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Liverpool have taken big step to appointing next manager – but what’s already happened behind the scenes is crucial

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While Jurgen Klopp and his assistants will be leaving Liverpool in the summer, moves off the field mean the new manager will already have a top team in place around him, writes Theo Squires.

Liverpool have just moved a step closer to appointing Jurgen Klopp’s successor after announcing Richard Hughes as the club’s new sporting director.

Hughes will officially join the Reds on June 1, when his contract as first team technical director at AFC Bournemouth comes to an end. But as the man tasked with identifying and appointing Liverpool’s next manager, such a search will not be on hiatus in the interim.

After all, Fenway Sports Group’s new CEO of Football, Michael Edwards, was present at Old Trafford for Sunday’s FA Cup defeat to Manchester United despite it previously being confirmed that he won’t officially resign from his consultancy work with his own company, Ludonautics, until June 1.

Hughes’ contacts could prove decisive, with onlookers quickly spotting a noticeable link between the 44-year-old and former Reds midfielder Xabi Alonso, who remains one of the favourites to succeed Klopp.

Hughes already boasts a good relationship with Alonso’s agent and representatives – Inaki Ibanez of IDUB Global – after hiring Andoni Iraola last summer for Bournemouth. The former Rayo Vallecano boss is represented by the same group.

However, despite being the supporters’ favourite, Alonso is not the only serious candidate. Sporting Lisbon’s Ruben Amorim, Brighton’s Roberto De Zerbi and Germany’s Julian Naglesmann are among those reportedly under consideration.

And in the case of De Zerbi, Hughes has tried to appoint him before. If not for a delayed takeover at the Vitality Stadium, the Italian was lined up to replace Scott Parker in August 2022, following the former England international’s outburst against the club’s summer transfer business after a 9-0 thrashing at Anfield at the hands of Liverpool.

Hughes’ love of Italian football, having grown up in the country and started his own youth career with Atalanta in the early nineties, evidently made him well-aware of De Zerbi’s credentials, most impressively with Sassuolo, long before English football first started to ask, ‘who is he?!’

And that obsession with Serie A has already proven beneficial at Anfield, with the Scot quietly playing a small role in Liverpool’s future pursuits of Mohamed Salah and Alisson Becker.

Bournemouth would finish their first season back in the Premier League 15th under the stewardship of former Reds Under-23s assistant coach Gary O’Neil, who Hughes had played alongside at Portsmouth when he first met Edwards. Football is a small world, evidently, where the contacts you make matter more than in most other fields. You can trust the familiar.

The midfield pair both impressed Edwards too as he grew close to a core group of players who displayed a passion for football well beyond their own playing careers. They both grabbed the attention of the Pompey analysis team by not only seeking out information and clips of their own performances, but also of Portsmouth’s upcoming opponents, as well as clubs from across the Premier League, Football League and overseas.

O’Neil is now impressing in charge of Wolves, while Bournemouth are enjoying a positive season under Iraola. While neither are tipped as Klopp successors, Hughes is posed to make the most of his contacts book once more. Be it Alonso, De Zerbi or an alternative candidate, it will be fascinating to see which direction Liverpool’s managerial search takes when the time comes.

Edwards, Hughes and the next Reds manager will lead the club into a brave new era, off the back of the most successful period in the its Premier League history. Yet, as demonstrated by the former’s return, it will perhaps be a case of different but same.

“As one very successful chapter will come to a close for Liverpool in the summer, the objective of everyone here is for another one to begin,” Edwards would state following Hughes’ appointment. “And with Richard I am confident we have the right person in position for us to achieve this aim.”

On the face of it, there is plenty of upheaval and change undergoing at Anfield, with FSG president Mike Gordon also stepping back from his day-to-day responsibilities running the club. Yet that is deceptive. Behind the scenes, it is business as usual.

The club’s academy is thriving, with Mateusz Musialowski becoming the 18th graduate to represent Klopp’s senior side this season. While not all will become first-team regulars under the German’s successor, the likes of Jarell Quansah, Conor Bradley and Bobby Clark have ensured the most fruitful of graduations, with the pathway fully open going from strength to strength, with there no fear that a change of manager will halt production.

Meanwhile, changes behind the scenes in recent years have not stopped Liverpool from successfully revamping an ageing squad – even if it came at the cost of performances last season.

After Edwards’ initial Anfield departure in the summer of 2022, successor Julian Ward would call time on his own tenure after one season. The Reds’ director of research, Dr Ian Graham, would also depart in the summer of 2023. Meanwhile, Jorg Schmadtke was appointed as his replacement, but, only ever intended as a short-term solution, departed at the end of January.

 

Yet it was the men behind such figureheads Edwards also waxed lyrical about his emotional open letter announcing his exit in 2021, with many – namely Fallows, Hunter and Dr Graham’s successor, Will Spearman – still in place at the club to this day.

“Dave Fallows and Barry Hunter joined Liverpool the year after me and they have been integral in building a world-class scouting department,” he wrote. “For those who don’t know Barry – and there can’t be many – he was a hard-hitting Northern Irish centre-back who has a contacts book that reads like a who’s who of football.

“He is always on the go and could put away more food than the average male elephant. Dave is simply Google, I’ve never known anyone with a memory like his or an ability to think outside of the box when innovative solutions are required.

“For years I have been labelled ‘stats man’, which those who know me best find pretty funny. Of course, we do have a stats man. His name is Ian Graham and like Dave and Barry he joined not long after me from a company called Decision Technology.

“Ian and his team (Daf, Tim and Will (Spearman)) are geniuses in my eyes and without doubt the best in their field in world football. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t sign players off ‘stats’ but the information provided from their research does play a crucial role in our decision-making.

“Whether it is video, written reports, data, background checks or good old-fashioned scouting from the stand, it all goes into the big decision-making melting pot. And when you make a decision, all this information allows you to do is mitigate the risk you are taking.”

The recruitment team has achieved the seemingly impossible in recent years. First they replaced Liverpool’s untouchable front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane with the signings of Luis Diaz, Darwin Nunez and Cody Gakpo.

Then, after a season to forget last year, they completely revamped a broken midfield with the arrivals of Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai, Wataru Endo and Ryan Gravenberch.

Long-term replacements for the likes of Salah, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson are perhaps next on the radar, but Hughes is joining a recruitment team that have continued to thrive despite all the restructuring to Liverpool’s first-team squad.

And he is joining a team that have often got the better of him in the past off the field, as Bournemouth, inevitably found themselves unable to compete when up against one of the strongest sides in Europe.

The Cherries rivalled Liverpool for Robertson from Hull City in the summer of 2017, and were also the ‘runners-up’ in the signings of Joe Gomez from Charlton Athletic and Harvey Elliott from Fulham. Hughes was also unsuccessful in efforts to sign Van Dijk from Celtic in 2015, with the Dutchman ultimately joining Southampton instead.

Edwards’ respect for Hughes grew as a result, with his identification process in recruitment seemingly highly-effective, even if Bournemouth’s standing in the game, compared to Liverpool’s, did at times count against him. Consequently, Anfield bosses always respected his ability to identify and attract young talents with the South Coast side.

With Edwards’ admiration for Hughes growing over the past two decades, he has had a longstanding desire to work with Liverpool’s new sporting director. That wish has finally been fulfilled.

“People rightly talk about the rich history this organisation can boast, but it is the present and future which really excites me,” Hughes said after joining the club. “I am fully aware of the expectations and responsibilities that come with taking this position.

“It will be my job, working with Michael [Edwards] and leading the football operations team already in place, plus the wider staff at the AXA Training Centre, to make good decisions.

“That’s really what the job entails: you have to make the kind of good decisions which enhance the prospects of having a team that wins and excites the supporters. It is what Liverpool have done well for a very long time and the benefits are there for everyone to see.”

There is good reason for the excitement that greets what Hughes can hope to achieve after joining the Reds, with strengthening the playing squad his next most important task after deciding on Klopp’s successor. Working alongside an already successful inner-circle in the inner-sanctums of Anfield and the AXA Training Centre, club bosses are mitigating the risks of change and gifted their new leadership team a head start in the process..

While Liverpool are entering the unknown after a decade of stability, albeit led by a familiar face in Edwards, the evidence suggests they are still grasping the baton and that Hughes and the Reds can prove to be another match made in heaven. There might still be plenty left to decide after his appointment, but the pieces are all starting to fall into place ahead of a new era at Anfield.

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