How does a team function without its Brain? On the eve of Liverpool’s biggest game for years, it is the biggest question being asked.
All seemed normal when Jurgen Klopp’s squad reported to Melwood on Sunday morning to go through a scheduled recovery session after the previous day’s exertions against Stoke, but the dynamic quickly changed.
Klopp gathered his players and informed them that Zeljko Buvac, his long-term confidant dubbed ‘The Brain’, would be absent for the rest of the season.
Jurgen Klopp’s ‘brother in spirit’ and No 2 walks on eve of Champions League clash with Roma
Liverpool’s manager was not agitated and explained it was a ‘private matter’; those words were reiterated several times yesterday.
Given the obstacles stacked in front of Liverpool over the next week — the second leg of their Champions League semi-final against Roma, a crucial trip to Stamford Bridge — Klopp was eager to stress this was not something that should disrupt Liverpool’s rhythm. The message was taken on board.
Buvac, 56, is respected by the squad but he does not have the kind of relationship with them that some assistant managers do in terms of being a sounding board. The dressing room has not been stripped of a big personality.
On top of that, Liverpool’s schedule has been so busy recently that they have not had time for exhaustive sessions on the pitches at Melwood.
It has been a case of ticking over, with Klopp taking the lead in terms of tactics and head of fitness Andreas Kornmayer having a key input concerning the intensity of physical sessions.
Taking all that into consideration, you may wonder why there is such focus on the departure of Buvac.
But, to put it mildly, the timing of his walk-out is extraordinary. Klopp has referred to Buvac as a ‘brother in spirit’; they have been side by side for nearly three decades.
When Fenway Sports Group approached Klopp to become Liverpool manager in October 2015, the German insisted that Buvac, a Bosnian-Serb he met as a player at Mainz, and Peter Krawietz came with him as a package. When Klopp signed a six-year contract extension the following June, so did his wingmen.
Buvac’s role in getting Klopp’s message across in the early days was crucial. He had a limited grasp of English, so he would drag players from one part of the pitch to the other to show them where they had to stand for Klopp’s tactics to work.
It was very much a two-man show. Klopp might have been the front man, with the smile and the charisma and the presence, but Buvac was executing the plans. One training session, observed by Sportsmail in Palo Alto, California, in July 2016 sticks in the mind.
Klopp had 11 players lined up in his favoured 4-3-3 formation and made them play out from the back, but as the move was building up, Buvac hollered: ‘Second ball! Second ball!’, at which point the team would switch rapidly to the opposite side of the pitch and begin playing again.
Watching Liverpool now — and the moves that have sliced many of Europe’s top teams to pieces — you can see Buvac’s fingerprints on the tactical set-up. He and Klopp worked in harmony because they were not afraid to speak their minds.
‘Everybody thought they were always in each other’s arms but no, they had big arguments,’ recalls Christian Heidel, the former Mainz sporting director, in the Klopp biography Bring The Noise. ‘Buvac is very emotional. “Kiss my ass! S***!” He’d leave the room and slam the door. Five minutes later, they would be in each other’s arms again.’
Not this time. Nobody will say whether there has been a disagreement, but something remarkable has happened for Buvac to decide he does not want to be around the first team when Liverpool could be 26 days from lifting the European Cup.
WHO’S WHO IN LIVERPOOL’S MODERN BOOT ROOM
JURGEN KLOPP — Manager and leader of the team in so many ways. He takes the responsibility for team selection, tactics and style of play.
PETER KRAWIETZ — Third member of the coaching trio who has followed Klopp from Mainz to Borussia Dortmund to Anfield. Specialises in video analysis and uses a computer at half-time in the dressing room to show key clips.
JOHN ACHTERBERG — Goalkeeping coach. The former Tranmere keeper has been on Liverpool’s backroom staff since 2009 and Klopp admires his work ethic. Had a row with Buvac during a game against Chelsea last November.
ANDREAS KORNMAYER — Brought in from Bayern Munich two summers ago, he looks uncannily like Klopp. The club’s head of fitness and conditioning has a growing influence in terms of technical preparation.
ANDREW MASSEY — Head of medicine. Arrived at Liverpool in 2013 after roles with Belfast Giants Ice Hockey Club and at the British Boxing Board of Control, among others.
One theory is Buvac has grown frustrated by a perceived dilution of his responsibilities, while Kornmayer, recruited from Bayern Munich two years ago, has been recommended to receive a new contract. Many have noticed of late that Buvac has seemed more distant.
Liverpool insist there is a chance Buvac will return to Anfield. He is still employed by the club and they are respecting the ‘private matter’ that Klopp described — but it is difficult to see how he can be reintegrated.
Loyalty is a trait in which Klopp places huge importance. If you gain Klopp’s trust, he will stand by you, regardless of any criticism raining down.
Indeed, it has often been said that he is too loyal to players at certain times.
If you lose his trust, however, the situation transforms and Klopp, privately, will be startled that 48 hours before Liverpool’s biggest game in a decade, the man to whom he has so often turned is nowhere to be seen, having left the building after Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Stoke.
There has been upheaval off the field at Anfield this season. Pepijn Lijnders, another coach, left to take charge of NEC Nijmegen in January; Andy Renshaw, the head of physiotherapy, was sacked last October.
But neither of those departures has impacted on results. Whether the same will be said further down the line of Buvac’s walk-out remains to be seen.
There is no doubt Klopp is the team’s beating heart, but will they be the same without their Brain? We can only wait and see.