With Serbian midfielder Marko Grujic making his return from a long-term hamstring injury, Liverpool can count on another top midfielder next season.
Grujic made his return to the field in the U23s’ 5-1 demolition of Reading at the beginning of March, ending a long spell on the sidelines to play 60 minutes in Mike Garrity’s midfield.
The 20-year-old picked up his injury in November, following his cameo role in Liverpool’s 2-0 win at home to Leeds United in the League Cup, before suffering a setback in his recovery in December.
This outing marks a milestone in Grujic’s recovery, and the midfielder can now look to re-establish himself in the first-team setup on Merseyside.
But with just three months left to go before the end of the season, Grujic’s reintroduction is more likely to come in the summer.
And his return can boost Jurgen Klopp‘s midfield options for a busy 2017/18.
Three months after Klopp’s appointment as Liverpool manager, Grujic was bestowed the honour of becoming the German’s first permanent signing at Anfield, serving as a marker of his belief in the youngster.
After signing for the Reds, he returned to his homeland to finish the season with his boyhood club and became a title winner in his first full season as a senior professional.
Red Star won the Serbian SuperLiga with an initial 28-point lead, and a 14-point lead in the play-offs, with Grujic dominant in a varied role in the middle of the park under Miodrag Bozovic.
A tall, athletic box-to-box midfielder, Grujic was nurtured with the ideal characteristics to suit Klopp’s Liverpool, as the 49-year-old attested on securing his signing last year.
“We’re very pleased because Marko is a big talent and we’ve seen him a lot of times,” he explained.
“When I came here, our scouts showed me some footage of a very skilled player from Red Star Belgrade.
“We watched it, we spoke to him, we met each other—he’s a good boy, a young boy but plays an important role at the moment at Red Star, who are the best team in Serbia.”
He was also tipped to adjust to life at Liverpool quickly by Klopp’s assistant, Peter Krawietz, who said “we are very, very optimistic.”
“He is a young player; he still has to adapt to the Premier League and our style of play,” Krawietz assessed.
“We know you need strong players and tall players—a mixture for Premier League football. He has every possibility to adapt quickly.”
Translating his Red Star dominance throughout pre-season suggested this could be a possibility in 2016/17, with Grujic capping his switch to Merseyside with a late header in the 4-0 win over Barcelona at Wembley.
But, unfortunately for Grujic, Klopp and Krawietz, his regular role in the summer was not to be a precursor to the season ahead.
A Season of Integration
Arriving as a teenager whose only previous experience came in the Serbian SuperLiga, the Premier League was always going to be a big step up for Grujic, and he needed time to adjust.
While he proved his ability during pre-season, this has been something of a false dawn so far, providing a mere glimpse of the talent that Grujic could bring to Liverpool, but not a reflection of his current influence on Merseyside.
That day, it was Grujic’s forward momentum that provided the Reds with their opener, with the 20-year-old’s driving run and shot leading to a Daniel Sturridge strike, and the midfielder’s first assist for the club.
This all-action display against Liverpool’s rivals was just what Grujic needed to get going, but injury struck just over a month later, and this ushered in a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
This certainly hampered Grujic’s progress, to an extent, but this season was always going to be about adapting to life as a young player in England, rather than making an immediate mark on the pitch.
Off the field, he looks to have fostered strong relationships throughout the squad—particularly with his fellow Balkan, Dejan Lovren—as his constant presence on social media suggests.
And while supporters are still afforded few genuine examples of unity off the pitch, Grujic has clearly settled in well.
Grujic’s layoff has also given him the opportunity to bulk up, as while he stands at 6’4″, the midfielder was relatively slim when he arrived—with his physicality needing to improve.
“I am always in the gym before training, doing some special exercises. I know how important that is,” he said in September, and as was clear against Reading, this time has been hugely productive.
Though the Reds’ £5.1 million outlay was relatively bold for an unproven talent, Klopp was aware that Grujic was a work-in-progress when he sanctioned the deal.
This is something Grujic also acknowledged when he moved to Anfield, with the midfielder claiming that “next season will be the one where I show what I can do.”
Opportunities in 2017/18
Liverpool have just 11 games to play before the end of the season, and still have a lot to play for as they clamour for a top-four finish in the Premier League.
If the Reds are to secure their all-important Champions League qualification this season, Klopp will have little room to experiment, instead likely sticking to his trusted lineup whenever possible.
This is a very different scenario to the final months of last season, when Klopp gave debuts to Danny Ward and Sergi Canos, along with regular game time for Connor Randall, Kevin Stewart, Sheyi Ojo and Jordon Ibe.
Liverpool’s peripheral figures are unlikely to be called upon much between now and May, and that could well include Grujic.
But while this could serve as a period of reflection for the likes of Stewart and Alberto Moreno, as they consider their positions before the summer transfer window, Grujic’s future is secure.
With European football likely on the agenda in 2017/18, Klopp will require more bodies—and particularly in midfield, where he could persevere with his three-man setup.
After a season of adjustment, Grujic can step into one of those roles, either as cover or, if he impresses, as a regular option, as he begins to fulfil the potential that brought him to Anfield.
It should not be forgotten how promising a talent Grujic is, and how suited he is to Klopp’s Liverpool, as he can be an invaluable player for the Reds moving forward.