With Stefan Bajcetic sidelined for most of 2023 as he grows into his body, Leo Rutherford explores exactly what he can offer when he returns for Liverpool.
In a season that was turbulent at best for Liverpool last time out, a silver lining was discovered through the unprecedented development of a potential superstar.
Stefan Bajcetic could have been learning his trade in the red half of Manchester if it wasn’t for fears that post-Brexit visa rules would complicate the transfer.
Instead, Liverpool swooped in to take the then-17-year-old centre-back from Celta Vigo for a measly £224,000, in one of the club’s finest dealings in recent times.
The teenager impressed greatly in the academy setup as both a central defender and deep-lying midfielder with technical security on the ball beyond his youthful years – earning a fixed role in the UEFA Youth League campaign at just 17.
Outside of the coaches in Kirkby and those connected to the academy, however, not many will have foreseen the Spaniard’s rise to the world stage as the Reds’ new breakout star in midfield.
Putting the brakes on
Hailed by Mohamed Salah as the side’s “best player” in the midst of his spectacular run in the team, and “a smart kid, a really good player” by his manager, Bajcetic took little time to put his name up in lights and improve an underperforming midfield.
Five months into the current campaign, the No. 43’s solitary start so far came in September’s away win at LASK, where he featured predominantly as a right-back until a mid-game tactical switch was made.
Frustratingly, an ongoing calf issue and rehabilitation programme commitments related to his growth have halted his stellar first-team progress, as Jurgen Klopp reaffirmed the need to “put the brakes on” as a precaution.
As with the absent Thiago, there is little information about the possible timeframe of a return for the now 19-year-old, but Liverpool supporters will be expectant and excited to welcome Bajcetic back in the New Year.
The dynamic of the midfield, however, has shifted remarkably from when he departed the pitch for the final time last season in March’s defeat at Bournemouth.
Fabinho and Jordan Henderson‘s positions have been shared by the new arrivals of Alexis Mac Allister, Wataru Endo and Dominik Szoboszlai, and though there is still plenty of room for improvement, Liverpool have a strong set of options in the middle of the park.
What can Bajcetic offer to Liverpool 2.0?
What can Bajcetic actually bring to this reformed side with serious aspirations of the title? A little bit of everything, really.
The Man of the Match display in his first ever taste of the Merseyside derby in February reaffirmed his devotion to an all-round game: two chances created, 76 percent pass accuracy, 100 percent aerial duel success, seven tackles attempted and one clearance.
Despite being undeveloped physically, and still being somewhat fresh out of youth football, Bajcetic displays an aggressiveness to break up play whilst maintaining a strong reading of the game on and off the ball.
Bajcetic’s current programme in the gym and ability to manoeuvre in tight spaces would indicate a desire for the Reds to turn the Spanish youth international into something of a Gini Wijnaldum 2.0.
At his peak, contributing massively to Liverpool’s Champions League and Premier League success, Wijnaldum was a physical machine, with a freakish ability to recover possession quickly whilst being a force on the attacking side too.
The currently absent 19-year-old attracted these complimentary comparisons to the former fan favourite with his signature half-turn when receiving the ball under pressure from either Alisson or a centre-half.
Cody Gakpo reaped the rewards of this in last winter’s victory at Newcastle, when the teenager deceived Sean Longstaff in the buildup to Liverpool’s second goal to create 30 yards of open space to progress into.
Last season, this provided a very welcome boost for a predictable and out-of-tune side, as the physically declining Fabinho evidenced a loss of ability in the first phase of play which would prove to be fatal.
The sample size for the former is undoubtedly premature, with only 527 minutes of Premier League football under his belt and just over 1,000 in all competitions since the academy callup.
However, the tools and maturity which he possesses cannot be dismissed, as Liverpool remain on the hunt for solutions to a vulnerability at defending transitions.
Across the board, Bajcetic’s data in his limited minutes holds up well against the profile of player it would appear Klopp and Co. are striving to morph him into, reinforcing the belief among many that he was Liverpool’s strongest performing midfielder during his three-month spell in the team.
“I love to tackle. I love tackles!” he excitedly exclaimed in his post-match interview after a tremendous defensive display against Everton, and the ferocious side to Bajcetic’s game is certainly prevalent.
In a Liverpool shirt, he boasts a wildly impressive statistic of a 100 percent sliding tackle success rate, with all seven of them retrieving the ball for his side.
An ability to fly across the surface and make inch-perfect tackles is not only invaluable for withstanding pressure, but also infectious for Klopp and the Anfield crowd too; a 20-yard chase with Wolves‘ Matheus Nunes before swiping the ball from his feet received a standing ovation from the home crowd last year.
This iteration of Klopp’s Liverpool possesses a renewed energy and hunger to win duels and recover possession immediately, and the return of a high-spirited and determined Bajcetic would only enhance this.
The missing piece
The young Belgian possesses electrifying talent on the ball and, truthfully, could have proved to be the missing piece in the jigsaw for ‘Liverpool 2.0’.
However, the deep injury concerns for Lavia since arriving at Stamford Bridge have done little to prove that the Reds would have been better off with his services, and the logic in owning two exceptionally talented young midfielders with the same age profile, in the same role, is virtually non-existent.
* Stefan Bajcetic 2022/23 vs. Romeo Lavia 2022/23 comparison – Created using DataMB tool
As is visualised above, Lavia held a narrow advantage on the defensive end in last season’s showing, but the emerging talent already on the Liverpool books evidenced a stronger ability to progress play than many of the names said to be on their summer shopping list.
Even in a somewhat unfamiliar position, at least at first-team level, Bajcetic showcased his passing range from an inverted right-back position in the Europa League group opener, completing seven out of nine long passes including some useful diagonal switches.
From boy to man
Liverpool certainly aren’t short of effective ball-carriers in their ranks this season, with Szoboszlai, Mac Allister, Ryan Gravenberch, Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and even Endo, but another certainly wouldn’t go amiss as Klopp’s men look to fight on four fronts.
Bajcetic may not spring to mind first when March’s 7-0 thrashing of Man United is revisited, yet in just shy of 15 minutes off the bench, he completed the most dribbles out of anyone on the pitch – including the notable one against Bruno Fernandes on the touchline.
A lot has changed in the time he has spent on the sidelines – but not least for himself, with Bajcetic seeming to have shot up from his 6’1″ frame and bulked out.
The moment Bajcetic enters the Anfield turf for the first time in at least 10 months will undoubtedly be special, and hopefully a case of picking up where we left off in the development of a delightful footballer with the world at his feet.