How will the loss of Zeljko Buvac affect Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool?
“The best transfer I have made and will ever make,” was how Jürgen Klopp once described Zeljko Buvac, the assistant coach who has stepped away from his duties at Liverpool until at least the end of the season.
Those remarks may have come before the signing of 43-goal Mohamed Salah for €42m last summer, but right-hand man Buvac is so integral to Klopp’s management process, they probably still stand.
The Bosnian-Serb is the quiet counterpoint to his boss’ loud personality, more of a tactician and technician than a leader or motivator. He has commonly been referred to as ‘the brain’ of Klopp’s operation. The fear now is that, two days before a Champions League semi-final, Liverpool have been lobotomised.
Yet it would be surprising if this unfortunate episode prevented Klopp’s side from reaching the final in Kiev, not least because of their three-goal head start on Roma. It should not precipitate a collapse to a fifth-place finish in the Premier League, either.
The timing may be terrible but Buvac has honed Liverpool’s counter-press at Melwood for two-and-a-half years now, imparting principles that will not be lost overnight, even if he is not there to share polite reminders of them. The muscle memory will last these final few weeks.
The real concern should be whether Buvac’s absence turns from temporary to permanent, with no adequate replacement found during this summer’s truncated pre-season. Monday’s development may mark the end of one of those long professional relationships that are rarely seen in the modern game, the type that are almost impossible to replace.
Klopp and Buvac made a pact to work together in management while playing at Mainz in the early 1990s. Whoever earned a degree of autonomy in a decent coaching role first would find a job for the other. Buvac left for lowly Neukirchen in 1995 and later took charge there, but returned to second-division Mainz as Klopp’s assistant in 2001.
For the last 17 years, the pair have enjoyed an unbroken stretch of success, their stars rising together and their relationship overcoming inevitable fallings-out.
In Rafael Honigstein’s excellent biography of Klopp, Bring the Noise, Mainz’s former sporting director Christian Heidel remembers colourful disagreements between the pair. “Buvac is very emotional,” he says. “‘Kiss my ass! S**t!’ He’d leave the room and slam the door. And five minutes later, they’d be in each other’s arms again.”
‘In each other’s arms’ is probably not an exaggeration, either. Klopp can often be seen hugging Buvac or Peter Krawietz, the third member of his inner circle, both before games and after goals. He wants them in close proximity. When the Anfield hierarchy took the opportunity to extend Klopp’s contract just nine months after his appointment, Buvac and Krawietz’s terms were renewed to the same date.
In interviews about Anfield’s new bootroom, Klopp has spoken openly about his backroom staff and talked up their contributions. “I am nothing without them,” he said last summer, and it is the type of thing you might expect from Klopp - a coach who stresses the importance of the collective over the individual.
Those words were sincere, though. Unlike certain other managers, Klopp is reluctant to buy into the myth of his own greatness. His success is dependent on the coaches alongside him helping to shape a strategy and the players beneath him buying into it. He knows he needs help and that his style must be complemented, hence why he gravitated towards the more composed, cerebral Buvac.
Whatever happens now, Liverpool will end this campaign without two key members of staff that started it - Buvac, on leave due to ‘personal reasons’, and Pep Lijnders, formerly the coaching staff’s rising star, who left to manage in the Netherlands earlier this year. How they are replaced - if they are replaced - will have a greater bearing on future success than it might at other clubs, under different managers.