Just over a year ago, Liverpool FC manager Jürgen Klopp was asked in an interview with the club’s media what football leagues he follows around the world. The German coach gave this answer: “A league I love to watch, which is probably not the most famous league, but you always see innovations, good players, good coaching, is Portugal (Primeira Liga). It’s a really interesting league to watch. They have a proper philosophy and a lot of clubs do really smart things to educate, train and coach the players. So that’s really, really interesting.”
This answer surprised many, mostly because at that point in time, Klopp was yet to sign a player from the Primeira Liga for The Reds. When you think of clubs outside of Portugal with strong Portuguese connections, Liverpool doesn’t often spring to mind. Wolverhampton Wanderers with their recent influx of Portuguese coaches and players? Sure. Then there is Manchester City, who regularly field four SL Benfica academy graduates in their starting XI, the Portuguese trio of João Cancelo, Bernardo Silva and Rúben Dias, as well as the Brazilian goalkeeper Éderson. Then, there is French club Lille OSC, they have a strong working relationship with Boavista and in their Ligue 1 title-winning side, they had José Fonte as the club captain, Xeka and Renato Sanches running the midfield and young defender Tiago Djaló at the back. Portuguese influence is everywhere in European football.
Liverpool’s links to Portugal however are mostly behind the scenes, thus the connections to Portugal and Portuguese football naturally seem less obvious, but those links are definitely there. Liverpool are strengthening their Portuguese influence on the pitch too. Since Klopp’s interview, he has twice looked to Portugal for new recruits to bolster his impressive squad, first signing Colombian livewire Luís Diaz from FC Porto in January and more recently through the signing of Uruguay international Darwin Núñez from SL Benfica.
Let’s take a look at how Portuguese football has helped shape Liverpool FC during Jürgen Klopp’s tenure.
The Men Behind the Scenes
Pepijn (Pep) Lijnders
Pepijn Lijnders or Pep as he’s known, is Jürgen Klopp’s second-in-command.
The Liverpool assistant manager may hail from the Netherlands, but his footballing identity was shaped and moulded in Northern Portugal.
After arriving at FC Porto from PSV Eindhoven in 2007, Lijnders would go on to spend seven years at the club. He was initially recruited to restructure the club’s famous academy and went on to work with various age levels in the academy and finally with the first-team. Lijnders may have put his stamp on Os Dragões in a notable way, but Portugal put its fingerprints on Lijnders in a major way.
“Porto made an impact on me as a coach, but even more as a person. I will forever speak about them with a great responsibility…I got more structure in my ideas, a better hierarchy of my principles. Tactical periodisation became my frame. My Portuguese sentiment will never disappear. I really have the feeling I got everything out of my seven years at the club.”
Tactical periodisation which Lijnders speaks of, is one of the key reasons why many Portuguese coaches have found great success both in Portugal and beyond. It is a systematic way of planning and preparing training sessions, the creator of this methodology is Vítor Frade, who originally developed the concept whilst working at the University of Porto. Since its inception, it has been adopted and used most notably by José Mourinho, but also Andre Villas-Boas, Carlos Carvalhal, Leonardo Jardim, Vitor Pereira and Marco Silva have all utilised it to great effect. It is a concept that is deeply rooted in Portuguese football and those principles are what Lijnders took with him when he left Portugal for England.
When Lijnders arrived for his first spell at Liverpool, it was primarily in a youth capacity. Working with the youth teams, the Dutchman was given the platform to share what he had learned in Portugal for the first time, as he worked to influence and shape the next generation of Liverpool players.
However, when the influential Lijnders left his role as elite development coach and subsequently joined up with Jürgen Klopp as part of the first-team staff, Liverpool needed a replacement. They once again looked to Portugal for someone to step into Lijnders now vacant shoes.
Vítor Matos joined Liverpool in 2019, slotting into Lijnders old role and thus making it two ex-Porto men to consecutively hold this position.
Born in Vila Nova da Gaia, a ten-minute drive from Porto city centre, Matos is a very important member of the Liverpool backroom staff, acting as the link that connects the youth academy with the first-team. Speaking when Matos was hired, Klopp praised Matos and also referenced the importance of the coaches footballing education being developed in Portugal.
“We had to fill that void and we’ve done that with a really great guy, an outstanding coach. Young and experienced, you don’t get that a lot. He is smart, his English is very good – which is obviously important – and he has worked at different clubs, but he is educated at Porto, which is good for us because Pep is from there as well”.
Klopp isn’t exaggerating when he emphasises just how experienced Matos is. Despite being just 34, the Vila Nova da Gaia man has had a wealth of different roles. Working as a coach with the U10, U12 and U14 teams at Porto. Working as an assistant coach with the U15s and U17s, as well as an opposition scout for the U19s and Porto B.
Julian Ward is a name that has been cropping up more and more frequently in recent times, largely due to the numerous reports that he has had a huge hand in bringing SL Benfica striker Darwin Núñez to Anfield. Despite being from England, the former Liverpool John Moores University student Ward, who is fluent in Portuguese, has his own Portuguese football story.
Three years after graduating from LJMU, Ward moved to Lisbon to work with the Portuguese national team. Ward held his position with A Seleção for two years and four months, working as head of analysis and technical scouting under Carlos Queiroz. After leaving his position with the Portuguese federation in 2010, his strong links to Portugal continued. When he first arrived at Liverpool in 2012, it was to work as position a European scouting manager with a specific focus on Portugal and Spain. Across the next two summers, Tiago Ilori and Lazar Marković came through the door at Melwood, arriving from Sporting and Benfica respectively.
In more recent times, Liverpool have been able to put Ward’s Portuguese connections to good use. Ahead of the UEFA Champions League final against Tottenham Hotspur, it was Ward who reportedly arranged for SL Benfica to play Liverpool in a training game ahead of the match. Benfica are rumoured to have adopted the expected tactical shape of Liverpool’s opponents, with each player emulating a Spurs player and their movement.
Perhaps the least known name on the list, but a man with a role of great importance nonetheless.
Frederico Paciência, or Fred as he’s known, works as the academy recruitment co-ordinator for players aged 14+. After the preliminary scouting process is completed and the club have identified potential young players that they want to come for trials, this is where Fred comes in.
The Liverpool FC website states that, “Fred’s main role is to organise and manage the international trialist process, liaising with all the different departments within the club, as well as the trialist’s families and clubs.”
Born in Faro, Fred can not only speak Portuguese but also four other languages, meaning that whether it be young talents from Portugal or beyond that arrive on Merseyside looking to impress, Fred is in place to make them and their families feel comfortable throughout the process.
The Men on the Pitch
Liverpool may only have one senior Portugal international in their squad in Diogo Jota, but the Primeira Liga influence continues to grow. The recent signing of striker Darwin Núñez from Benfica means that Liverpool have purchased two players from the Portugal’s top flight in the space of five months, with former FC Porto man Luís Diaz being the other. At the time of signing, Luis Díaz was the Primeira Liga’s best player and the Colombian quickly began to show his credentials, putting in a string of impressive performances for his new club.
On top of that, Portugal U21 international and former SL Benfica academy youngster Fábio Carvalho has also recently joined the club, signing from Fulham after having a scintillating season under Portuguese coach Marco Silva, a season which saw him gain a place in the Championship Team of the Season and gain promotion to the Premier League.
The fact that Liverpool could potentially a starting XI featuring Carvalho, Diaz, Jota and Núñez, all of whom are either Portuguese or have played in Portugal, shows that the influence on this club is growing not just behind the scenes, but also on the pitch.