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Does Jurgen Klopp’s No 2 Pep Lijnders wield too much power at Anfield?

Pep Lijinders: Turned down job offers elsewhere to stay at Anfield. Photo: Getty Images© Liverpool FC via Getty Images

Sam WallaceTelegraph.co.uk

The signing of Cody Gakpo, a brilliant young Dutch talent, World Cup star, and – perhaps most satisfying for Liverpool – a long-term target for Manchester United, was a spectacular way to start the new year for a club who had been struggling to keep their usual pace in the Premier League.

Yet even Liverpool’s Gakpo transfer coup was telling about the way in which the club have been forced to address short-term issues in the transfer market while injuries to key players have stacked up.

By the time the club fell to defeat to Brentford on Monday, it was as much a case of those who were missing. Gakpo likely begins his Liverpool career against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup third round on Saturday, and his club need him to start in a hurry.

The three big injury absentees are Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino, and their rehabilitation has been frustratingly slow. Diaz and Firmino were both injured in training.

Jota, who was carried off in the win over Manchester City on October 16, had already come back from an injury in pre-season, and he was not the only one absent in August. As Liverpool faced the second half of the season with uncertainty over when these three attackers might be available again, the Gakpo deal, with a potential full value of £45million (€51m), was the club’s best option.

What has happened to the great Jurgen Klopp team of the era? Only they have seriously challenged the dominance of the Abu Dhabi-era Pep Guardiola City. Without Klopp and his players, it would be a five-year City title hegemony.

​In that time, Liverpool have become champions of Europe on a net spend that, in February of last year, ranked only 14th highest in the European game over the previous decade. They have had to fight against a range of clubs who have consistently outspent them. Yet now they face a struggle to make the Champions League places, a competition in which they have reached the final in three of the previous five years.

On Sky Sports on Monday night, Jamie Carragher did not like what he had just seen of Liverpool and wondered about a change in their style to a less hard-running, more technical, approach.

“I don’t know if there’s an influence from Pep Lijnders, who is Jurgen Klopp’s No 2, who has a huge influence on what goes on,” Carragher said. “Maybe a Dutch way of thinking; getting players on the ball.”

Certainly, Lijnders has a major part in key decisions at Liverpool. He returned to the club from the Netherlands after a brief spell as manager of NEC in the summer of 2018 at the beginning of two extraordinary seasons in which Liverpool won the Champions League and then the club’s first league championship in 30 years.

As the recruitment picture has changed at Liverpool, so Lijnders’s influence on that side of the club has grown exponentially. The technical director, Michael Edwards, signalled his impending departure in November 2021 and his successor, Julian Ward, is now working his notice having assumed the role only in July.

Three of the four big signings that Liverpool have made in the past two seasons – Diaz, Darwin Nunez and now Gakpo – have been advocated by Lijnders (pictured). Which is not to say they have been bad acquisitions, just that a Dutch coach who spent his formative coaching years in Portugal has gravitated to players who have come of age in those country’s leagues. The fourth, Ibrahima Konate, came from the Red Bull group, a reliable source of players in the past for Liverpool.

The signings do demonstrate the scope of Lijnders’s influence at the club. Especially with Mike Gordon, the president of owner Fenway Sports Group, stepping back from recruitment and the departure of Ian Graham, the club’s director of research.

Lijnders (39) also regularly takes first-team sessions. He has turned down the chance to be a manager elsewhere to stay.

Liverpool were offered the chance to sign Christopher Nkunku in the summer, but Klopp and Lijnders declined. The France international would have been a long-term replacement for Firmino and an understudy to Mohamed Salah.

By the time Liverpool went into this new-year injury crisis, Chelsea had already struck an agreement with Nkunku, and his club RB Leipzig, for the summer. This is the kind of bad luck that can affect any club. The strength of Liverpool in recent years is that they have so rarely put a foot wrong.

The club are prepared to return to their summer target Matheus Nunes, the Portugal international, formerly at Sporting Lisbon, and another Lijnders recommendation before he eventually joined Wolverhampton Wanderers. Liverpool made a commitment to go back for the 24-year-old, an attacking midfielder, and, as things stand, a deal will be agreed at around £44m (€50m) for him to join in the summer.

The great prize of European football in that summer window will be Jude Bellingham, a player whom Liverpool want above all. They will, nevertheless, be up against every club richer than them in world football, including City.

The worry for Klopp and his staff is that City can make a better pitch for Bellingham.


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