutual friend.

“I was moving up to become u21 coach [at Liverpool] and leaving my role as u16 coach,” Beale explained, “so the club was looking to recruit someone who would continue the club’s philosophy of developing individual players.”

“I had known Pepijn from doing various conferences and people saying that we had similar ideas on football although we had never met. I originally made contact with him via a friend at the Dutch coaches association and formally introduced him to Alex Inglethorpe in hope that we could bring him to Liverpool.”

Lijnders joined Liverpool in August 2014, just in time for the new campaign. Beale spent two years with the Dutchman before adding to his own impressive resume in Brazil. He was impressed with what Lijnders had done in a relatively short time and the two remain close friends, as are their wives.

“Me and Pepijn are great friends...he is a very talented guy that speaks 4/5 languages and has an obsession for football and player development. I think he will be a top manager one day, who likes to develop young players.”

Beale emphasises that it is important that Lijnders is not thrust into the spotlight too early. “For this moment, it is important not to rush and continue his fine work while learning from Jurgen and Zeljko [Buvac].” 

“I know they are very happy with his work, and that speaks volumes for his current level. I believe he has much more to come in the future.”

Again, progress at Liverpool is evident. Mirroring his time at FC Porto, from the u16’s, to the 18’s and now ‘first team development’, Lijnders is heading to the top. It was always a telling sign that he was the only member of Brendan Rodgers’ coaching staff that didn’t get the chop upon Klopp’s arrival. After overseeing the significant development of young players such as Ben Woodburn and Harry Wilson, Klopp showed his faith in Lijnders’ future in management, while commending his willingness to ply his trade and wait.

“Nobody knows what the future of football will look like; the only thing I’m sure of is that the defensive organisation of teams will be even better. They will protect the middle zone of the pitch better and defend their area better. We need to create players who can ruin this defensive organisation”. 

This is a standout quote from Pepijn Lijnders. The following two seasons saw the Premier League won by an N’Golo Kante-inspired midfield, one team playing 4-2-2-0 formation, the other a thoroughly drilled back three.

Some of Lijnders’ more recent quotes give evidence of his willingness to absorb new ideas—so much so that they could almost have been spoken by Klopp himself.

“Our style is to attack, with and without the ball. It doesn’t matter who we play against, we will press them high and aggressively and we will attack and attack them again.” Ideas which certainly fit into his boss’s gegenpressing style.  

Lijnders’ recent rebuttal of an approach from Go Ahead Eagles and his reinforcement at a Wales FA conference that he is ‘always proud to represent Liverpool’ bode well for the suggestion that the next Liverpool manager may already be at the club.

By Lewis Bowers. Header image credit goes fully to cchana.