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The 9 World Class Recruitment Secrets Behind Ending 30 Years of Hurt for Liverpool FC

Toby Babb

Most who know me will tell you that two of my big obsessions in life are recruitment and Liverpool Football Club. This week, both have been thrown together as I reflect on 30 years of near misses and memories of glory days.

 

Thursday was a special night, celebrating with my 13 year old son who, like me, is a devoted red. I was exactly his age the last time Liverpool won the league. To share this moment with him was something I will never forget.

 

For 30 years though, the club has walked through the storm. Previous owners had pushed the business to the edge. The invincibility and rich history had been eroded. Arch-rivals had caught up and, apart from in Europe, overtaken us. Decades of near misses and maybe next year. We had become a joke.

 

Enter FSG in October 2010 just months after we had launched Harrington Starr. More American owners. Suspicions were high of John W. Henry, Tom Werner and the Fenway Sports Group as they made early promises taking over a near broken club for £300m with heavy losses to write off. 

 

They made 4 key promises: they would attract the best players, turn losses into wins, compete for trophies and create a culture of winning. They had proven this with their ownership of the Boston Red Sox where incredible leadership had restored that team to former glories. Few though in 2010 that this could possibly happen at Liverpool.

 

To cut a long story short, this week Liverpool stand as the European, World, Super Cup and Premier League Champions.

 

It is truly extraordinary story that involves an exceptional team, bought together with a budget well below their peers, one of the lowest net transfer spends in the last 5 years (including no signings last year) and against far wealthier competitors. Revenue burst through the £500m mark and every area of the club is thriving. Whilst not David and Goliath levels, this is definitely a story of competing with a hand tied behind your back.

 

The players are incredible but, to me, it is the work behind the scenes and a decade of incredible recruitment decisions, improved over time and never 100% perfect, that have transformed my beloved club from also rans into the best in the World.

 

Here are the nine world class recruitment secrets behind this extraordinary story:

 

  1. Get the right man for the top job

 

FSG Chief Mike Gordon’s master stroke was the decision in October 2015 to hire Jurgen Norbert Klopp as the Manager.

 

Gordon was quoted as saying “He’s a polymathematical guy. I spent the first 30 years as an investor speaking to some of the best CEOs in the world and Jurgen is right up there with them. If he wasn’t managing a football club, he could be managing a Fortune 500 company.” 

 

Klopp is an exceptional leader. The best man manager in the world, someone capable of getting more out of people and inspiring those around him. There is a whole book to write on this.

 

The data analysis of his performance above expectation at Dortmund, his previous club, and an interview with Gordon in New York made him clearly the perfect fit.

 

His magnetic, inspirational leadership meant the best talent has lined up to follow him. This has realised the first of the 4 point promise from FSG: attract the best players.

 

As any good investor or VC will tell you, the right management is key to a successful investment. Get the decisions right at the top of the organisation and success follows.

 

  1. Wait for the right people

 

Liverpool’s recruitment has been characterised by patience and getting the right people in the right positions. Targets have been drawn up and the right people hired. When the club identified Virgil Van Dijk as the right centre back, there was tremendous pressure to sign an alternative such as Jonny Evans when negotiations initially went South. They waited and got their man a window later. The rest is history.

 

With question marks around the goalkeepers in Loris Karius and Simon Mingolet, again the club waited until they could get the best in the world rather than Jordan Pickford as people again clamoured for. They waited a year for Naby Keita and every recruitment decision has been carefully planned and executed by the brilliant Sporting Director Michael Edwards. Gone are the panic buys the club have learned from (see Mario Balotelli) and in have come carefully selected prime targets. This has been a journey of patience and lessons learned.

 

Off the pitch, the club waited for 2 years to find the perfect sports psychologist when they appointed Lee Richardson. Klopp didn’t want any person in that role, he wanted the perfect person.

 

How many times have you rushed a process to get a bum on a seat? Liverpool have spent time identifying and then ensuring they do all they can to secure the best players and staff. Part one of the FSG master plan in 2010.

 

  1. Hire on Character

 

When the majority of the players at Liverpool were signed, they were not immediately heralded as natural superstars. Good players certainly, but none were the Galacticos that many were clamouring for.

 

Liverpool have been careful to hire on character. Good, hard working players with the personality, work rate and professionalism needed to thrive. This is nowhere better exemplified than in their Captain and Vice Captain, Jordan Henderson and James Milner. Two of the best professionals in the Premier League.

 

This season, Henderson looks set to become the player of the year and yet, signed nine years ago, he was mocked and unfancied. In 2012 he was nearly sold to Fulham but he got his head down and refused to give up. Fast forward to today, he has captained his country, and captained Liverpool to the Champions League, Premier League, Super Cup and Club World Cup. A fierce, never say die attitude that has spread throughout the team. The perfect manifestation on the pitch of the Klopp philosophy. 

 

The team are committed, hugely likeable, drive high standards from each other and look like they have a great time doing it, seen clearly in their celebrations. They work hard for each other, have no “social loafing” and care deeply. Good people bought together with careful hiring, and brilliant scouting led by Dave Fallows, the Head of Recruitment, and Chief Scout Barry Hunter.

 

  1. Data Driven Decisions

Behind the incredible recruitment is a data machine that is the envy of the football world. Collected from around the globe and educated from Harvard to Cambridge, sits a data team that have been central to this movement.

 

In Ian Graham, Tim Waskett, Will Spearman and Dafydd Steele Liverpool are gaining a “moneyball” style advantage over the competition. On the pitch, data is a central element to the playing style and has certainly contributed to the marked improvement of nearly every player in the squad. Off the pitch, it has been revolutionary in identifying talent.

 

I’ve long been fascinated by this since first meeting Rasmus Ankersen and Blake Wooster, now founders of the brilliant 21st Club. The science of hiring is another huge subject and Liverpool are on a journey to master it, asking the important questions that have, almost exclusively in recent years, unearthed gems like Andy Robertson. It has also allowed the team to finance hires by developing young talent and selling high affording them increased transfer budgets.

 

This data driven recruitment model has been the fulcrum of the recovery.

 

  1. Build the spine

 

Most great football teams are built on a great spine. Goalkeeper, Centre Back, Midfielder and Striker. Liverpool’s recruitment journey has been hugely successful on doing this on the pitch with strength running throughout the squad.

 

This spine, however, runs far deeper. The last decade has seen Liverpool recruit a core that runs throughout the club. Andreas Kornmayer as Head of Fitness and Conditioning was bought in and defied expectations by keeping so many players available for long periods despite the strain of the pressing game.

 

Peter Krawietz and Pepijn Lijinders are the brilliant assistant managers who help bring the vision to life. Victor Matos, bought in from Porto, is seen as the ideal man for the key role of Elite Development Coach, bringing through the hugely talented crop of next gen players. There is the thrown in coach Thomas Gronnemark, the aforementioned data team, the brilliant goal keeping coach John Achterberg, quality runs throughout the “off field” squad.

 

A huge hire to the spine was Peter Moore, the CEO, Head Hunted from the US where he had enjoyed a stellar career having left the City of Liverpool many years prior finishing after a hugely successful spell at EA. He and the quite extraordinary Michael Edwards have revolutionised Liverpool into having the best spine off the pitch in World football. A master stroke from FSG and Mike Gordon.

 

  1. Right People, right job

 

On the pitch the right players are doing the right job, playing in positions that bring out the very best in them. Roberto Firmino has been heralded as one of the very best, playing in a role as if he were born to play. Previous managers had struggled to position him toying with numerous positions across midfield and attack. The number 9 shirt didn’t seem an ideal fit for someone who didn’t score heavily. Klopp found his niche and put the right person in the right job to help both him and the team. 

 

The two best full backs in the world were given license to play their natural game, generating incredible statistics in their assists and influence. Others have played utility roles, maximising their contribution to the squad. 

 

Added to that, we see the right people off the pitch. Smirks from opposition fans were raised when Liverpool employed Thomas Gronnemark as a throw in coach. His statistics and the contribution they have bought have been emphatic. The hiring of Lee Richardson has had a huge impact on the mastery culture the squad have embraced. A German big wave surfer, Sebastian Steudtner, was bought into the camp to help the team visualise that everything is possible and thinking about the next challenge straight after conquering the last. 

 

The right people are in the right jobs, a central theme of Jim Collin’s excellent book Good to Great.

 

  1. Star Team 

 

The concept of a star team rather than a team of stars was first illustrated to me many years ago when talking about mavericks.

 

This Liverpool team is not the superstar collection of household stars of the Real Madrid era. This is not the spice boys, spending as much time in Loaded and FHM as they did on the back pages. This is a team of grafters, professionals and standard bearers, diverse in the background, united by their mission. There is no room for mavericks, as illustrated by the exit of Mamadou Sakho, and this has led to a wonderful professionalism personified by famous Ribena drinker James Milner.

 

This again, points to careful recruitment. No-one bigger than the club and a culture of mastery and excellence has followed, allowing standards to be driven manically.

 

  1. Develop Youth

 

The recruitment policy has not focussed on big ticket signings alone. Despite breaking transfer records for defenders and goalkeepers, the FSG plan has been to buy young, developing talent and set the structure to support their growth. They have invested in the future.

 

Trent Alexander-Arnold has been the poster boy for academy success, but alongside that, Neco Williams, Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones among others are pushing through. The club have invested heavily in youth and are starting to yield the fruits of the work put in by Alex Inglethorpe the Academy Director and Victor Matos, the aforementioned Elite Development Coach.

 

The entire set up is designed to identify, develop and retain young talent. There is a clear pathway for progression that gives hope for more young talent to trust the club to guide their career. This makes signing for the club over competitors hugely attractive. 

 

There are also numerous examples of young players who have been bought cheap, developed and sold high. Dominic Solanke, Danny Ings, Jordan Ibe and Raheem Stirling all represent talent that has been developed and sold at profit leading to smart re-investment. 

 

Liverpool have built a reputation as a talent incubator and this has reaped huge rewards.

 

  1. Employer Brand

 

Only a couple of years ago, Liverpool, despite being a historically big club, had become a selling club. The best in the world would not have chosen it as a preferred destination. The focus was on a second tier of talent and a sea of stars such as Torres, Suarez, Coutinho, and Sterling went on to “better things” with their ambition seemingly not able to be matched by the club.

 

Fast forward to today and it seems that Liverpool have the best in the world clamouring to play for them. The magnetic personality of Klopp is clearly the big draw but there is so much more behind it.

 

Tim Grover, trainer to Michael Jordan and Kobe, said recently if you want to build your brand and get noticed “start by actually accomplishing something, and your brand will build itself.” There is no question that the success in the Champions League and Premier League has been a draw but again there is more.

 

Liverpool boast a world leading press team. Their Head of Social, Adam Hulme, has been revolutionary. The branding, story and strong adoption of the legacy the club has been exceptional winning fans all over the world and increasing the turnover of the business astronomically. 

 

In Jurgen Klopp’s first press conference he spoke of turning doubters to believers. On December 13th 2015, Liverpool drew 2-2 with West Brom at Anfield coming back late to equalise. He led the players to the Kop and took a bow as if they had qualified for a cup final. People laughed but it has symbolised the first signs of doubters becoming believers. The fans were recruited into this employer brand and have been instrumental in success. They have used the press incredibly well.

 

In the commercial world, the role of employer brand in recruitment has become essential. Liverpool have tapped into this and created a club that the best in the world want to work for. Success has led to this but so has the messaging, the story, the leadership team, the care and compassion shown. It has been an extraordinary revolution to witness.

 

So there we have it. Recruitment and Liverpool colliding in glorious harmony. This has been a journey from John W. Henry and Tom Werner that has taken 10 years to create. Their four point plan centred around attracting the best players. This didn’t happen in the same way that Chelsea and Man City had done before with extravagant spending. It is a recruitment masterclass and one we can all learn from.

 

It’s a simple formula:

 

Get recruitment right and you can attract the best players. Attract the best players and you can turn losses into wins. Turn losses into wins and you can compete for trophies. Compete for trophies and you create a culture of winning. Create a culture of winning and you can keep recruiting the best players.

 

Great recruitment has transformed the valuation of a business from £300m to over £2bn. It has taken revenues well over £500m from near disaster ten years ago. Great recruitment has had a transformational impact on the club's business interests as it can do for your business too. Great recruitment
is the vital ingredient in the success of any business. FSG have proven it’s a science and you can too.