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How to manage Liverpool: ‘Connect with the people. Be honest and authentic’

How to manage Liverpool: ‘Connect with the people. Be honest and authentic’

Arne Slot is embarking on the biggest challenge of his life.

The pressure and scrutiny that come with managing Liverpool will be unlike anything the 45-year-old Dutchman has previously experienced.

This is his first coaching role outside his homeland and he is following in the footsteps of an icon in Jurgen Klopp. But if Slot repays the faith shown in him and succeeds at Anfield, then the rewards will be immense.

As he gets down to work, there are some important lessons to learn from those who went before him. There are pitfalls to avoid and obligations to embrace to give himself the best possible chance of writing a glorious new chapter in the illustrious history of one of the biggest clubs in world football.

This is how to manage Liverpool.

Establish a strong connection with the city and energise the fanbase

Klopp was a master at it.

The standout lines from his Anfield unveiling in October 2015 resonated as he described himself as “the normal one” and talked about turning “doubters to believers”. He got fans to fully buy into what he was trying to create.

With the manic goal celebrations, the post-game fist pumps and the stunning fightbacks, the bond continued to grow. He had a knack for finding the right words at the right time to inspire players and fans alike. When he waved goodbye in May, Klopp labelled the supporters as “the superpower of world football”.

It will be there for Slot, too — but you have to tap into it.

Sammy Lee played under Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish before being part of Liverpool’s coaching staff during the reigns of Graeme Souness, Roy Evans, Gerard Houllier, Rafa Benitez and Roy Hodgson.

“Connecting with the people is absolutely vital,” he says. “You can’t be false with that; you have to be honest and authentic. Arne can’t try to be Jurgen, he just has to be himself. In this city, there’s got to be a humility to how you go about things.”

Lee alongside Benitez in 2010 (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

It was something Benitez, who led Liverpool to a miraculous Champions League triumph in Istanbul, fully embraced after arriving from Valencia to succeed Houllier in 2004.

“The Liverpool fans give everything when they see that you give everything,” he tells The Athletic.

“If you give your full commitment, and have success, then they are much more grateful. That connection is because they recognise and appreciate that commitment. We worked with a number of charities and had that connection with the city on all levels. That’s really important at Liverpool.”

Brendan Rodgers had plenty to prove when he took over in 2012. He was only 39 and his biggest achievement had been winning the Championship play-off final with Swansea City. His appointment divided opinion with many feeling that the club had dispensed with Dalglish unfairly.

“I promise I’ll fight for my life and for the people in this city,” Rodgers announced at his unveiling as he vowed to make a trip to Anfield “the longest 90 minutes of an opponent’s life”.

But other soundbites jarred: “You train dogs — I like to educate players”, “Every player I see as my own son”, “My world has been about creating rather than waiting”, “You can live without water for many days, but you can’t live for a second without hope”.

Rodgers’ mission to win over doubters wasn’t helped by the six-part fly-on-the-wall TV documentary ‘Being: Liverpool’ to which the club had already signed up prior to his arrival. Filmed speaking at a team meeting before the season kicked off, he said: “I think there’s three players who will let us down this year — the cause, the fight, everything — and I have written them down already in these three envelopes. Make sure you are not in one of the envelopes.”

Yet when it came to scoring PR own goals, Hodgson was in a class of his own during his dismal 191-day reign in 2010-11. He consistently alienated rather than energised supporters.

Asked if there was any stadium quite like Anfield for atmosphere after a rare home win, Hodgson replied “San Siro and Old Trafford are excellent”. He never seemed able to grasp the size of the club he had taken over.

Hodgson struggled to win the supporters over at Anfield (Clint Hughes/Getty Images)

“Maybe Sir Alex (Ferguson) had a better view of it than me. He’s entitled to any opinion he wants to have,” was his response to the Manchester United boss accusing Fernando Torres of cheating to try to get John O’Shea sent off.

His take on a humiliating derby defeat at Goodison which left Liverpool only off the bottom of the table on goal difference? “As well as we’ve played all season… to get a result here would have been utopia.” The show of dissent when the Kop sarcastically chanted “Hodgson for England” was unprecedented and he was sacked soon after.

Anfield is passionate, loyal and knowledgeable. The fans put managers on a pedestal like few other clubs. In return, they expect the man at the helm to fight their corner. Time and patience will be forthcoming if you tell it like it is and give them something to really believe in.

Know your history and embrace the high expectation levels

Bill Shankly famously said: “Liverpool Football Club exists to win trophies.” You cannot shy away from that being the benchmark. Slot is in charge of the 19-time champions of England and the six-time champions of Europe. You need to speak accordingly.

Benitez described the thirst for silverware as “an obsession”. It’s a position that comes with great responsibility.

“As Liverpool manager, every word you speak is around the world within seconds,” said Rodgers a few months after his sacking in 2015.

“You’re under scrutiny like you’ve never been before and that takes a lot of getting used to. But it’s an absolutely incredible club — one of the great institutions of the world. You only really see that when you’re on the inside as a manager. The history certainly inspired me. It was a big part of why I went there.”

Rodgers during his time at Liverpool (Clint Hughes/Getty Images)

You need to have a thick skin and the ability to ignore all the outside noise. Houllier was among those stung by criticism from former Liverpool players turned media pundits when his tenure started to go downhill.

“There are things you can control in life and things you cannot control,” he told The Athletic’s Simon Hughes in 2015.

“If asked now, maybe I will say that I paid too much attention to things I could not control. Sometimes I was hurt because it was coming from former players.

“We were doing our best for the club and I felt they should have been more supportive. You cannot control the wind, the rain or the state of the pitch when you play away. You cannot control the referee — there is no point in trying to change his decisions. You cannot control what is in the press. Everybody is entitled to have an opinion, even if it is not the right opinion and it hurts.

“But what you can control is the way you are going to react: the way you take it, the way you hold your composure rather than being impulsive.”

Houllier, left, with his assistant Phil Thompson (Mike Egerton/EMPICS via Getty Images)

You need to know about the dynamic of the rivalries that exist with Everton and Manchester United.

You need to know why the banner reads ‘We’re not English, we are Scouse’ and why the national anthem is booed by supporters when Liverpool play at Wembley. You need to know all about Hillsborough and the long fight for truth and justice. You need to understand the politics of a left-leaning, working-class city which has had to deal with so much adversity.

One of Klopp’s great strengths was that he ‘got’ Liverpool. He understood the need to learn about the past as well as plot a bright future.

Prior to his arrival, Liverpool had won just one League Cup in the previous nine years and the history of the club weighed heavily on the players’ shoulders. But Klopp changed the mindset as well as the personnel to land the biggest prizes.

It should help Slot that he’s not having to pick chins off the floor in a similar fashion. He is inheriting a youthful squad which won the Carabao Cup and restored the club to the Champions League.

A bold playing style matters, so stick to your principles

Klopp’s reign wasn’t defined by the trophies he won. It was about the journey and the memories that were created along the way.

He promised “full-throttle football” and he delivered.

Liverpool have to be on the front foot, taking the initiative, and imposing themselves on contests. Sitting back and hoping simply won’t be tolerated.

Rodgers came within a whisker of securing legendary status in 2013-14 with an unexpected and thrilling title challenge built around the attacking impetus provided by Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling. The dream was ultimately wrecked after captain Steven Gerrard’s cruel slip against Chelsea. Liverpool then lost their identity after Suarez left for Barcelona and they made a mess of replacing him. Rodgers’ reign went into freefall.

Liverpool thrilled under Rodgers with Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge (Chris Brunskill/AMA/AMA/Corbis via Getty Images)

Dalglish took the handbrake off following Hodgson’s wretched spell in charge when such a cautious approach to matches fuelled negativity. Being risk-averse was the antithesis of the Liverpool way.

“Roy was the type of manager who goes into every game thinking he might get beat,” defender Jamie Carragher told The Athletic in 2019.

“‘They’ve got this, that and the other’. It was never, ‘We’re Liverpool, we’ll do this’. It was the sort of thought process a manager in the bottom half of the table would have: you think you’re going to lose every game so you make it as hard as possible for the opponent.”

One of the key reasons why Liverpool turned to Slot was because they believe his dynamic, high press, intense brand of football would excite the fans and prove a good fit for the profile of the squad he’s inheriting. It promises continuity of sorts.

Former Liverpool striker John Aldridge says: “You have a duty to win but also to entertain. You have a duty to dominate possession and territory. It’s what the best Liverpool teams have always done.

“The beauty for Arne Slot is that a lot of things are already in place for him. He only needs to make a few additions to the squad. It’s not like he’s coming in trying to overhaul everything or trying to improve on perfection. There are things to address like the lack of clean sheets, conceding sloppy goals and the slow starts in games. In the last few months of the season, the finishing also really let us down.

“He’s got to make that attack more clinical.”

Don’t try to change too much too soon — and get the senior pros on board

“Now there will be changes. Different people responsible for different things is probably the right way to go,” Klopp told a 10,000-strong crowd at his farewell night at the city’s M&S Bank Arena last week. “It’s not that I wanted to do like I did. It just developed in that direction with lots ending up on my desk.”

As head coach rather than manager, Slot won’t have the same level of power and influence across all facets of the club as Klopp enjoyed. He will work closely with Fenway Sports Group CEO of football Michael Edwards and sporting director Richard Hughes when it comes to recruitment. The new structure has been created so he can focus on developing talent on the training field.

But Slot will still have the opportunity to put his own stamp on the squad. History shows that small steps are best.

“Did I make mistakes when I took over? Yeah,” Souness told The Athletic last year. “I had three players come to me and say they wanted to leave and my reaction was: ‘If you don’t want to be here, you can f*** off’, and they went. What I should have done is say: ‘I hear you, give me time to find a replacement’.

Souness in his time as Liverpool manager (Ross Kinnaird/EMPICS via Getty Images)

“When I said, ‘You aren’t going to have beer on the team bus after away games and you won’t be eating fish and chips anymore’, there was a bit of resistance and I fell out with a few people. In general, I was too hard on the players. Did I get frustrated after defeats? Did I allow that to show itself? Yes, I did.”

Souness would come to regard the interview he gave following heart surgery to The Sun, which was published on the third anniversary of Hillsborough in April 1992, as “the single biggest regret of my life”. The UK tabloid newspaper had pedalled damaging lies about Liverpool fans in the aftermath of the disaster. Results ultimately cost him his job in 1994, but the damage had long since been done.

Evans, who succeeded him, was a much more popular figure in the dressing room and his team played some exhilarating football, but some took liberties and indiscipline was an issue. He cut them too much slack.

Goalkeeper David James missing training to fulfil modelling commitments with Armani in Milan. The ‘Spice Boys’ tag stuck — the white suits at Wembley, suggestions they were more interested in nights out and lucrative sponsorship deals than winning trophies.

Former school teacher Houllier, who led Liverpool to League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup successes in 2001, hauled the club into the 21st century as he modernised their Melwood training ground and changed attitudes to sports science and nutrition.

“I made the decision to change things gradually. I was not a great believer in revolution despite the fact I am French,” he said.

“The role of the Liverpool manager was threefold. The number one mission: get results, get trophies. The second thing, I would say, was to leave a legacy. We signed players for the long term: Sami Hyypia, Stephane Henchoz, Didi Hamann. Then the last mission was to make players progress.

“I would say Jamie Carragher progressed. Danny Murphy became a better player. Michael Owen became a Ballon d’Or winner.

“My players were generous, talented, believing, ambitious and resilient. They used to enjoy themselves. In training, you could feel the camaraderie.”

Houllier congratulates goalscorer Owen in the UEFA Cup tie against Roma in 2001 (Alex Livesey/ALLSPORT)

Dalglish commanded the complete respect of the dressing room. “I loved playing for Kenny,” says Danish defender Daniel Agger. “His man-management, his way of handling and motivating players was brilliant. He lifted the mood.”

Under Rodgers, there was friction at times. Agger felt that he was cast aside because he was “a strong character” and didn’t get the honest answers he wanted. “All the other players in that team who had a big voice and spoke their mind, everybody moved on around that period — me, Pepe Reina, Dirk Kuyt, Glen Johnson, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher.”

As Liverpool manager, you need to know your limitations and Rodgers’ confidence in 2014 that he could succeed where others had failed and get the best out of Mario Balotelli, who arrived from AC Milan in a cut-price deal, proved horribly misplaced. Self-belief has to be mixed with a dose of realism.

Part of Klopp’s legacy is that he signed good characters and left behind some real leaders: Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Alisson and Mohamed Salah.

They will make the manager’s life easier by setting the standards daily. It is rare to have so many elite players from across the globe who are so tightly knit with no cliques. There is a culture of looking out for each other and taking responsibility.

Those relationships need to be nurtured as a new era dawns.


(Top photos: Getty Images)