Liverpool refuse to do things the easy way.
5-2 up in a Champions League semi-final ahead of the second leg, Jürgen Klopp would surely have been less restless had his side already confirmed a top four place, but alas the looming figure that is the tie in Rome seemed to provide enough distraction for Stoke to slip away with a point.
Surely, focus was in order. Then news broke that Klopp’s assistant coach – one of the two men who have followed him everywhere he’s been throughout his career – Željko Buvač, will take a leave of absence from his duties and won’t return to be Klopp’s right-hand man this season. Now, speculation is rife regarding whether he’ll be back at all.
While the circumstances may not be as turbulent as what was originally reported – Liverpool cite “personal issues” as the reason for his absence – a contingency plan is necessary if Buvač is to depart (whether that’s due to personal reasons or, as remarkably reported in Bosnia, to take over as Arsenal manager.)
Of course, Pepijn Lijnders was another coaching departure that Klopp had to stomach this season, but for very different reasons. A man who the German once described as having “such a big footballing brain” (Klopp clearly gets on well with those who appreciate the finer nuances of football), Lijnders went from being appointed Liverpool’s under-16 coach to a first-team coach in the space of a year. Liverpool poached him from Porto – where he spent seven years in roles spanning from coach of the under-sixes to a prominent first-team role. He departed Liverpool to seek experience as a first-team manager – and is likely to see his new team NEC Nijmegen promoted to Eredivisie after just half a season at the helm.
The question should be posed, then, as to why he’d leave a role as head coach of an Eredivisie team to return as an assistant?
Look into the role Željko Buvač played as Jürgen Klopp’s second, however, and the role of “the brain” becomes a vital one. Buvač was once described by Klopp as “a coaching book” and Lijnders only elevated that by calling the Bosnian a “coaching computer.” Many accredit the implementation of Klopp’s high-intensity, gegenpressing style to the training sessions and tactical plans of Buvač, having taken the ideas of Wolfgang Frank and innovated them.
Lijnders would not be returning to be a first-team development coach. He would be Klopp’s right-hand man, and potentially the German’s eventual successor.
An ideal situation would see Buvač return to his role as Klopp’s second, but should the worst occur, it should be an opportunity. Pep Guardiola takes staff with him wherever he goes, but will always adapt to tailor his domineering style to the league he’s in: Mikel Arteta has become a key figure in the Manchester City coaching setup.
The style of “total football” that managers such as Klopp and Guardiola implement often have shelf lives – Klopp’s final season at Dortmund showed that even the most inspired players can have their engines worn out. Guardiola won consecutive Bundesliga titles with Bayern, yet at the end of his tenure, many at Bayern felt a change was necessary. The same can be said for Maurizio Sarri, whose Napoli side have seemed to reach their peak, and even Arrigo Sacchi – one of the most revered innovators of “total football” – who only had a three-year stint at AC Milan, where he didn’t divert from his own stubborn belief in the perfect way to play. Sir Alex Ferguson, meanwhile, was always reacting to the environment he was in, adapting and ensuring he was always ahead of the game. The opposite could be said of Arsene Wenger.
Klopp could well benefit from someone to offer new ideas and contribute to the assortment that constitutes Klopp’s gegenpressing. Lijnders isn’t necessarily a ‘new’ name, but his footballing ideas are more than just aligned with Klopp. They’re idealistic, aesthetically pleasing to the ear, and provide a framework from which Liverpool are already working.
“Football is an extremely creative and collective game, so there are many different ways to have talent. That’s why I believe that a coach’s playing style has to be based on giving each individual the chance to reach for good limits. Talent has to work in their speciality and identity and needs to have freedom of expression to strengthen their strengths.”
“Our style is to attack, with and without the ball. We realise that the game is played with one ball, our ball, and we steal it back wherever on the pitch and we use it to attack the opponent.”
Lijnders said this as a member of Brendan Rodgers’ backroom staff, almost forecasting his future coaching colleagues. Pep’s influence can already be seen this season: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ben Woodburn and Joe Gomez have all been involved with the first team, while Harry Wilson and Sheyi Ojo have been impressing in the Championship. Lijnders once said of the way he wants to play that:
“Nobody knows what the future of football will look like; the only thing I’m sure of is that the defensive organisation of teams will be even better. They will protect the middle zone of the pitch better and defend their area better. We need to create players who can ruin this defensive organisation.”
Klopp could well be on the march to a Champions League final courtesy of three players who are ruining defensive organisation left, right and centre. Should Klopp, unfortunately, lose the cognitive power of Željko Buvač, a previous incumbent would be the perfect way to not just recover, but adapt, and keep moving forward.