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Analysis: Why Arne Slot is the best Jurgen Klopp successor for Liverpool

After Jurgen Klopp’s emotional farewell at Anfield on Sunday, Liverpool can look forward to their new manager – as the man himself suggested.

Although the club has not officially announced it, Arne Slot will be Klopp’s successor. That will be quite a move for a man who had no senior head coaching experience just a decade ago and has never worked as a player or coach outside of the Netherlands.

Slot was not quite the public favourite to succeed Klopp when the German announced his departure at the end of the season.

Xabi Alonso and Julian Nagelsmann were far more popular, but neither of them seemed interested in immediately leaving their current roles at Bayer Leverkusen and Germany respectively.

As a result, Liverpool decided to go to Feyenoord and ask for Slot, for whom they have paid a reported transfer fee of €10 million.

While Klopp has elevated Liverpool to a different level in his nine years at the club, it would be hard to argue that Slot’s record is any better than his was when he took over – at least on the surface.

(Image credit: FotMob)

After hanging up his boots, the Dutchman began his senior coaching career as an assistant at Cambuur. He took over with a co-coach on an interim basis in the latter half of the 2016/17 season in the Eerste Divisie, turning the club’s season around before leaving for AZ Alkmaar.

He started as an assistant and eventually took over. In his first full season in charge, the 2019/20 campaign, he led AZ in a memorable title challenge against Erik ten Hag’s Ajax, finishing level on points with them in a season that was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In December 2020, he was announced as Feyenoord’s next manager for the subsequent season onwards.

Before Slot arrived, Feyenoord finished fifth at the end of the 2020/21 campaign – their worst league position in over a decade.

Slot was tasked with taking them back to the top, and he did just that. After a strong podium finish in his first season at the club, he led them to their first league title in six years in 2022/23 and just the second since the turn of the century.

Has he taken them to a comfortable second place behind high-flying PSV Eindhoven this season.

Style of play and tactics

The main reason Slot is such a great appointment for Liverpool is his style of play and its similarities to what Klopp has been doing at Liverpool for almost a decade.

Slot is arguably the most stylistically similar manager that Liverpool could have found in their scouting pool.

He has adopted a style of play that has a significant emphasis on intensity both in and out of possession. His side doesn’t mind keeping the ball, as their average of 62% possession in the league this season suggests.

However, they do not tend to spend too much time circulating it around in the way that Manchester City or Arsenal do. They are direct and forward-minded with their passing and ball progression.

(Image credit: Opta Analyst)

There is no fixed structural shape that Slot lives and dies by. Although his teams mostly line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation on paper, they can show many different things in practice.

Depending on the opponents and the players in his team, Slot mixes his team’s structure up quite regularly.

He likes to use his full-back roles – between getting forward, staying deep and inverting – to regulate his side’s shape between various options such as a 2-4-1-3, 2-3-2-3 or 3-2-4-1.

The ultimate intention is to facilitate easy progression from the base of the side while generally attacking with very high and wide wingers and a line-leading striker to stretch the opposition’s backline.

They can open up space for their teammates in midfield or attack the edges of the opposition block themselves, both with the ball and by making off-ball runs in behind.

He likes to have his players close around the ball in the centre to not only offer passing options but also prepare an intense and successful counterpress in case of turnovers.

Feyenoord’s goals per game average under Slot in his three seasons at the club have only been going up, starting at 2.2 in 2021/22, climbing to 2.4 in the title-winning campaign before peaking at 2.7 this term. Clearly, his preferred style of play can result in fireworks and certainly will not bore fans.

Feyenoord have been exciting to watch out of possession under Slot. They tend to proactively press their opponents high up the pitch.

The Dutch side do not follow a set structure but alternate between a 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-2 shape depending on how the opponents build up and how they want to spring pressing traps, which they can do both out wide or in the centre.

In the Eredivisie at least, this has been quite successful as Feyenoord have averaged about 10.7 high turnovers per match this season and converted a league-high 11 into goals.

Similarities between Feyenoord and Liverpool

There are numerous similarities between Slot’s Feyenoord and Klopp’s Liverpool as far as their tactical approach is concerned, both in and out of possession. There are also plenty of similarities at a broader level between the clubs.

Most pertinently, Feyenoord and Liverpool have been competing with rivals whose wallets are significantly bigger than theirs.

In their title-winning season, Feyenoord’s combined weekly player payroll of about €425,000 was less than half of Ajax’s. Slot had done even better at AZ when his side’s budget was less than a quarter of their rivals.

The disparity is not so great in terms of proportion at Liverpool, but their financial capabilities are still significantly less than Man City and Arsenal. Their payroll this season was the fifth-highest in England.

(Image credit: Capology)

Partly as a result of that and some questionable squad building), Liverpool have had to rely on their academy and youngsters far more than their rivals.

Throughout his tenure at the club, Klopp has shown a level of trust in academy talents that almost no other manager has ever shown at such an elite level.

Besides his tactics, his individual player management and development have also been key in helping Liverpool compete at the top for so many years.

Slot has also shown a good track record of trusting youth and developing players across his stints in the Netherlands, which should be another encouraging sign for the Reds.

Decisive question marks

It would be tough to point out obvious weaknesses in the coaching of a man who has won one of the world’s top ten leagues in terms of quality, but of course, there certainly are a few question marks.

How Slot deals with these things could well determine his success at Liverpool.

One of the most difficult coaching translations to predict from the Eredivisie to the Premier League is how a coach’s rest defence set-up will hold up.

This is one of the biggest issues Ten Hag has been facing at Manchester United and could well be a sticking point for Slot.

That is not to say he is the same as Ten Hag – the pair have plenty of differences as his side’s tactics should have suggested – but he might be susceptible to throwing too much forward in attack.

This is relatively easy to get away with in the Eredivisie, where there is a massive quality between the top teams and those at the bottom of the table. However, anyone from Man City to Nottingham Forest can punish such weaknesses in the Premier League.

Finding a balance between his intense attacking and maintaining a solid rest defence will be critical for Slot at Liverpool.

His pressing structures will come under greater scrutiny in England, where the average defender is a much better ball player than in the Eredivisie.

Some of Feyenoord’s European opponents exploited some weaknesses in their pressing patterns. They forced them into a deeper block more than they would have liked, so this is another thing Slot may have to develop at Liverpool.

Perhaps most importantly, the Dutchman will need to be supported in the transfer window by some shrewd recruitment if he is to continue his trend of overachieving relative to budgets.

He likes to work closely with analysts in this respect, and as Michael Edwards and Julian Ward have both returned to Liverpool, they could forge a successful partnership.

As we have previously analysed, Liverpool’s squad building last summer was quite poor by their standards. As a result, they dropped away from the top two in the title race at a crunch time.

They will need to avoid those mistakes this summer, and even if they do, the position they are currently in means that a title challenge will not be the most realistic goal for next season.

They should target a solid podium finish just as Slot did when he joined Feyenoord, before potentially building that into a title challenge in subsequent seasons.

With such realistic expectations, Slot seems better positioned to succeed at Liverpool more than anyone else given his stylistic similarities to the German great.

Stats courtesy Transfermarkt, FotMob, Opta via Fbref and Capology.

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