What I learnt from meeting Arne Slot – charismatic and innovative, but a big bet by Liverpool

What I learnt from meeting Arne Slot – charismatic and innovative, but a big bet by Liverpool

By Oghale Apr29,2024

When, as expected, Arne Slot arrives at Liverpool’s training centre this summer, he will find at least one amenity perfectly to his taste. Slot is among the growing cast of top-level individuals in football hooked on padel, the high-paced racket sport that lands somewhere between tennis and squash.

At Feyenoord’s training base in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, chief executive Dennis Te Kloese promised Slot the club would install a padel court — on the condition they won the league title. Slot made them Eredivisie champions last season, and the padel court soon followed.

It means there is at least one shared trait between Slot and his Anfield predecessor Jurgen Klopp; the German has his own court at Liverpool’s training centre, competing against members of his backroom staff and calling padel “the best game I’ve ever played” (apart from football).



Football’s biggest stars are in love with padel. Why?

After Liverpool and Feyenoord agreed terms for Slot to replace Klopp this summer, many Liverpool fans wondered quite what to make of it and how well-suited the 45-year-old Dutchman is to replacing the club’s most popular and successful manager of the Premier League era. As ever, hasty opinions form, often conditioned by framing.

On the one hand, Slot is one of only two Feyenoord managers to win the title this century and he became the first coach to take the club beyond the group stage in a European competition since 2015, reaching the inaugural final of the Europa Conference League in 2022 and the Europa League quarter-finals last season in parallel to claiming the domestic championship.

He won that title despite retaining only four players from his starting line-up in that Conference League final. Sales from that side raised €70million (£59.9m at the current exchange rate) in fees, and just over 40 per cent of that was reinvested as Feyenoord pursued financial sustainability after too many years of financial mismanagement. Of their 12 permanent signings, not one was aged 24 or over.

This season, while again recording a positive net spend, Feyenoord are going to finish as runners-up, second to a freakish performance from PSV Eindhoven (who have won 27 and drawn three of their 31 league games so far), and will beat last season’s points tally of 82 if they win their last three matches. They won the Dutch equivalent of the FA Cup final just over a week ago.

This version of the story, therefore, is largely of consistent development and excellence.

Slot kisses the Eredivisie champions’ trophy (Olaf Kraak/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

Others, however, may take an alternative framing. They may question if Liverpool are taking an almighty gamble on a man who has only five seasons of experience as a head coach, all of which have been in the Netherlands, outside of European football’s elite, and one of which was in his homeland’s second division.

Slot has coached only one campaign in the group stage of the Champions League, winning two of six games against Atletico Madrid, Lazio and Celtic, and losing the rest to fail to progress into the knockout phase.

In almost three full seasons as Feyenoord manager, Slot has never lost consecutive league games, which is incredibly impressive, but means there is no evidence-base for how he may handle the longer periods of difficulty which are more likely in the fiercely-competitive Premier League, even with a club among its elite.

At Feyenoord, no player recruited for Slot exceeded the €9million initial fee spent on Japanese striker Ayase Ueda from Belgian side Cercle Bruges last summer, and the highest player wage is believed to be around €40,000 a week. At Liverpool, he will inherit players such as Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, who were signed for eight-time multiples of Ueda, while Mohamed Salah earns £350,000 a week.

It all serves to underline the comparative dimensions of Liverpool and the potential culture-shock of what’s expected to be his new job; where man-management as well as coaching will be crucial.

Liverpool have over 37 times more followers on X, formerly Twitter, than Feyenoord’s 649,000; the media demands, global interest and revenues all dwarf those at his current club. The former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher, writing in the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper after the Slot news broke, said: “For the last nine years, Liverpool have possessed one of the top two managers in the world. They are now gambling on the next big thing rather than appointing a proven, real deal.”

The truth is nobody can predict with certainty how any manager may fare at a new club but what we can do is consider some of the factors that may have persuaded Liverpool.

Last summer, The Athletic was provided with a window into Slot’s Feyenoord kingdom, receiving a full day of behind-the-scenes access. And on that day he was truly king of the castle, because Feyenoord had just clinched the title and it corresponded with the day he signed a new contract, having rejected the opportunity to join Tottenham Hotspur, who went on to appoint Ange Postecoglou. He has also remained faithful when two more Premier League clubs, Leeds United and Crystal Palace, came knocking earlier in the calendar year.

Our trip to Rotterdam included more than seven hours of interviews with Slot, CEO Te Kloese and their head of sporting strategy Matt Wade, as well as extensive time with their scouting team and performance staff. It was a 360-degree examination of a club who had dramatically reformed their structure and performance, and offered rare insight into a man upon whom Liverpool’s incoming sporting director Richard Hughes and Michael Edwards, the club’s former sporting director back after two years away in a new role as owner Fenway Sports Group’s CEO of football, are now preparing to stake their reputations.

Slot is popular with his players (Broer van den Boom/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

As for initial impressions, Slot appeared charismatic. But maybe you would be pretty affable too when you have just signed a new contract — a deal which removed a €5million release clause from his previous deal, which would have otherwise come into play this summer. That left Feyenoord able to negotiate last week anywhere between €11million and €15m out of Liverpool, depending on which club’s briefings of their final agreement that you choose to believe.

His grasp of English is easier on the ears and more lucid than his compatriot Erik ten Hag, who has sometimes struggled to convey the necessary charisma to both players and supporters in his near two seasons as Manchester United manager. And there were times, when Slot spoke, where the meaning behind his words could easily have come out of Klopp’s mouth.

When explaining why he had chosen to remain at Feyenoord, he talked of the need to “cherish what you have” within an environment, taking pleasure from the way you work and those you work alongside. He said success ought not to be measured by prizes alone. This, however, was tinged with a sense of realism that will be required at Liverpool. At one point he quipped: “If a coach only talks about the process, then nine out of 10 times, the results are bad.”

He talked of not wanting to be perceived as somebody who passes through, but as somebody who weaves a legacy into a club. He appeared genuinely touched when I told him how, during the previous evening, I had met a Feyenoord fan who credited Slot for not only winning more points than Ajax, Amsterdam’s 36-time Dutch champions, but allowing that supporter to believe for the first time that his team played prettier football than their arch-rivals, a club so closely connected with the ‘total football’ concept.

When he discussed what he seeks from his players, Slot said he initially “emphasised players who are not maybe the best in the world, but who brought energy to the team and also to the stadium”. It is an ingredient which may be needed at Anfield, where the home team feed off the adrenaline shots being pumped out from the stands. He wanted to know how his players conveyed themselves in the media, because that, he said, contributes to the culture.

Liverpool’s academy has proven fertile ground this season, as Klopp promoted talents including Conor Bradley, Jarell Quansah, Bobby Clark and Jayden Danns. Expect that to continue under his successor. Slot awarded 12,334 minutes to academy talent in the season Feyenoord won the league. During our visit, he reflected, “Youth players in your first team give energy. And if people feel they can grow inside the club, that drives the culture. I don’t believe that much in experience; I believe more in game intelligence, and young players can have much more than an older player.” He said this mindset, where anybody can progress, should extend beyond the dressing room, citing how Frank Boer, a former marketing department intern at the club, had gone on to become their team-manager, overseeing player care.

As with Klopp, he demonstrates empathy and care for younger generations. He looks with concern rather than bitterness towards the smartphone generation. “It’s much more difficult nowadays to play football,” Slot said. “Social media, being judged by everyone; more negative than it was in my day. And these guys now need to be so much fitter — really top athletes. So, yes, a big chance to earn a lot of money, but the pressure is higher than it was 20 years ago.”

The data says that Slot’s training sessions, with drills often devised by his assistant Sipke Hulshoff, motivate his players. The playing and training availability of squad members hit 90 per cent in each of his first two full seasons at the club. Leigh Egger, one of the club’s performance leads, said: “The training sessions are constantly changing. They hit the sweet spot of overload, tactics and physical demand. It makes our job in performance easier, because the players really want to train all the time. You see it also with the substitutes, who may have every right to be disappointed at not playing, but our training availability is so high because the sessions are stimulating and really fun, from a footballing regard.” Hulshoff, who is also in the backroom staff of the Dutch national team, is Slot’s first assistant on a matchday, and often seen in the dugout.

Slot wants his environment to be positive and favourable. He listens and collaborates, traits which cannot always be taken for granted at the highest level of sport. There is a system of fines for players, including for being late to a game or missing a team bus, but he is not a disciplinarian by nature. He does not see his role, or those of his staff, as akin to schoolteachers but rather to provide information, and give players every opportunity to make the healthiest choices.

One of Slot’s colleagues said they never once heard him raise his voice at the training ground.

Te Kloese, the CEO, said: “His player management is very unique — humane and thoughtful. He gives players a clear game plan, so players feel safe under him.” Players have often been heard speaking to one another after a game, saying how the action unfolded exactly how Slot had predicted, and how his instructions helped them overcome opponents.

Yet Slot’s success does not exist in a vacuum. It required uniformity of vision.

“Topsport”, as Feyenoord describe their culture, is applied across the club, which means consistency across the senior squad, the medical and performance teams and the academy. Under Liverpool’s sporting-director model, albeit with Edwards sitting at the top, the club want the person who’ll be their head coach, not manager, next season to co-exist within this framework, and at Feyenoord, Slot has demonstrated a willingness to do that.

The most successful clubs these days have departments across the board who communicate and support one another, rather than operating as separate siloed operations. In the case of recruitment, therefore, we know Liverpool leaned heavily on their data and research analysts during Edwards’ reign as sporting director, with the data operation identifying the potential of then Roma forward Salah to excel in the Premier League, even after a difficult period at Chelsea earlier in his career.


Hulshoff, right, is Slot’s top assistant and also works with Ronald Koeman and the Dutch national team (Olaf Kraak/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

As Klopp grew more successful and powerful at Liverpool, his personal grip on recruitment became stronger, but while the club will welcome input from a head coach, they would like to simplify the role and allow that person to concentrate on the demanding bread and butter of developing players, preparing a team and selecting the line-up for the next match.

None of which means recruitment teams and a head coach should be in conflict. Rather, if it works how it has at Feyenoord, the scouts and analysts spend time with the coach, study his setup and firmly understand his style of play. Then they have a prescription for the type of players needed for the coach to excel, and so go off and work to identify options.

What Liverpool would wish to avoid is relying on the knowledge base of a coach, as rivals United appear to have done at times under Ten Hag, who has consistently looked to the Dutch market with which he is most familiar, as well as at players he has coached before, when it comes to signings.

At Feyenoord, Slot is invited into recruitment meetings and asked his opinion. Often, he has agreed with the evidence presented to him. There were times he suggested players he coached elsewhere, or made some pretty obvious suggestions from rival clubs such as PSV. There were other times he would swiftly decline options presented by scouts, based on a limited amount of video footage. None of which are automatically negative things — Lisandro Martinez, for example, has proven to be a fine signing for United having played for Ten Hag at Ajax. Yet when Feyenoord made signings, even if the one who came in would not always be his first preference, Slot never held a grudge against the players concerned and devoted all his time and energy to maximising their talent.

At Feyenoord, he has learnt to trust the scouting department, who strongly proposed the defender David Hancko after one scout had followed him from the academy of Slovakian club Zilina since his teenage years, with the player soon becoming integral for Slot. They then unearthed a $4million striker in Santiago Gimenez from Mexican side Cruz Azul and Slot’s confidence in the club’s deal-making, led by Te Kloese, was underlined when the CEO’s contacts in Mexico enabled him to beat clubs such as Porto and Benfica to Gimenez.

Slot has turned Gimenez into one of the most wanted players in Europe (ANP via Getty Images)

Signed in July 2022, Gimenez became Slot’s top goalscorer and the 23-year-old will this summer be one of the most in-demand young forwards in Europe. Other players, such as Mats Wieffer and Igor Paixao, emerged from the second divisions in the Netherlands and Brazil — Wieffer is now a full Dutch international and Paixao scored Feyenoord’s winner in that recent cup final.

Christos Akkas, a Feyenoord scout, said: “The coach was very specific about what he wants to play and we were able to capture from a data perspective, from a scouting perspective, but also from a mental, physical, technical, tactical perspective, exactly how he wants to play. And then the club set some rules. So we never sign an older or more expensive player than the one who is being replaced. Then we narrow down our search and, within that range, find the most suitable player.”

As Slot’s style of play requires intense levels of fitness and high cognitive ability — Akkas said players have commented how much thought is required on the pitch — scouts would leave no stone unturned. In some cases, this meant following potential recruits to their homes, to see what time the lights went off in the evening. This was particularly important because Rotterdam is a city of nightlife attractions, so there was little use in them signing a party-animal when intellectual and physical endurance is required every day.

As for the football, Slot does not disguise that he admires Pep Guardiola. There are traits that mirror much of what we have seen from Manchester City under the Spaniard, particularly the ferocious pressing to recover the ball and possession-based build-up.

In one of his first team meetings at Feyenoord after joining in summer 2021, he told his players that the Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester City a few weeks earlier produced so few chances (a combined three shots on target) because of the defensive work applied by forwards on both teams.

On the ball, he likes his right-backs to drift into midfield, so expect Trent Alexander-Arnold to continue in that role, because Slot’s teams tend to build up with three men in defence and two in midfield, even if the starting formation is more of a back four. Each season, he has slightly modified how his team build out from the back, so as not to become predictable.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool

Alexander-Arnold’s ‘midfield’ role is unlikely to change (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

In central midfield, he likes players who make “depth runs” — fast, explosive moves from deep which can penetrate opposing defences. Midfielder Orkun Kokcu, now with Benfica, needed to physically adapt to increase his explosiveness over the first few yards during his time at Feyenoord, even getting a gym installed at home, where he would receive regular text messages from Slot asking for updates on his progress.

Then there are the wingers, who he wants to isolate in one-on-one duels. This is why he brings his full-backs into central areas in the first place — to crowd the middle of the pitch, dragging opponents in to create one-on-one scenarios for those wide men. He said: “If you look at Roberto De Zerbi at Brighton, or Napoli (as they won the Serie A title last season, under Luciano Spalletti), or Man City or ourselves, we’ve got wingers who dominate these situations and that is what you need. That’s why I asked Dennis (Te Kloese, the CEO) at the beginning of the season for a lot of wingers, because you can’t expect every winger to perform in every single game and outplay their opponents. So that’s why they are the players substituted most often.”

At Liverpool, where Edwards and Hughes have strong reputations for identifying talent and deal-making, Slot should be prepared to delegate on signings.

It is not only within the field of recruitment where Slot has shown a preparedness to buy in. Feyenoord’s director of medical and performance Stijn Vandenbroucke has worked in his field for over two decades and he gushed as he described how the coach had complemented the club’s overall vision, all of which meant Feyenoord regularly excelled on “physical parameters, injury availability, winning games and physically outworking the opposition” — some pretty useful traits for a football club.

Vandenbroucke detailed the club’s approach to combining biological, psychological and social needs of players, to aid the individual and the team’s overall development.

Take, for instance, the case of striker Gimenez, where Slot was prepared to take a medium-term view after he arrived from Mexico.

When Feyenoord look at possible signings, they not only have their scouts observe the player, but the club’s performance and medical departments, too. Sometimes, the football staff will flag limiting factors that should be improved by the performance team (strength or speed, for example) and on other occasions, as was the case with Gimenez, the observations can come from the performance end. For Gimenez, they analysed his running style and noted he needed more “control around his trunk and pelvis” to avoid injuries and physically compete at the highest level. The observations are based on screenings of a player’s movement patterns, in-game and on the training field.

Vandenbroucke said: “We came to a conclusion that we needed a few months to get him (Gimenez) up and running. Arne agreed and he is the only manager I’ve ever worked with who would do that. It meant accepting we cannot play him from the start of the game because we needed the time to put more into him to get the output in the later stage of the season.”

Gimenez therefore started only five games in his 2022-23 debut season before club football paused in the November for the World Cup held in Qatar during the northern hemisphere’s winter. The plan went so smoothly that, after the tournament, he started 20 of Feyenoord’s final 21 Eredivisie and Europa League matches, scoring in 12 of them and finishing as their 20-goal top scorer.

Klopp has at times shown patience of his own, most notably taking time to bed Fabinho and Andy Robertson into his Liverpool team after they were signed.

Slot was sufficiently secure in his own skin that he allowed the club to bring in a sports psychologist, Dan Abrahams, to help the players overcome the mental block that had prevented Feyenoord winning away to fierce rivals Ajax since 2005. Abrahams supported the team in this challenge, culminating in a 3-2 away victory in March 2023, and their superiority over Ajax was reaffirmed this season with a 4-0 win in Amsterdam last September and a 6-0 romp in Rotterdam this month.

Feyenoord’s superiority in that away game was such that Ajax’s fans forced play to be halted by throwing flares onto the field.

Slot believes in the science. His performance experts suggested that the players should seek to adapt their lives to revolve around upcoming kick-off times. For example, if Feyenoord are due to play a game starting at 9pm on a Friday, then the staff and Slot will make clear to the players via a text message that they should not be asleep at that hour on the previous evening and should be active, to avoid their circadian rhythm making them flat on matchday. The Feyenoord backroom team were tight-knit, both together and with the players, and it will be interesting to see how and if this can be replicated at a bigger club.

He is seeking to bring one of his heads of performance, Ruben Peeters, with him to Liverpool, along with Hulshoff. He has tried and failed to convince Marino Pusic, formerly an assistant at Feyenoord, to be on his Anfield staff because he only joined Shakhtar Donetsk as their head coach last October and wishes to remain in that job.

In Hulshoff and Peeters, Slot will have allies who would seek to replicate the high-performance environment I witnessed in motion at Feyenoord. Yet he is going to need more help. He will need patience from above when results inevitably do not always go to plan and the scorching spotlight of life in the Premier League life burns bright, he will need expertise from the club’s recruitment department and, most crucially, he will need to secure buy-in from players of a profile and reputation that is of another scale to what he has experienced so far in his brief managerial career.

With Slot, the ideas and smarts appear to be there — a modern coach for a modern structure; it is now up to him to make the leap and up to Liverpool to produce an environment in which he can truly thrive.

(Top photo: NESimages/Herman Dingler/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

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