Inside painstaking process that led FSG to Arne Slot as Liverpool's first head coach

NIJMEGEN, NETHERLANDS - MAY 12: head coach Arne Slot of Feyenoord looks up during the Dutch Eredivisie match between NEC Nijmegen and Feyenoord at Goffertstadion on May 12, 2024 in Nijmegen, Netherlands. (Photo by Broer van den Boom/BSR Agency/Getty Images) -Credit:Photo by Broer van den Boom/BSR Agency/Getty Images
NIJMEGEN, NETHERLANDS - MAY 12: head coach Arne Slot of Feyenoord looks up during the Dutch Eredivisie match between NEC Nijmegen and Feyenoord at Goffertstadion on May 12, 2024 in Nijmegen, Netherlands. (Photo by Broer van den Boom/BSR Agency/Getty Images) -Credit:Photo by Broer van den Boom/BSR Agency/Getty Images

There were two reasons why Fenway Sports Group’s search for Jurgen Klopp’s successor was delayed after learning of the Liverpool manager's decision to leave in November.

The first centred around an eagerness to ensure that such a huge story was not broken outside of official club channels and the prospect of quietly seeking out potential replacements significantly increased the risk of the news breaking elsewhere. Liverpool wanted that major announcement to be handled properly, on their terms; straight from Klopp himself, directly to the supporters who have worshipped him for close to a decade.

The second, more important reason was a desire to restructure the framework within the club itself. Due to the success he has enjoyed since October 2015, Klopp’s powerbase has grown organically, but significantly, to the point where his sprawling influence reached every area of the club. Such a lengthening list of responsibilities, in fact, contributed towards the dwindling of those energy reserves that were cited for the reason to step away.

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It was not necessarily by design but the manager’s reach had come to resemble something similar to that of Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsenal Wenger’s standing at Manchester United and Arsenal, respectively. Both were viewed as statesmanlike figureheads as opposed to the more modern, European operation, where duties and responsibilities at the top of the club are shared.

Some time after Klopp told FSG of his intentions, Mike Gordon phoned back with an in-jest, money-object-offer to stay on before it was politely declined by the Reds boss. The proposal was said to have been an informal one, delivered in a jovial conversation between friends but how serious it really was would have been put to the test had Klopp actually named his price.

As a result, it was only after Klopp dropped his bombshell in late January when Michael Edwards was approached about a dramatic return to the fold. Having served as the Reds’ maiden sporting director with distinction between 2016 and 2022, and with a decade of experience at Anfield, Edwards was viewed as the most steady hand to guide through the uncertain period that would follow. But he initially rejected the somewhat surprising advances of his former employers, having no desire to return with the same job title.

Instead, a broader remit was drawn up for him to become FSG’s first ‘CEO of football’, which was a bespoke title created specifically for the former Portsmouth analyst to come back into the Fenway fold. The University of Sheffield graduate had turned down advances from both Chelsea and Manchester United during his time away and had set up a consultancy firm with Liverpool’s former director of research, Dr Ian Graham, known as ‘Ludonautics’.

Having initially declined the approach, face-to-face discussions were held in Boston in early March where it was proposed that Edwards succeed Mike Gordon as the day-to-day decision maker at Anfield, while the chance to begin a multi-club model for the American owners also appealed hugely.

Gordon was previously seen as the most hands-on of the ownership group at Anfield, by some distance, with clear lines of communication open to Klopp at all times, while principal owner John W Henry presides over more long-term strategies and Tom Werner, in his role as chairman, is 'the face' of Liverpool at Premier League shareholders' meetings.

When Brendan Rodgers was relieved of his duties back in October 2015, the shortlist to replace him was just that. Between Carlo Ancelotti and Klopp, the frontrunners were obvious to those with only a passing interest in the European game. The need to appoint a manager nine years later, however, was a more crowded and less immediately impressive field. The scope for a misstep then was vast for those without intrinsic knowledge of the current game across the continent.

With perhaps the exception of Gordon, the base knowledge needed to make such an informed decision is not there at the top of the FSG chain but their trust in Edwards, due to his track record, is absolute. It's why they were desperate to secure him back on the payroll to help ease what was undoubtedly a daunting task of searching for the right man to take over from the wildly successful and beloved Klopp.

Before Edwards set about doing that, though, he wanted to fix in a sporting director. Having seen Jorg Schmadtke's one-year agreement with the club cut short at the end of the January transfer window, there was plenty of scope to work with for the CEO of football. As the first man with that specific job title at Liverpool, Edwards knows the specifics of what is needed to be a success in the role and it didn't take long for Richard Hughes to be headhunted from Bournemouth as the man to take over.

Edwards had held a long-standing desire to work with Hughes once more after they became close during their time at Portsmouth 20 years earlier. Having moved away from the coaching side of the game after his retirement, the one-time Scotland midfielder worked with Eddie Howe at Bournemouth to become what has been informally referred to as 'the football voice' inside the Cherries' boardroom, guiding at executive level.

Hughes's spell as technical director with Bournemouth came during an era where the south-coast club established themselves as a forward-thinking one as they punched well above their budget to finish 9th, 12th and 14th but if his achievements are impressive, the biggest reference for his ability for supporters will be the faith shown in him by Edwards, whose success in the transfer market was spectacular during Klopp's golden years.

Hughes's love of Spanish and Italian football, coupled with his extensive contacts book across both regions potentially offer up exciting new avenues for the club's recruitment team to explore this summer alongside the relationships Edwards has already accrued during his time on Merseyside, like the Red Bull stable or Portuguese agency Gestifute, both of whom the Reds have dealt regularly with since 2018.

Hughes - who, like Edwards, is not set to begin work officially until June 1 - was tasked with identifying the man who would eventually succeed Klopp. Speculation inevitably led to Germany where, by mid-March, Xabi Alonso was well on course to becoming a Bundesliga champion with Bayer Leverkusen.

Having recruited Andoni Iraola to the job as Bournemouth boss last summer, Hughes has a good relationship with Inaki Martinez, the agent of the Cherries manager who also looks after Alonso. For many, that link made an approach inevitable and supporters had started to dream about the prospect of their 2005 Champions League-winning midfield maestro pitching up as manager.

Privately there were even some business partners of Alonso's who were indicating their belief the Leverkusen boss would be taking charge at Anfield, but within a fortnight of Hughes's confirmation as Liverpool's next sporting director, Alonso was in front of the media in Germany publicly committing himself for at least another another year.

Liverpool insist that no approach had been made prior to Alonso's announcement with respect for Leverkusen's title challenge likely being the main reason at that stage prior to the former Reds midfielder's declaration on March 29.

"We have had a lot of speculation regarding my future," Alonso said. "Until now we have had so many games, been pretty busy and focused, and I wanted to reflect during the international break and take a decision. The players gave me so many reasons to keep believing in the team - for their commitment, for their desire, for their hunger to have a great season. My job is not over here."

Given it was a decision that was taken relatively early in the year, Liverpool's assertion that no approach was actually made is plausible, even if they did little to privately steer away from the speculation that reached fever pitch in the weeks after Klopp's announcement.

Like Alonso, Ruben Amorim, of Sporting, was another name that was immediately dismissed with figures at the club insisting their search for Klopp's successor was still in its infancy by the end of March. The Portuguese was under consideration due to the revolution he was overseeing in Lisbon, having ended a near two-decade wait for a Primeira Liga title in 2021.

Sources with knowledge of Amorim's work were impressed by the rise of the 39-year-old but questioned if such a move might still be too early in his coaching career. Those who know him spoke of his humility and the lack of an ego but also a coach who could be a strict taskmaster inside the dressing room.

An ability to raise significant fees for wantaway, often Premier League-bound players - like Joao Palhinha, Pedro Porro and Matheus Nunes - was cited as a strength but there was a legitimate stance for that not being viewed as a major issue at Anfield, where few players are ever sold before the club are happy to see them leave.

A tactical framework that sees Sporting operate with three at the back was also something which counted against Amorim with Liverpool always stating their search would be data-driven to find the coach whose tactical flexibility and preferred methods best suited the squad of players at the club already. Liverpool have collated a young and expensive squad that, for the large part, have their best years ahead of them and the idea or ripping up the blueprint simply did not appeal. It's evolution over revolution as far as squad building is concerned this summer.

Amorim is represented by the same Nomi Sports agency who count Reds winger Luis Diaz among their stable of clients and back in 2022 it was the persuasiveness of agent Raul Pais da Costa that convinced the Colombia international to snub both tentative interest from Manchester United and a strong charm offensive from Tottenham in favour of Liverpool, with the representative later privately praised for his work in the Reds landing him from Porto.

The club's extensive network of Portuguese-based contacts, their relationship and previous dealings with Pais da Costa was a prospect that intrigued and it was stressed to the ECHO in early April that whatever their decision Liverpool were armed with all the knowledge needed to make an informed call over Amorim. A reported buyout clause, that stood at somewhere between £13m and £18m, was not viewed as prohibitive if he was the right candidate.

A private jet took Amorim to London for talks with West Ham United late last month and claims from Portuguese media that the flight was laid on by Liverpool was privately dismissed in forcible terms. Amorim later apologised for flying into the capital for talks with the Hammers while his efforts to land Sporting a domestic title went on and that decision raised a few eyebrows at Anfield also. Reports that a three-year deal had also been offered by the Reds was laughed off.

Recruitment sources told the ECHO in early April that Edwards had not yet ruled out a 'left-field' appointment if he felt it was a man with the right credentials and the decision to approach Feyenoord over Arne Slot's status later that month tied in with that stance.

Liverpool had been keen not to disrupt Feyenoord's Dutch Cup final preparations so steered clear until after Slot had led them to a 1-0 victory over NEC Nijmegen on Sunday April 21. Talks saw an initial offer of around £7.7m turned down by the Eredivisie side, who were holding out for somewhere closer to the £12m mark given the lack of a buyout clause in their head coach's contract.

Slot's openness to answering questions on speculation linking him with the manager's job at Anfield was somewhat a surprise, with him revealing after a victory over Go Ahead Eagles on April 25: "It's no secret that I want to go to Liverpool. The clubs are negotiating. We have to wait until an agreement is reached, but I have every confidence in that."

The Reds share a good relationship with Slot's agent, Rafaela Pimenta, the Brazilian lawyer who also looks after the interests of Manchester City striker Erling Haaland among others, having been guest at Anfield for a Premier League game last season. It was thought, as a result, that personal terms were never going to be an issue once a contract could formally be offered to Slot.

And by the time the Feyenoord boss was confidently talking up his own hope at a deal being agreed, the cat was well and truly out the bag. Within 24 hours, Liverpool had struck an agreement worth close to £10m to take him from De Kuip to Anfield.

With Feyenoord wrapping up their Eredivisie campaign, Slot was already openly speaking about joining on at Anfield next month, saying: "I can confirm that I will become the trainer there next year." Liverpool had their man.

Klopp's replacement, over five months on from his private revelation to FSG, had finally been found. Slot arrives on a three-year deal subject to a work permit with the job title of 'head coach' to reflect the significant change structure within the club. A new era now awaits.

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