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Liverpool taking a risk on Arne Slot is a victory for coaches with it all to prove

Arne Slot while he was manager of AZ Alkmaar
Arne Slot has not managed a game in the Europa League or the Champions League - PA/Richard Sellers

The great inconvenience that attends the grand idea of succession planning is that the moment when one’s managerial legend chooses to take his leave, there is never any guarantee that the preferred successor is ready to step into his shoes.

Xabi Alonso had made it quite clear to Liverpool that after just 18 months as a coach, despite the triumph of the current title-winning season, he did not feel ready to walk away from Bayer Leverkusen. Ruben Amorim was eventually judged to be too wedded to the 3-4-3 system to be viable. Roberto De Zerbi did not fit either. Luciano Spalletti had the Euros with Italy to get out the way first. Julian Nagelsmann stayed with Germany. Thomas Tuchel was never a consideration. Ernesto Valverde might have been a temporary solution for a couple of years – but temporary until what?

Arne Slot is not a placeholder – the club’s remodelled hierarchy are firmly behind their man. They believe they have appointed a manager who meets all their most important criteria and whose personality will emerge over time as one capable of fronting up this globally famous, locally rooted sporting behemoth. A risk? Unquestionably, but Liverpool cut their cloth accordingly. That said, another 24 hours like Saturday and one could say that the Jurgen Klopp succession is getting progressively easier.

There have been simpler managerial appointments at Liverpool: Rafael Benitez in 2004, or Klopp in 2015. Benitez was one of the two brightest young managers in Europe when he was appointed, a Uefa Cup winner, twice a Liga winner and still the last save Diego Simeone to win the Spanish title with a club outside the big two. Klopp had done something similar in defiance of the Bayern Munich hegemony in Germany, as well as reach a Champions League final.

Slot is not in that league when it comes to reputation. Yet for younger managers it is harder now to kick the door down in the way that Benitez and Jose Mourinho did 20 years ago, and even Klopp a decade or so hence. Mourinho won a Champions League and Uefa Cup with Porto before he was appointed by Chelsea in 2004. If it was an astonishing feat then, and unthinkable now.

Rafael Benitez after he was appointed Liverpool manager in 2004

Slot is 45, the same age Benitez was when he joined Liverpool. Beyond the domestic game in Holland, Slot has reached a Uefa Europa Conference League final in 2022, where he was beaten by Mourinho’s Roma. Yet the great divide between the wealthiest clubs and the rest, including those in Holland, make it difficult for coaches to have the kind of Europe-wide impact their predecessors once did.

Erik ten Hag reached a Champions League semi-final with Ajax – enough to make his reputation and, along with three Dutch titles, propel him into the Manchester United job. Domestically and in Europe, Alonso has excelled at Leverkusen, with only the fourth-highest wage bill in the Bundesliga, but he is the exception rather than rule. The league title in England, Spain, Germany and France, as well as the Champions League, tends to be won in the main by a small group of clubs that are often served by an even smaller group of managers.

It is notable that, on that basis, winning the Europa League can be very good for your career. Three of the managerial winners in the last four seasons subsequently landed Premier League jobs. In short, Premier League clubs are eagerly looking out for some comparative evidence that promising coaches can excel out of their domestic game – and when they do, opportunities emerge.

Slot’s style of play, and the success he has had with Feyenoord has got him so far, but his timing has been impeccable. Having turned down Tottenham last summer he has emerged at the head of an admittedly limited field 12 months later to land an even bigger job.

In terms of perception, Slot is principally not helped by the struggles previous Dutch coaches have endured in translating success in the Dutch game to the Premier League. Guus Hiddink, Louis Van Gaal and Ronald Koeman had already proved themselves to varying degrees outside of Holland by the time they arrived, and those three are arguably the most successful. After that Ten Hag, Martin Jol and, further back, Ruud Gullit, are not inarguable hits. Rene Meulensteen, Dick Advocaat and Frank De Boer barely managed a full 38-game season between them.

Erik ten Hag on the touchline at Wembley during Manchester United's FA Cup semi-final against Coventry
Erik ten Hag has struggled to reproduce the football played by his Ajax side in the Premier League - Getty Images/Michael Regan

The modern revolution in data analytics, and even the developments in the last three years, make all these past appointments much more of a finger in the wind decision than the kind of research one might expect Liverpool to have done with Slot. The club have, along with Brentford and Brighton, been at the sharp edge in English football when it comes to refining a proprietary data model. One which, among other things, can make valuable comparisons between performances of players and coaches in different leagues.

There is always a temptation in some quarters to mock this approach – that old distrust of innovation that is English football’s trademark. Some clubs have certainly applied the data in ways that are unrealistic. But a way of successfully analysing performance that strips away many of the variables of chance and luck to scrutinise the principal strengths of a player and a coach in a remarkable leap forward. Besides, it is not as if clubs have not made bad managerial appointments for the 100 years before analytics became possible.

If Slot has passed those tests then the examination of his credentials will indeed have been rigorous. He will have the backing of the new Liverpool hierarchy: sporting director Richard Hughes as well as Michael Edwards who now assumes the role that Mike Gordon, the president of owners Fenway Sports Group occupied for much of the Klopp years.

It was Gordon who ultimately signed off the big decisions through that era, with Edwards in what is now Hughes’ role. Now Edwards has the final say, when it comes to appointing managers or acquiring partner clubs for a multi-club system. Needless to say, both men have much riding on the success of Slot – whom they believe is the right man at a difficult time.

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