Arne Slot: A champion with Feyenoord and now Liverpool’s new manager contender

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Arne Slot: A champion with Feyenoord and now Liverpool’s new manager contender

This is an updated version of an article first published on May 14, 2023.

In 2020-21, the season before Arne Slot became their manager, Feyenoord finished 29 points behind champions Ajax. They came fifth, the same number of points from the top of the table as they were from the bottom three, with the football under Dick Advocaat very uninspiring.

Two years later, the Rotterdam club were champions, having spent virtually the whole season leading the Eredivisie. It was a remarkable turnaround which prompted a succession of English clubs to seek to secure his services.

Crystal Palace were among them, as were Leeds, who had Slot on their list of possible replacements for Jesse Marsch in February 2023 and held talks with him in the Netherlands. Those discussions did not develop.

Tottenham, meanwhile, thought they had persuaded him to move to north London in May 2023, with Feyenoord apparently resigned to losing him until Slot surprisingly decided to stay put. Spurs turned to Ange Postecoglou instead.

Almost a year on, and Slot’s stock has continued to rise. Feyenoord have not been able to defend their Eredivisie title but they have only been denied by a remarkable campaign by PSV, who have lost just once all season. Slot’s side have only been beaten twice in the league – and not at all since December 3 – and won the Dutch Cup last weekend.

Now it has emerged that Slot is a leading contender for the Liverpool job which will be vacated by Jurgen Klopp this summer.

But why is he attracting such interest – and who exactly is he?

Arne Slot was slow.

As a player, Slot was a perfectly decent midfielder, with the bulk of his appearances coming in the Dutch second tier. He was technically very good, usually playing as an attacking midfielder or No 10 but, in the words of his former team-mate Edwin de Graaf, he was “not so fast”. Slot the coach once said that he would not have picked Slot the player.

This meant he had to rely on others around him to do a lot of the running. “I was a hard worker, he was the more technical player,” says De Graaf, who played alongside him at NAC Breda.

Slot challenges Newcastle’s Nolberto Solano (Photo: Adam Davy/EMPICS via Getty Images)

But his limitations as a player have helped him become the coach he is today because they enhanced his appreciation of how to make a team function as a cohesive unit. He was living proof that one player cannot do his job unless a colleague is doing theirs.

He was always going to be a coach, moving from the playing squad to the coaching staff at PEC Zwolle immediately after his retirement.

“Some players you can see are going to be coaches,” says De Graaf. “I also played with Alfred Schreuder (the former Ajax manager) and both him and Slot… nobody is surprised now they’re both coaches.

“He would ask the coach why they were using certain tactics. And in the dressing room, he would talk to the group about (for example) a way of pressing or defending. He would ask: ‘Why were we doing it this way? Would it be better to do it this way?’. He would make suggestions to his coaches.

“But he would do it in such a good way. He wouldn’t do it with an attitude: he would ask the coach: ‘What do you think about this?’. He would also very quickly see what the opponents were doing.”

Slot is carried off by his PEC Zwolle team-mates (Photo: VI Images via Getty Images)

“At that time, he was already looking in an analytical way,” Henk ten Cate, who brought Slot to Breda, told Voetbal International in 2022. “He was busy with tactics and asked questions at training.”

It is worth noting this was not when Slot was in the twilight of his career and was worrying about what would come next. Slot and Ten Cate worked together in 2002-03 when Slot was 24. He was one of those players who used his time on the pitch as an extended apprenticeship for when he moved to the touchline.

Slot hung up his boots in 2013 after playing for PEC Zwolle and immediately joined the club’s youth academy as a coach.

He then spent three years as a coach at Cambuur, who had just been promoted to the Eredivisie, after which he moved to AZ Alkmaar to be assistant to manager John van den Brom, still only 39 when he took that job. “We always searched for young, new coaches,” says Van den Brom. “He was an interesting coach because he wanted to develop.”

It was during these years Slot clarified what sort of football he wanted to play, helped by a series of formative relationships with other coaches.

At AZ, there was Van den Brom and Pascal Jansen (who managed AZ for four years), while at Cambuur he worked closely with Marcel Keizer, who would go on to manage Ajax and Sporting Lisbon. He also shared ideas with Pep Ljinders, now Klopp’s assistant at Liverpool, and, with a group of other coaches, created a bespoke player database. At the time, the data resources available to them were far from adequate, so they built their own.

“What was nice for me is that he always thought in an attacking way,” says Van den Brom, before mentioning something that comes up time and again whenever you speak to someone about Slot.

“(His focus was) how can we make it clear to the players how we want to play? We were always searching for different ideas.”

Van den Brom consults with Slot on the AZ bench (Photo: Ed van de Pol/Soccrates/Getty Images)

It is fine for a coach to have ideas, but they have to be clearly transmitted to the players. Slot’s biggest quality and one he places significant emphasis on — he believes only 60 per cent is the idea and 40 per cent is how clearly you explain it — is his ability to communicate. His ideas are projected onto the pitch because his thoughts are clear and his words are carefully chosen.

So what are those ideas?

“They’re very attacking, very aggressive, with a lot of pressing,” says Martijn Krabbendam, a journalist for Voetbal International who has covered Slot’s Feyenoord. “High intensity, a lot of energy, and they can only do that if they’re very fit.

“He always wants to play attacking football, he always wants possession, he always wants a good set-up from the goalkeeper to find free space and free players in the midfield. It’s no secret he is crazy about Guardiola — he’s an example.”

Van den Brom adds: “We used a lot of videos of Manchester City and Bayern — he was crazy about Pep. How his teams create space, how they attack.”

Guardiola is the name that keeps coming up, but Slot also takes inspiration from a variety of other coaches: Marcelo Bielsa, Jorge Sampaoli, Jurgen Klopp, Luciano Spaletti, Mikel Arteta. All have their own ideas, so does he, but one thing they all have in common is their intensity.

Before he became Breda coach, De Graaf spent a week with Slot at Feyenoord, observing how he works. “Every session is with high intensity,” he says. “Every workout, passing drill, or five vs five — everything is with high intention and everything is with an idea. Every player knows exactly what he wants from them. He’s good at making clear why he’s doing certain exercises.

“He’s as honest as possible, so the players really like him.”

Slot believes his teams have to be intense because it essentially gives them two ways to win: if the quality of their play is lower than that of their opponents or they are having an off day, they can win by outrunning and outworking whoever they are playing.

There is also a recognition of, and mitigation against, the fitness concerns that come with such an intense style of not just playing, but training. He works closely with his data and fitness teams: when they tell him a player’s numbers are dropping or they are in the ‘red zone’, he will ease off.

Transitions are quick and passing is certain. Slot likes to work with younger players who are keen to learn. “If you have a young group, then, as a trainer, you can take the boys through videos in your desired playing style,” he said a few years ago.

For example, when Tyrell Malacia left Feyenoord in 2022 for Manchester United, he chose to replace him at left-back with the 20-year-old youth team product Quilindschy Hartman. When he needed a central midfielder, he took 22-year-old Mats Wieffer from Excelsior Rotterdam in the Dutch second tier. Both were subsequently called up to the Dutch national team. Most of the key players in Feyenoord’s title-winning season were aged 24 and under.

Hartman was promoted by Slot (Claudio Pasquazi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

His focus is on the collective. He believes the team makes the individual look good.

Most of all, the priority is on entertaining football. The goal is not to win at any cost, but to provide exciting, as well as winning, football. Voetbal International wrote: “He believes that special football is more remembered than a prize with boring, uninspiring football.”

Players seem to adore Slot.

Oussama Idrissi, who played a key part in Slot’s teams at both AZ and Feyenoord, was asked last year by the Dutch newspaper AD where Slot ranks in the coaches he has played under. “For me, he’s the best,” said the Moroccan winger. “He can develop players and make teams play fun football.”

When it was pointed out that he has also played under Julen Lopetegui, Herve Renard and a guy called Erik ten Hag, Idrissi reiterated: “Slot was the best.”

You will not struggle to find other players with similarly effusive things to say about him. “He is one of the best managers I’ve ever seen,” said Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the Iranian forward currently playing under Slot at Feyenoord. “In football terms, even the best. At the moment, he is the best in the Netherlands.”

Reiss Nelson spent the 2021-22 season on loan at Feyenoord, becoming a regular in the second half of the campaign. “Arne Slot is a great manager,” he told the Colney Carpool podcast. “He really got me into my rhythm. He gave me a lot of opportunities to play and I excelled.”

“It’s a shame,” said Myron Boadu, shortly after Slot left AZ. “Arne is a fantastic person and a fantastic trainer who really let us play football in the style of Manchester City or Barcelona in the good times.”

“He’s as honest as possible, so the players really like him,” says De Graaf.

Nelson enjoyed life under Feyenoord (Pim Waslander/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Slot has not gained the backing of these players just by being straightforward, though. The players like him because they win under him. But, perhaps more than that, they follow him because most of the things he tells them come true.

“Before playing Marseille (in the Europa Conference League semi-finals in 2022), during training he told his midfielders to play long balls out to the wingers, over the top,” explains Krabbendam. “(Orkun) Kokcu, the midfielder, was so tired of it — he asked: ‘Why do we have to keep playing these long balls?’. Slot said he would explain later.

“In 20 minutes, Feyenoord were up 2-0 and both goals came from long balls behind the Marseille defence. He knew that was a weakness of Marseille. If you speak to the Feyenoord players — and it doesn’t matter which players — they will tell you that whatever this coach says, it happens. It’s remarkable. They have blind confidence in him because what he says comes true.”

He is no hardliner or a particular disciplinarian. He emphasises positivity. When his video analysts put selections of clips together for players to watch, allowing them to scrutinise their own performances, he asks that most of them are positive. In particular, the last one is always positive so the players leave their session feeling good about themselves.

Arguably, the player who most benefitted from Slot’s tenure at Feyenoord was Kokcu, who came through the ranks at Feyenoord.

Kokcu (centre) excelled under Arne Slot (ANP via Getty Images)

Previously regarded as a talented but slightly insubstantial No 10, Kokcu came back from Euro 2020 with Turkey to find things had changed. No longer would he be able to create and let his team-mates do his running for him.

After Slot’s first competitive game in charge, a Europa Conference League game against Kosovan side SF Drita, the new coach sat down next to Kokcu on the flight home and explained that he needed more from him. More running, more pressing, more chasing back. And it worked.

Even after only a few weeks of working together, Slot convinced Kokcu that he had to significantly improve physically.

Kokcu is close friends with Malacia (the two came through the Feyenoord youth team together) and had observed the defender’s physical development since he started working with a physical trainer in Rotterdam. Kokcu went to the same trainer and, within weeks, had become the worker Slot demanded.

“If you see him now, he’s a modern midfield player,” says Krabbendam.

To illustrate this point, take a look at this touch chart for Kokcu in Feyenoord’s Europa League quarter-final first-leg victory over Roma in April 2023. The concentration is in the middle, but there are very few areas of the pitch he did not cover.

The disruption to football caused by COVID-19 produced many ‘what ifs’, but there cannot be many bigger than for Slot.

In his first season as AZ head coach, they had already beaten Feyenoord and PSV 3-0 and 4-0 away respectively before a 2-0 win at Ajax in March 2020 put them level on points at the top of the Eredivisie with the Amsterdam giants. There were still nine games remaining but AZ had the momentum.

The following week, the season was suspended as the pandemic took hold. The campaign was ultimately cancelled completely in April and the chance to win just the third title in AZ’s history was scuppered.

They started the following season in similar style, going undefeated until the start of December. Then it all ended quite abruptly.

Feyenoord announced that veteran manager Advocaat would be leaving at the end of that campaign. Slot was the obvious replacement but, a few days later, the AZ board got wind of talks between Slot and the Rotterdam club and promptly sacked him. He was clearly ready for a step up, but it was far from the way he wanted to leave the club.

“You always want to leave by the front door,” says Van den Brom. “So it wasn’t good for Arne and it wasn’t good for the club.”

He spent the intervening months playing golf and planning for the move.

It worked. The improvement in Feyenoord’s football — and results — was almost instant, moving from a distant fifth to a closer third, scoring more goals, conceding fewer and winning more games. They also reached the Europa Conference League final, where they lost to Roma. Slot won the Rinus Michels award for best coach in the Eredivisie.

If you want to quantify Feyenoord’s improvement under Slot, consider FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index, which uses underlying metrics to calculate a team’s attacking and defensive strength. Slot’s arrival at the club coincided with a steady rise up the rankings, peaking on a score of 76.6, the 21st-highest in world football. Not bad for an Eredivisie club.

But here is perhaps the most compelling evidence that Slot has something.

In the summer after that first season, his Feyenoord team was gutted. Top scorer Luis Sinisterra was sold to Leeds. Malacia went to United. Marcos Senesi to Bournemouth. Nelson’s loan spell ended and he returned to Arsenal. Midfielder Fredrik Aursnes joined Benfica. Guus Til (on loan at Feyenoord from Spartak Moscow) moved to PSV. All four players who had chalked up double-figure goal tallies the previous season had left.

And yet, Feyenoord improved. Kokcu and a few others stayed, but in came Santiago Gimenez, who has gone on to be their top scorer. Slovakian defender David Hancko arrived from Sparta Prague and excelled. Idrissi, who starred for Slot at AZ, was rescued from Sevilla on loan. Wieffer and Hartman were essentially plucked from nowhere and are now full internationals.

Slot advises Gimenez (ANP via Getty Images)

They took top spot in the Eredvisie just before the World Cup break and did not relinquish it.

PSV may have deposed them this season but there is no sense that there has been a significant drop-off in performances: Feyenoord could yet surpass their league-winning points tally from last season of 82.

Slot is revered for winning just Feyenoord’s second Eredivisie title since the turn of the century, and he now has Champions League experience – albeit he was unable to lead the club out of the group stage, despite beating Lazio and Celtic.

Liverpool’s interest is understandable. Any club that wants a young, forward-thinking coach who prioritises fast, intense, attacking football would be foolish not to take a look.

(Top photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images))