New Head of Nutrition Gives Liverpool a Taste of Premier League Success

Mona Nemmer, Liverpool’s new head of nutrition, discussing a menu with the chef Leigh Lawson at Liverpool’s training base. Credit Rob Stothard for The New York Times

LIVERPOOL, England — Jurgen Klopp did not introduce his Liverpool players to the woman who would subtly change their lives right away. When she joined the team, at the club’s preseason camp in Palo Alto, Calif., last summer, Klopp waited a couple of days, eager to see if her actions would win them over more easily than his words.

“Usually, in preseason, the players eat as much as they can, as fast as they can,” Klopp said in an interview this month at Liverpool’s Melwood training base. He wanted them to slow down, not to “come, eat, go,” to leave their phones outside, to relax.

After a couple of days in Palo Alto, he noticed something was different. The players, aching from his demanding conditioning sessions, were lingering at their tables. They were 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.”

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. Such appointments can be awkward: Players can be reluctant to embrace the less familiar.

Had Klopp detailed exactly what she had been hired to do, they might have been skeptical. Nemmer’s plans — for individualized, 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 pros, far in advance of what most soccer clubs offer.

Liverpool Manager Jurgen Klopp after a Premier League victory against Everton on Dec. 19. Credit Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He 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. Casting his mind back, Klopp 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 third-place 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,” she said.

She certainly does not regard herself as a guru. The word she returns to — in fluent English already tinged with Liverpool’s distinct, and apparently contagious, long vowels — is “holistic.” She is there, she said, to support and dovetail with others.

Her colleagues, though, are more forthcoming. Klopp insists “you do not find a lot of people like her;” she has already been flown out to meet Liverpool’s owners, John Henry and Tom Werner, in Boston. Adam Lallana, the England midfielder, admits that all of his teammates “love her to bits.”

“She almost mothers us,” he said, a little bashfully.

That caring, personable side is part of Nemmer’s secret. Some players — notably goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and left back James Milner — pepper her with questions, keen to learn as much as possible about what she is doing and why. She is happy to take a more discreet approach with others. “She does not try and blind us with science,” Lallana said. That does not mean, though, that the science is not there.

Nemmer, 32, did not mean to go into sports. She fell into it 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 traveled to tournaments, she fit the profile: someone who knew what the players should be eating, and how to prepare it.

Roast venison loin with an herb and nut crust and roasted plums in the canteen at the Melwood training complex. Credit Rob Stothard for The New York Times

Her work for Germany, she says, was largely basic — “Don’t get food poisoning while you’re away in Nigeria” — but it lit a fire. “I got deeper and deeper into the topic of sport, studying, doing conferences, doing another apprenticeship in sports nutrition,” she said. Her reputation in Germany soared, too, enough for her to win a job at Bayern.

She spent three years there, nourishing Germany’s biggest club, before she was recommended to Klopp earlier this year. The two met near his old home in Dortmund, and clicked immediately. With Bayern in transition, to Carlo Ancelotti from Pep Guardiola, Liverpool saw an opening and lured her away.

What convinced her to move was not just Klopp’s wholehearted backing, but the conviction of the club’s owners, Henry and Werner. “They have a brilliant perspective,” she said. “They are so open-minded. Together with Jurgen, they have given nutrition an importance and respect, and they have given me the chance to try this. That is not too common.”

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

She has not overseen vast structural changes at its Melwood training complex, or at the club’s stadium at Anfield. The training ground cafeteria is not markedly different: a station for fresh fruit juices, a spot for granola and nuts, her famous salad bar.

She has placed a juicing station in the first-team changing room, so players can refuel as soon as they step off the field. At Anfield, there is now a kitchen in the home dressing room, where bespoke meals can be prepared after matches.

Mona Nemmer with Liverpool goalkeeper Adam Bogdan. A key tenet of Nemmer’s approach to menu preparation is that “nothing is forbidden.” Credit Rob Stothard for The New York Times

The seismic differences are below the surface. They are, first and foremost, in the food itself. “As much as we can, it is all local and seasonal,” Nemmer 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: Together with her team of chefs, she sources fish and game from Scotland, venison from Norfolk, free-range, organic meat from Chester. “It is important for us that the animals have a great life,” she said. One of her first tasks at Liverpool was to travel to London, to find the right bakery.

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. “We want to have as much influence as possible,” she said. “What makes sense in a product, and what is beneficial.”

Certain styles of preparation — deep frying, for example — are considered “red lines,” but it is a key tenet of Nemmer’s approach that “nothing is forbidden.”

“We can have a chocolate pudding, of course,” she said. “But we can choose rice or almond milk, no powder, use a good quality cacao, molasses instead of sugar. Then you have a totally different product.”

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, she said, has “the feel of a marketplace.” The players can pick and choose what they want — as they do, for salads and juices — and Nemmer can be confident no choice is a bad one.

Atlantic cod loins in the canteen this month. Credit Rob Stothard for The New York Times

The other great innovation at Liverpool is that everything is now tailored to specific players. “We are not all the same,” Klopp said, “so it makes no sense that we all eat the same.”

Nemmer, in consultation with the players, has drawn up specific diet recommendations for the entire team. 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. Nemmer receives Klopp’s training schedules in advance; she is kept up-to-date with bulletins from the club’s doctors, its physiotherapists, its fitness coaches, even its psychologists. Injured players are given different recommendations from those trying to regain fitness on the training field, or those enduring a period out of the team. It is all informal: quick chats are considered more effective than summons to her office; convenient apps preferred to long questionnaires.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Nemmer has changed habits. Instead of a candy pick-me-up at halftime, Lallana, Milner and Jordan Henderson now have a slug of apple juice laced with caffeine.

There is fresh pasta, with a range of homemade sauces, available after games; Nemmer travels with the team on trips to ensure that the hotel can follow her menus, and under her direction the team provides meals on the bus, too.

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. Many take advantage of what Nemmer laughingly refers to as the “takeaway service.” 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.

“We have even, in a wild dream, talked about opening a store, or doing a recipe book,” Klopp said. Both surely would thrive. 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.”

Source: NYTimes