Signed in January 2016 as Jürgen Klopp’s first signing as Liverpool boss, Serbian central midfielder Marko Grujić has sunken into anonymity following a disappointing debut season at Anfield. Loaned out in January to Championship side Cardiff City, the promising 21-year-old hopes to recapture the attention of his employers and paint himself back into the first team picture at Liverpool.
Ever since Jürgen Klopp signed on as Liverpool manager in 2015, The Reds have seen a marked improvement in just about every area of the club — from results on the pitch to profits off the pitch. One of the most exciting changes for Liverpool fans since Klopp’s appointment has been in the transfer market.
Anyone who has followed world football over the past decade will know of Jürgen Klopp and the pulling power he has in regards to recruiting players. The charismatic German made a name for himself at Borussia Dortmund finding and developing young, untapped talent into household names — Robert Lewandowski, İlkay Gündoğan, Mats Hummels, and Marco Reus to name a few. Such a reputation, along with his world-renowned man management skills and his free-flowing, offensive footballing philosophy, makes him an extremely attractive option for any player looking to make a move in the transfer window.
So when Liverpool announced Klopp as the new man in charge at Anfield, one could imagine the extra buzz and heightened expectations around the fanbase whenever the ‘silly seasons’ of the winter and summer transfer windows opened up. Thus far, Klopp has lived up to expectations in the transfer market with marquee signings such as Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah, and Virgil Van Dijk hitting the heights in Merseyside. However, of Klopp’s 13 first team signings, 2 have question marks surrounding them — the unanswered mystery of the half-season loan of centre-back Steven Caulker from Queens Park Rangers, and the signing of young Serbian central midfielder Marko Grujić from Red Star Belgrade. Caulker was undoubtedly a failure and was a strange signing from the start of his brief stint at Liverpool, but Grujić’s future still remains up in the air.
The 21-year-old Serb was Klopp’s first signing for The Reds — officially joining the Merseysiders for about £5.1 million on a five-year deal in January 2016 before being loaned back to Red Star Belgrade for the remainder of the season. Grujić is a tall, lanky central midfielder at 6-foot-3-inches who is often compared to fellow Serbian Nemanja Matic due to similar positions and physical traits. However, such a comparison paints an inaccurate picture of the young Serb as Matic is more of a midfield destroyer who relishes the defensive side of the game as he acts as a screen for his defense and provides cover for his midfield counterparts from his defensive midfield role, while Grujić is more of a deep box-to-box midfielder who is more inclined to push forward in search of a goal and dictate the tempo as opposed to strictly sitting back and breaking up play.
The ex-Red Star man is deceptively quick and comfortable with the ball at his feet and he is not afraid to spread the field with his wide range of passing, but what stands out about the 21-year-old is his positioning and movement. The Serbian international possesses a positional sense that exceeds wide beyond his years as he always offers a safe and open option for his teammates to find, as well as often finding space inside or at the edge of the opposition area with his clever off-the-ball runs ala Frank Lampard. His natural ability to find space frequently gifts him with many opportunities to either pick out a teammate or pop a shot off at goal. Grujić, more often than not, elects for the latter and has found success a respectable number of times for a deeper-lying midfield player (6 goals in 29 appearances for Red Star in 2015/2016).
Initial Anfield Struggles
Finally arriving at Anfield following a successful final spell in Belgrade in which he would rack up 6 goals, 7 assists, a SuperLiga Team of the Year appearance, and a league title, Grujić continued his hot streak with a very impressive preseason in which he would collect 3 goals in just 5 appearances with the most notable of the bunch being a high looping header over Claudio Bravo to finish FC Barcelona off in a 4-0 demolition job.
Unfortunately, the Serb’s run of success would be cut short as an injury-filled 2016-2017 campaign would halt his development with the midfielder making only 8 appearances in all competitions — 6 of which being brief cameos off the bench. Grujić’s struggles were not allayed upon his return to health as the arrival of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the summer and the return of part-time left-back James Milner to the midfield only decreased his chances of breaking into an already competitive midfield selection.
Recognizing this, Klopp felt no choice but to loan Grujić out in order to get some first-team experience under his belt and avoid stunting the promising young Serb’s development. Championship side Cardiff City found themselves the beneficiaries of Liverpool’s midfield dilemma as they now have Grujić on loan until the end of the season.
Cardiff City Development
The Welsh side currently sits in 2nd in England’s second tier on 67 points with a healthy 4 point gap between 3rd keeping them in the automatic promotion spots. Led by serial lower division manager Neil Warnock, there was always the fear that the Englishman would either misuse or underuse the talented young midfielder given his penchant for physical ‘route-one’ football. However, Warnock alleviated such worries, assuring the media that he intends to make the most out of the talent he has been gifted:
“I think it’s a really good deal for both parties because I want to play him—that’s why I’m signing him. I’m not signing him to make the numbers up… As soon as I spoke to him I thought ‘well, you’ll do for me, you’, and I think we can be good for him… We can get him match fit. There’s a World Cup this summer, his ambition is to go to that. So if we can get him up and running it can be great for both parties… We’ve got 19 games [left] and I think hopefully he’ll play in all of them.”
The ex-Queens Park Rangers manager has since made good on his word as the Serbian has featured in 7 of the 8 games he has been available for, impressing in each of them. Stationed at the base of the midfield as the deepest of either a two or three-man unit in the middle of the park, Grujić has established himself as the solid fulcrum from which The Bluebirds can build up play from. He currently averages the second most passes per game for the South Wales side at 32.2, albeit at a fairly low 60% success rate. Losing only one game since his arrival (against Premier League champions-to-be Manchester City), Grujić has made a strong impression on the promotion-chasing side and Warnock has recently come out and praised the Liverpool loanee on his development:
“I think he’s got better. He’s not getting caught in possession as much now. He’s realizing how quick it is, especially in your own half. If you dwell on the ball in the Championship it’s too late. I think he’s got more strengths to his bow. He’s made us play a bit more, he’s got quite good vision and he’s been very good in the air for us as well so he’s growing into it.”
While not the most glamorous of sides to be loaned out to, a strong Championship side like Cardiff City is the perfect place for the 21-year-old to develop at – a disciplined, competitive side in a notoriously physically tough league under an experienced and defensively-stern manager. Klopp has previously criticized the Serbian for being too ‘lazy’ on the defensive side of the game, so playing under a tactically rigid and defense-heavy manager such as Neil Warnock is just the education that a young talent like Grujić needs — an education that the Englishman claims the young man is embracing:
“[Being with us has] toughened him up… The minimum requirement is effort because when you have ability like he has, it comes through on top… I think he’s realized that early doors and wants to stay in the team… I think he’s learning about what we want him to do,” Warnock added. “He can play different roles and we’re trying teach him those roles.”
Grujić’s future at Liverpool
Given the outstanding form Liverpool has been in of late, it is hard to imagine how such a side can improve even further, especially with the likes of Naby Keita coming in this summer. Many have pipped the Guinean to replace a likely Juventus-bound Emre Can, but, contrary to belief, Keita is an attacking midfielder — not the ‘next Kante’ that should be stationed as a 6 that much of the Liverpool fanbase falsely believe.
Should Can opt to leave in the summer, Grujić is the more natural replacement for the German midfielder. Both capable of playing in the 6 position as a holding midfielder or playing further up the field in a more advanced box-to-box role, Grujić is the obvious substitution for Can in the squad. While not as athletic as the German international, the ex-Red Star man offers a stronger aerial presence and, arguably, a greater goal threat, given his exceptional ability to time his runs into the box.
Given his progress on-loan thus far, it would not be a surprise if Klopp opted to keep the Serbian on board next season if Can were to leave. Prior to the loan move, the Liverpool boss praised Grujić saying:
“I like the boy a lot. He has made progress like hell. His heading is outstanding but he doesn’t make the squad a lot which isn’t the best thing for him for sure… I really see Marko in the future playing for Liverpool, but he’s not playing in the moment so we have to see what we can do to make it more likely that he comes through in the near future.”
It is clear the Jürgen Klopp is a big fan of young Serb, and it should come as no surprise – especially as he was his first signing in charge of The Reds. Signed at the early age of 19 from a lesser-known league coming into one of the Premier League’s premier sides, Grujić was never going to walk into Liverpool’s first team, much less their starting lineup. It was always going to be a long growing process for the Serbian international, and given Klopp’s track record with young talent, it is a process Liverpool fans should all trust in as Grujić may be the German’s next biggest pet project.