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Pep Ljinders on Luis Diaz, Darwin Nunez and Liverpool’s Portuguese department

“Luis Diaz was the best player in the Portuguese league and we got him. After he left, Darwin Nunez was the best player in the Portuguese league and we got him. He’ll be fine here,” says a smiling Pep Lijnders.

The Liverpool assistant manager has spent the past two and a half hours talking about and signing copies of his new book Intensity, a compelling account of the club’s remarkable 2021-22 season. Yet the Dutchman’s energy and enthusiasm remain undimmed. This is a man with total job satisfaction.

During an exclusive interview with The Athletic, he opens up about the work that went into signing those two gifted attackers, Liverpool’s increasingly strong links with the nation that shaped his own coaching philosophy, and how Nunez’s arrival will change the dynamic of Jurgen Klopp’s side in their pursuit of glory this season.

“Darwin was on our list and we have this Portuguese department who watch each game, even though they struggle a bit to watch the Benfica games because they are both Porto fans,” joked Klopp recently.

That “department” consists of Lijnders and elite development coach Vitor Matos, who followed in his friend’s footsteps when he joined Liverpool’s backroom staff from Porto in 2019. Both have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Primeira Liga which proved invaluable when it came to the club’s pursuit of first Diaz and then Nunez.

The links don’t stop there. New sporting director Julian Ward, who took over from Michael Edwards this summer, previously worked for the Portuguese Football Federation as head of analysis and technical scouting before later becoming Liverpool’s scout for Spain and Portugal. His impressive network of contacts in the region helped out-flank rival clubs to get those bumper deals done.

Liverpool already boasted one of Portugal’s biggest talents having signed Diogo Jota from Wolves for £45million in 2020. This summer, they also added to their ranks teenager Fabio Carvalho, who has represented the country of his birth at under-21 level.


Carvalho, centre, with Roberto Firmino, left, and Diaz, right, during Liverpool’s pre-season tour (Photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

However, until earlier this year, they hadn’t bought a player directly from a Portuguese club during Klopp’s reign. Now two of the top five biggest signings in Liverpool’s history are from the Primeira Liga — the fee for Diaz could rise to £50million with add-ons and they could end up paying a club-record £85million for Nunez. Both South Americans enhanced their reputations with their performances against Klopp’s side in the Champions League last season.

“One, it’s a big compliment to the Portuguese League,” says Lijnders. “They produce players who always influence the new club they go to — the best ones certainly do. Credit to the scouting and the coaching that develops players there. The level is high.

“Two, the teams we play against, in this case it was Porto and Benfica, that makes it so much easier for us to value and see the qualities of a player. We played against Porto in the group stage so we learned a lot more about Luis Diaz. Of course, we had followed him before in the other competitions too.

“It was the same with Darwin when we played Benfica. To be honest, we knew him from Almeria (in Spain). Vitor was a fan already. He really liked him. Darwin had made a big transfer to Benfica.

“Then we played them in the quarter-final and we were like, ‘OK, this is someone we really need to keep an eye on’. It’s not only Luis and Darwin, we’re really happy with Fabio too. He’s one we really wanted and needed, for now and for the future.”

Nunez scoring against Liverpool in the Champions League (Photo: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

Lijnders and Matos, part of the coaches’ WhatsApp group named “Diamond Dogs” after the name given by fictional boss Ted Lasso to his backroom staff in the Apple TV show, sit down together to watch Primeira Liga matches when Liverpool’s schedule allows.

When it comes to running the rule over targets like Diaz and Nunez, Lijnders prefers to watch the entire 90 minutes rather than highlights packages.

“Vitor and I watch a lot of Porto! We’ll forgive Darwin that he was at Benfica. They brought him to us so we’re happy with Benfica. All good!” he laughs.

“Seriously, our scouting department do an incredible job. There are a lot of videos we get of players they like or we like.

“But the players I really like, I always want to watch them in full games. Moments can show a lot, you can get an impression. But I want to see how someone deals with it when things don’t go so well in a game. How connected he is with the others, how the other players react to that player when something works or doesn’t work.

“I can always see and feel the real identity of the player that way in a full game. I think that’s important because it gives me a better insight. I only trust then my opinion.”

Diaz celebrating his goal against Villarreal last season (Photo: DAX Images/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Liverpool moved quickly to beat Tottenham to the signature of Diaz at the end of the January window after realising they had to bring forward their summer plans to sign him with Porto needing to generate funds. They were similarly decisive in their pursuit of Nunez in June.

Business was done early. Lijnders believes that’s testament to the club’s clear recruitment strategy and the structure in place.

“The real quality of this club is the alignment between sporting director and manager, the alignment between owners and manager. That makes us strong,” he says.

“Our sporting director, our manager, coaching staff, owners, all with the same ideas, ‘Right, let’s go and get him’. We all think the same. That’s what I like a lot about us. Our signings have to be right. We don’t have either the capacity or the will to get them wrong, we want to be right.

“If you want to improve your game in a certain way then you need to be sure about the type of signing you are going for. Our club understands well the process of adding players in the style of what we want and what we need.

“It’s not just about me or Vitor being convinced, it’s about the club. The alignment between all of us has to be right. Of course when I get enthusiastic about someone or Vitor or Jurgen or Julian, any one of us, then we all think twice because it means something.

“We don’t have that with a lot of players because a player has to fit into our style and our character as a team, but when we do have that we have this will to bring them in.”

Lijnders, whose own hopes of a playing career were ended by a serious knee injury at the age of 17, spent seven years coaching in the academy at Porto where he worked with Joao Felix, Ruben Neves and Andre Silva. He was inspired by Vitor Frade, who helped to revolutionise coaching by combining all phases of the game rather than having specific physical, tactical or technical exercises.

The 39-year-old initially joined Liverpool as under-16s manager in 2014 and was promoted to the senior setup as elite development coach a year later. Since returning as assistant manager in 2018 following a short spell in charge at NEC Nijmegen in his homeland, Lijnders’ influence has continued to grow. He has complete control over the club’s training programme and is a serious contender to succeed Klopp one day.

“Pep is unique,” says Klopp in the foreword to Intensity. “I’ve never met anyone like him before and I’m not sure I’ll be fortunate enough to do so again in the future. He is studious and coaching-obsessed; he believes in the training process with a passion I’ve never seen before. He’s family to me. I love the guy so much.”

Jurgen Kop, Pep Lijnders, Liverpool

Klopp and Lijnders (Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

In the book, Lijnders details some of the glowing scouting reports he compiled on Diaz before Liverpool made their move for him. Klopp replied to one with a message that read, “He’s a game-changer”.

“My feeling was we needed the boy like water in the desert,” Lijnders writes. “Getting him in January would be such a lift, as we had with Virgil (van Dijk) when we brought him in during the winter window in 2018. Luis was a fighter, a winner and someone who could play immediately for us. We needed players with energy.”

His judgment proved to be spot on as the Colombian attacker lit up Anfield during the second half of the season. What made Lijnders so convinced about Diaz’s suitability?

“It was a combination of a lot of things,” he says. “We knew the background of him because we followed Porto a lot. We knew where he came from. We knew how he came into the team of Porto after not playing when he first arrived.

“The smile, the class, the never-give-up mentality, the always being available, the will to defend forward, the will to press, the will to chase from one post to the other post. A lot of things we liked. We were just really proud that we got the deal done. Did you read how it went?”

Lijnders laughs again. He was in Austria on a family skiing trip when Ward was busy trying to thrash out an agreement with Porto. He suffered a heavy fall on a treacherous black slope and was relieved to make it back to the hotel in one piece when Ward called to say: “You and Jurgen have to speak with Luis Diaz in five minutes. We’ve just agreed with Porto but Tottenham are all-in as well.”

“That day was insane,” he says. “It was a FaceTime call with Jurgen, me, Julian, Luis and the agent. But it was delayed for another hour or so and by then I was already in bed.

“Then I got a message to say, ‘Pep, you have to come on the call.’ I jumped out of bed and put a shirt on to speak with Luis.

“I translated a lot. Luis’ desire to join us was clear. It wasn’t easy because Tottenham were also in for him. But when I heard we’d won the race to sign Luis I was the happiest person in the world. We really wanted him and we really wanted him in January. I went and bought the most expensive bottle of red wine that I could find.”

Klopp gave his full backing to Lijnders’ desire to publish a diary chronicling the ups and downs of last season. There were no concerns about divulging the secrets to their success.

“How much do we want to give away and make public? Everything,” writes Lijnders. “The more the opposition knows about us the better because the more they worry. Anyway, how do you stop unpredictability? How do you stop flexibility? How do you stop intensity? Also, we are constantly evolving. The Liverpool of today isn’t the Liverpool of tomorrow or yesterday.”

Key to the next stage of that evolution is the signing of Nunez. He will provide a very different threat through the middle than Sadio Mane, who left to join Bayern Munich this summer.

His pace, power and aerial threat was clear after he came off the bench in last weekend’s Community Shield triumph over rivals Manchester City. Nunez, who scored 34 goals for Benfica last season, nodded home Liverpool’s third after his header had led to the penalty that Mohamed Salah converted.


(Photo: Jan Kruger – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

The dynamic of Klopp’s front line will certainly change with a more traditional No 9 added to an intense brand of football that the assistant manager defines as “organised chaos”.

“I’d say when we played Jots (Diogo Jota) there he was more like that but, yeah, I totally agree with you,” says Lijnders. “The good thing about our game is that we all go in the same direction, whether that’s through the outside or through the inside, it doesn’t matter, we just want to get in front of the goalkeeper.

“Darwin is one who in one game can create four chances. In fact, in the last game, he had four chances in 30 minutes by himself. Everyone can see what he can offer us. We’re excited to work with him. We’re really happy that these guys chose us. We wanted them and we got them.

“New signings always have to add something we don’t have or give us something where we can really improve. Football is always like this. You always have to evolve in order to score more and concede less.

“In certain moments we asked those different questions last season with Jots. Just look at the amount of times he got in front of the goalkeeper. But, yeah, Darwin has this characteristic to attack through the inside with a lot of power, a lot of willpower.

“What we want from Darwin, what’s the most important thing is that he fights, that he presses, that he connects well with the others. Then everything else will come for him.”

De Gea

Nunez presses Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea in pre-season (Photo: Pakawich Damrongkiattisak/Getty Images)

Lijnders, who speaks fluent Portuguese, has been acting as the interpreter at the AXA Training Centre to help Klopp relay information to Nunez, who is just starting to learn English. Just like with Diaz, Lijnders was part of the initial discussions Klopp had with the Uruguay international.

“To be honest, (agent) Jorge Mendes did most of the translating that day,” he smiles. “But we had an unbelievable talk with Darwin. It was really special. In that moment we just knew that he would be the right fit. You need to look someone in the eyes to get a proper feel for what they’re thinking. We needed to explain our way. I like it when you see fire in the eyes of people and Darwin had that.”

The phrase “Gather as team-mates and leave as a family” is written large on the wall of the players’ dining area and Lijnders believes that spirit and sense of togetherness can help Nunez settle just as quickly as Diaz. Thiago and the Brazilian trio of Alisson, Fabinho and Firmino have already been a great source of support to him.

Certainly, in terms of belief, Nunez got off to a flyer against City. Lijnders believes that victory will act as the perfect launchpad for Liverpool for the season ahead.

He adds: “There’s not one cup where you can say, ‘It’s only…’

“It’s ‘only’ the League Cup. Did you see the scenes with our fans at Wembley when we won it last season? It’s not like that for Liverpool. Every cup is as big as the fans make it. Every cup is as big as the work and the power we put into reaching that final.

Liverpool fans celebrating winning the League Cup in February (Photo: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

“You’re only in the Community Shield because you won the FA Cup. You’re only in the Super Cup because you won the Champions League. You’re only in the Club World Cup because you won the Champions League.

“What I’m trying to say is that these cups are the result of very hard work and you need to cherish every single one of these moments. Whenever we can hold anything in front of our fans we are so proud.”

  • Intensity, by Pep Lijnders and published by Reach Sport, is out now

(Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

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