July 24, 2024
Stefan Bajcetic: Why youngster is key to Liverpool’s midfield rebuild | Football News

No Liverpool fan would have had Stefan Bajcetic in their starting line-up at the beginning of the season, but now the midfielder is a must pick for the Reds’ huge Saturday Night Football clash at Newcastle United – we chart the 18-year-old’s rise to the first team and why he may have saved Fenway Sports Group millions in the transfer market this summer.

While Bajcetic’s man-of-the-match display in Monday’s Merseyside derby may have surprised some neutral observers, it would not have shocked his team-mates – Mohamed Salah says he has been Liverpool’s best player since breaking into the team this year – or those who have been closely monitoring the start of his Reds career.

The Spaniard joined the club from Celta Vigo’s youth academy aged 16 in February 2021 for €250,000 as Liverpool beat Manchester United to his signature, and after impressing as a centre back for the U18s and U23s, he was called up for the first team’s pre-season tour of Asia and Austria last summer.

Bajcetic – who comes from footballing stock with his dad, Srdan, having played in midfield for the likes of Celta and Red Star Belgrade – was an unused substitute in Liverpool’s Premier League opener at Fulham in August, the same month he extended his contract at Anfield, before coming off the bench to make his debut with 20 minutes to go in a 9-0 win over Bournemouth.

Other landmarks soon followed as Bajcetic became the Reds’ youngest Champions League performer after featuring against Ajax in September, while he started his first game as a holding midfielder in the League Cup third-round win over Derby County in November.

However, the Spain U18 international really made people sit up and take notice when scoring his first Reds goal in just his seventh appearance to help seal a 3-1 win at Aston Villa on Boxing Day, the third-youngest player to score for the club in the Premier League.

Stefan Bajcetic

And what a strike it was, too. Only on the pitch two minutes, Bajcetic showed quick feet in a tight space to outwit Villa’s World Cup-winning goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, before calmly rolling the ball through Tyrone Mings’ legs on the line.

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Take a look at all angles of teenager Stefan Bajcetic’s first goal for Liverpool in their victory against Aston Villa on Boxing Day.

“He’s cheeky as hell and he is not worried about anything,” was Klopp’s assessment of Bajcetic’s display that night at Villa Park. “He just plays football and he can do that exceptionally well.

“He had a football-playing father, so the genes are there, but also the attitude, awareness and match intelligence.”

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The Monday Night Football team analyse Liverpool midfielder Stefan Bajcetic’s gritty player of the match performance.

The youngster really got his chance, though, as a result of Liverpool’s struggles at the turn of the year as Klopp reacted to back-to-back league defeats at Brentford and Brighton and Hove Albion by making drastic changes in midfield.

As a result, Bajcetic – who signed a new long-term deal in January – started Liverpool’s FA Cup third-round replay victory at Wolves in mid-January, then kept his place for the visit of Chelsea a few days later as he made his first league start for the club – more than holding his own against star-studded opponents.

Stefan Bajcetic

With each passing game, his displays have grown in authority, so much so that his manager even felt confident enough to try his young charge out in an unfamiliar No 8 position against Everton following Thiago Alcantara’s hip-flexor injury in training last week.

The results were startling to see as Bajcetic took to the new role like a duck to water, with Klopp beaming when subsequently quizzed on him, no doubt thinking about the various options the versatile youngster now gives him in midfield going forward this season.

Stefan Bajcetic

“Stefan played exceptional and not because he’s 18, but because he’s exceptional,” said the German of his performance on Monday, with another positive being Fabinho’s most accomplished display in a long time, no doubt helped by having the energetic youngster alongside him.

Born in Vigo to a Serbian father and a Galician mother, Bajcetic’s mixed background may partly explain his versatility, according to Klopp.

Stefan Bajcetic

“A top player”, the Liverpool boss said in Friday’s press conference. “It’s a joy to work with him. The mix of Serbia and Spain is good for his football. He’s an intelligent boy. Interesting that his dad and Thiago’s dad (Mazinho, a 1994 World Cup winner with Brazil) played together (in Vigo). Thiago took him under his wing. An absolute joy.”

In particular, it was his all-round composure and maturity beyond his years in the red-hot atmosphere of a Merseyside derby which really meant something to both rivals that impressed the most, especially when – socks rolled down to his ankles – taking the ball under pressure in a way reminiscent of Gini Wijnaldum during his time at Anfield.

There is no doubt Liverpool have badly missed the under-rated Netherlands midfielder since his departure to Paris Saint-Germain in 2021, but looking ahead to this summer, if Bajcetic continues this rate of development, then FSG may just have saved themselves a shed load of money and the need to fill one less midfield position.

We know the Reds are set to lose the likes of James Milner, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when their contracts expire at the end of the season, while even without their exits, this season has shown Klopp that it is time to start dismantling his preferred midfield trio of the last three years: Thiago, 31, Henderson, 32 and Fabinho, 29.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Liverpool’s win against Everton in the Premier League.

Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham and Wolves’s Matheus Nunes are both reportedly on Liverpool’s midfield radar for next season – although remember the Reds currently have a sporting director who is leaving this summer, with no news on a potential successor – while Jamie Carragher has said his former club need three players in the centre of the park going forward.

The young Spaniard, though, could be that third midfielder and one who is capable of mixing a silky-smooth passing game with a touch of steel judging by his liking for a robust tackle already in his early Reds career.

That’s for later, though, now Bajcetic will just be concentrating on his next start, just the small matter of a crucial trip to Tyneside to take on fourth-placed Newcastle, who Liverpool are battling with for the final Champions League berth at what is sure to be an intimidating St James’ Park.

“It’s a joy to work with him. The mix of Serbia and Spain is good for his football. He’s an intelligent boy. Interesting that his dad and Thiago’s dad played together. Thiago took him under his wing. An absolute joy.”

Jurgen Klopp on Stefan Bajcetic

However, don’t expect the curly-haired Spaniard to be fazed by the occasion. In fact, judging by his poised post-match interview alongside Salah on Monday Night Football A year ago I was playing 18’s football and now this, it’s crazy….,” he said – it’s more likely his dad will be feeling the nerves.

Bajcetic Snr watched his son’s breakout game against Everton back home in Vigo, where he now coaches, but with the volume turned down on the TV so as to be able to fully concentrate on his display.

Saturday 18th February 5:00pm

But he will no doubt have been both proud and delighted with what he saw and with games coming up against Real Madrid, home and away in the Champions League last 16, and bitter rivals United in the Premier League, he and Liverpool’s supporters will really be able to gauge his progress and whether Klopp has solved one of his midfield problems next season.

Watch Newcastle vs Liverpool on Sky Sports Premier League on Saturday from 4.30pm; kick-off 5.30pm