Liverpool No. 2 Pep Lijnders on Salah's role change, Fabinho and defensive solidity
LIVERPOOL, England -- Liverpool assistant manager Pepijn Lijnders believes Mohamed Salah's willingness and ability to change his role this season makes him one of the best footballers in the world.
Salah broke records and claimed the Premier League Golden Boot last season as he scored 44 goals for Liverpool, lining UP on the right of a forward three.
However, Liverpool's coaching staff decided to move Salah to a more central role in the summer, and he has enjoyed similar success having netted 20 times already this campaign. His positional switch was one of a number of tactical tweaks made by Liverpool during preseason as Jurgen Klopp sought more control from his side.
Lijnders, who returned to Liverpool in June after a fifth-month spell managing NEC Nijmegen, explained the thinking behind these decisions in an interview at Melwood.
ESPN: After such a successful season, why was the decision made to move Salah more centrally?
Lijnders: "First of all, he has the ability to create from the inside. That differentiates him from many others. To have him in the last line as high as we can -- with the speed he has, the goal threat he has -- makes it for us easier to create a freer role for Bobby [Roberto Firmino]. For Mo, it's really good to understand the game in that way -- to be the point. We still try to be flexible in the way we play. There will be moments where we play with three and moments with two. For him it's great. He's closer to the goal, he can use his speed more, he's more where we want him to be. That's a natural development for him. He's a real goalscorer. The only thing with that freedom and with that versatility, he should keep that first impulse of pressing."
ESPN: What does is say about Salah's character that he's willing to change after a record-breaking campaign?
Lijnders: "I think how this team is constructed anyway, it's glued by character, ambition and passion. It really fits well. That's what I try to say what influenced that evolution, you bring in not only world-class players, but you bring in players who are very hungry for training. That's what I like most about our project. If you look to our squad and what we are trying to achieve and what we are achieving, that hunger for becoming better and becoming quicker. Mo is a good example of that. He's always searching for the next step and the next level without putting more pressure. It's the difference between a good player and a top player. A top player can do it constantly. For me, the difference between a good player and a top player is that they can solve problems before it becomes problems or they can solve problems in many different ways."
ESPN: Since you've returned to Liverpool, the team are now more defensively solid...
Lijnders: "I always say that our identity will never change. We always feel that we need help on the pitch from everyone. We need to be a very difficult team to play against, be a team that the opposition should be chased from all directions, constantly preparing these pressing situations and creating these counter-pressing moments. What I'm trying to say is, that's not changing. What's natural for a team to develop is, if you look now to the teams we play, teams are set up to really just play counter-attack against us and really defend the centre zone. You really need a certain stability in possession and a certain control and position to have that stability [so] you don't get countered. It's purely based on how we are protecting ourselves in attack and how stable we are, how with the right tempo we are passing the ball, moving and create in certain zones players being close to each other who can combine. That stability in possession, that's what you see more. That's purely based on that we stop more counters. That's purely based that we can attack more and that it doesn't come from that deep. That's not our decision, it's the decision of the opposition.
ESPN: Can you remember the meeting where you told this plan to the players?
Lijnders: "It's preseason. Jurgen was very clear what the next step would be from the team. We spoke a lot before I took the job, when I really came in the building. One thing we were both really agreeing [on] what we could improve on was how our midfield play could improve basically. That we could create easier [a] free player, that we could find him in an easier way. From there, we would have better movements in there to attack their last line. But especially that midfield play. What's really important is that our identity is not changing. Counter-pressing, that's still our playmaker. It's more about how we move the ball towards these situations to create that players are basically more closer to each other with a certain flexibility."
ESPN: Summer signing Fabinho has helped with these tactical alterations. Just how much is he blossoming in a Liverpool shirt after a slow start?
Lijnders: "To adapt to the intensity of our play, that takes time. Not many can do it, and in certain positions it is easier than others. If you are a front player and you come in, and you are used to playing in an attacking way, then it is easier, depending on the specific attributes you have as a player. For him, to play in a midfield three as we did at the start of the season, we knew from the first second, we knew from the videos that it would take time. His impulse of defending forward is absolutely of the highest level. The question as a No. 6 is that you are moving more side to side than forwards. Then of course you have to adapt, and then we find a good solution to change to 4-4-2. And from that moment it helped so much, and then you saw the real Fabinho. Inside the 'organised chaos' that we want, that we like, he is like a lighthouse, he controls it and for me, you can still have the style of the gaffer and how we want to identify ourselves. But with a player like Fabinho in the middle, the ball always goes out round. That's how they say it in Portuguese. His timing, his vision, his calmness, it gives another dimension to our midfield player."