Football: Liverpool Reds' secret ingredient to success under Klopp

Top: Mona Nemmer, Liverpool's head of nutrition, discusses the week's menu with chef Leigh Lawson, at the club's Melwood training ground. Their attention to dietary detail has helped the Reds start the season in fine fettle. Above: Some of the meals
Mona Nemmer, Liverpool's head of nutrition, discusses the week's menu with chef Leigh Lawson, at the club's Melwood training ground. Their attention to dietary detail has helped the Reds start the season in fine fettle. PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Top: Mona Nemmer, Liverpool's head of nutrition, discusses the week's menu with chef Leigh Lawson, at the club's Melwood training ground. Their attention to dietary detail has helped the Reds start the season in fine fettle. Above: Some of the meals
Some of the meals found in the Melwood canteen include roast venison loin with a herb and nut crust and roasted plums, and Atlantic cod loins.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Top: Mona Nemmer, Liverpool's head of nutrition, discusses the week's menu with chef Leigh Lawson, at the club's Melwood training ground. Their attention to dietary detail has helped the Reds start the season in fine fettle. Above: Some of the meals
Some of the meals found in the Melwood canteen include roast venison loin with a herb and nut crust and roasted plums, and Atlantic cod loins.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

LONDON • Jurgen Klopp did not introduce his Liverpool players right away to the woman who would subtly change their lives.

When she joined the team at the club's pre-season camp in Palo Alto, California, last summer, the German manager waited a couple of days, eager to see if her actions would win them over more easily than his words.

"Usually, in pre-season, the players eat as much as they can, as fast as they can," Klopp said in an interview earlier this month at Liverpool's Melwood training base. He wanted them to slow down, to leave their phones outside, to relax.

After a couple of days, he noticed something was different. The players, aching from his demanding conditioning sessions, were lingering at their tables, lining up by the salad bar, intrigued by the choices.

"I had not seen that atmosphere before," he said. "They were staying to eat, and they loved it."

DIFFERENT DIETARY NEEDS

Goalkeepers do not run as much as midfielders. And then Brazilians, say, have a different breakfast culture to the English. Everything is broken down on different cultures, body types, positions.

'' MONA NEMMER, Liverpool's head of nutrition, on how the Reds are tailoring each player's dietary intake.

Only then did Klopp stand up in the restaurant and formally welcome his two new staff members.

The first, Andreas Kornmayer, a former fitness coach at Bayern Munich, was easy.

"A lot of them knew Andy," Klopp said. "And they are used to having a fitness coach: He is the drill sergeant guy, shouting at them to run more."

The second introduction, the one Klopp had delayed, could have been trickier. Mona Nemmer had come from Bayern too, to be Liverpool's head of nutrition.

Had Klopp detailed exactly what she had been hired to do, the players might have been sceptical.

Nemmer's plans - for individualised, scientifically-planned diets, for food sourced as locally and as organically as possible, for four compulsory meals a day and even for cooking lessons - would have been revelatory even to seasoned professionals, far in advance of what most football clubs offer.

Klopp did not need to go into all of that, though; the food had done his job for him. A couple of days of Nemmer's meals were all the recommendation his players needed.

Klopp recalled and mimed them putting down their knives and forks, eyes bright with intense concentration. "They were eating unbelievable food," he said. "She had already made that first impression, so they paid attention."

Six months into her new job, Nemmer, regarded within the club as one of Klopp's biggest summer signings, is far too modest to claim much credit for her part in second-placed Liverpool's blistering start to the Premier League season.

She insists that she is just a cog in the machine: "All of the departments - medical, coaching, psychological and sports science - play an important role."

Her colleagues, though, are more forthcoming. Klopp insists "you do not find a lot of people like her", while midfielder Adam Lallana admits that all of his team-mates "love her to bits".

"She almost mothers us," he said, a little bashfully.

Nemmer, 32, fell into sports almost by accident, after studying nutrition in her native Germany.

"I learned a lot of theoretical stuff, but I was missing the practical side," she said. "So I took an apprenticeship as a chef."

When a chance came up to help cater for Germany's national youth teams while they travelled to tournaments, she fit the profile: Someone who knew what the players should be eating, and how to prepare it.

Pretty soon her credentials grew and she was recruited by Bayern, where she spent three years nourishing Germany's biggest football club, before she was recommended to Klopp earlier this year.

What convinced her to move was not just Klopp's whole-hearted backing, but the conviction of the club's owners, John Henry and Tom Werner.

"They have a brilliant perspective," she said. "They are so open-minded. Together with Jurgen, they have given nutrition importance and respect, and they have given me the chance to try this. That is not too common."

Nor is it cheap. Most football clubs, even now, employ nutritionists only as consultants, visiting a couple of times a week. Liverpool, by contrast, have given Nemmer free rein.

The changes she has effected are essentially below the surface. "As much as we can, it is all local and seasonal," she said. "We have a focus on real food, to keep natural nutrition as high as possible."

When she has to, Nemmer will travel to find the best suppliers.

She eschews previously prepared food, preferring instead that sauces and dressings be made on site. Her eye for detail extends all the way down to the oil in which the food is cooked. She uses sea salt, instead of chemically treated table salt.

Her emphasis is on variety, and accessibility. "It is no good telling them to eat apple, some golden raisins and oats for breakfast, if they cannot find them," she said. The canteen now, according to Nemmer, has the feel of a marketplace.

The other great innovation at Liverpool is that everything is now tailored to specific players. They depend not just on the results of various tests - taking into account body fat composition, metabolic rates and the rest - but things like nationality and position too.

"There are different energy levels depending on where you play on the pitch," she said. "Goalkeepers do not run as much as midfielders. And then Brazilians, say, have a different breakfast culture to the English.

"Everything is broken down on different cultures, body types, positions. We have players who focus more on protein, and ones who need different types of minerals and electrolytes."

She will tweak her menus, depending on the time of season, or even on the number of games on the schedule.

Indeed, her food has proved so popular that Klopp no longer has to force his players to stay for four meals a day at the training ground.

Individual players have been taught how to cook her meals at home, and there are plans to invite families in next year to spread the word.

The players might not have noticed, but they are now at the cutting edge of nutrition science.

"We are not even halfway yet," Klopp said. "But we are going in the right way. We can make this the best nutrition department in the world. I am not proud of much, but I am very proud of this."

NY TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2016, with the headline 'Reds' secret ingredient to success under Klopp'. Print Edition | Subscribe