Stefan Bajcetic has claimed one notable victory in his Liverpool career. Much to the delight of one of England’s most Euro-centric cities, the teenager has won Brexit.
On New Year’s Eve 2020, Liverpool Academy Director Alex Inglethorpe and the club’s scouting team had hours left to secure Bajcetic’s signature before the United Kingdom officially left the European Union and the Premier League implemented new rules banning player visas Under-18 overseas.
Liverpool had been in negotiations with Celta Vigo for months, only to be told in the last few days of the transfer window that there was no hope. Then they got a tip that Manchester United were about to finalize a deal.
Not for the last time Jurgen Klopp’s gazumping unit of recruitment went into overdrive to land a £240,000 transfer and, at 16, Bajcetic was the last academy signing under the old EU regulations. It may be more valuable than anyone realized.
The Spaniard was originally signed as a central defender. With every goal flying into the path of Liverpool’s flamboyant forwards in Monday’s derby win over Merseyside, and every fierce 50-50 tackle, the mature 18-year-old looked more like a symbol of Klopp’s next midfield regeneration.
Liverpool’s rebuild ahead of next season has already been fantasized by those hoping for a summer splurge, Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham envisioned swapping twos with Wolves’ Matheus Nunes in the Anfield midfield. Top-class investments will still be needed, but whatever changes he makes, Klopp sees the teenager at the heart of his plans, ready to save millions at the club.
Had Thiago Alcantara not been absent with a hip injury, Bajcetic would likely still be included against Everton after recently being picked against Jordan Henderson and Fabinho. The senior professionals would normally be expected to guide the young candidate. It could be argued that the junior partner’s energy was reviving Henderson and Fabinho on Monday.
“He is a great player. Since he started playing with us he has been our best player,” said Mohamed Salah.
The circumstances have seen him move on quickly, with Klopp encouraged by the teenager’s immediate promise last summer after being struck by his intelligence off the ball as much as he was on it.
Bajcetic already has a habit of developing Liverpool’s plans. Soon after moving to Anfield, the youth coaches decided that he was too small to be a defender in the Premier League, and they also realized that although he had the silky technique of the Spanish maestros, there was more in common by his love for a strong support of his Serbian roots. Bajcetic’s father, Srda, was a former professional.
By the time he was ready to join the Under-21s, Klopp and his assistant Pep Lijnders had decided they wanted him in the first team set-up, so he barely played. for the second series. The crisis of injuries and the loss of the types of key players that have decimated Liverpool’s midfield since the start of the season accelerated the teenager’s education.
Had Bajcetic been signed from La Liga in the summer window for a mega million pound fee, his first team performances could have been met with more enthusiastic responses from those more excited by the £50 million signings announced on deadline day. than smart markets emerge. from the junior ranks.
Bajcetic’s start to senior football – including his first Premier League goal last Boxing Day – has been a bit under the radar as he has been forced to learn on the job in a struggling team. He was free from criticism after a number of victories – not just because of his tender years – but because he was one of the few who showed passion, poise and promise amidst the carnage.
Put him next to Liverpool where everyone else is cringing and the result is the acrimony that plagued the Everton midfield that went out and tackled Arsenal a week earlier. For an 18-year-old to be man of the match in a Merseyside derby is quite an achievement. Time was maximized when Bajcetic’s substitution after 88 minutes was choreographed to ensure he got a deserved spot from the Kop.
There are some clear hints as to how highly Klopp regards the youngster. The first is how often he has picked him, handing over responsibility in what could be the manager’s most difficult period since joining Liverpool.
The second giveaway was how little the manager wanted to praise Bajcetic’s performance when invited.
“Very good,” said Klopp, mastering the understatement. “I don’t think he’s ever played in that position before. As a child he was a middle half. Then we used him as number six. Now we’ve played him as a number eight.”
From a coach who usually injects plenty of drama into his quotes, this was no headline tribute, showing just how wary experienced managers are when the hype builds around teenagers. Klopp knows that talent cannot be hidden, which is why he rewarded him with four and a half years.
In his breakthrough season, a virtuoso display against Everton felt like a breakthrough performance because of the magnitude and importance of the fixture.
Thiago’s absence means it is fair to assume that Bajcetic will start in the Champions League against Real Madrid next week.
Regardless of who comes next to bolster Liverpool’s midfield, it would be a mistake to assume Bajcetic will return to reserve status.