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Stefan Bajcetic: Liverpool's teenage star primed to take over from Fabinho in Klopp's midfield

14:00 EAT 14/10/2022
Stefan Bajcetic NXGN GFX
The 17-year-old Spain youth international has already played in the Premier League and Champions League, and looks to have a big future at Anfield

It didn't take long for Stefan Bajcetic to make his mark on Merseyside. There was little fanfare when Liverpool signed the teenager from Celta Vigo in February 2021, but Reds sources believe the deal could turn out to be one of the shrewdest the club has done in quite some time.

The 17-year-old, who plays as either a centre-back or holding midfielder, has already made an impression on Jurgen Klopp, impressing enough during pre-season to be handed his Premier League debut as a substitute against Bournemouth in August.

Since then, Bajcetic has become Liverpool's youngest-ever Champions League player, appearing off the bench against Ajax aged 17 years, 10 months and 22 days.

He is already capped at Under-19s level by Spain, and with Liverpool's midfield (surely!) set to undergo something of a revolution in the coming months and years, it is expected that Bajcetic could have a big part to play.

But who is the Reds' latest teenage prodigy? NXGN takes a closer look...

  • Where it all began

    Footballing talent clearly runs in the Bajcetic family. His father, Srdan, was a professional, a Serbian midfielder who played for the likes of Braga, Red Star Belgrade and Dalian Shide during a 12-year career.

    Bajcetic Sr. also spent three seasons with Celta, where he played alongside Mazinho, the father of Liverpool midfielder Thiago Alcantara, and it was in Vigo that Stefan was born, in October 2004.

    Celta signed him at the age of nine, having seen him playing for a local club. Alex Otero, Celta's academy co-ordinator, recalls being struck by his strength and athleticism, and believes the input and experience of his father has been key to Bajcetic's development, both as a player and as a professional.

    "His father is the clear example of how parents should act with their children when they play sports," Otero tells NXGN. "He always respects his coaches and the club, gives little but good advice to Stefan, he lets the club work and never has bad words towards anyone.

    "Without a doubt, I believe that one of the keys to Stefan's success is the good work of his father."

    Bajcetic progressed well at Celta, where he would switch between defence and midfield, impressing with his passing range, understanding of the game and what coaches describe as a "first-class" attitude.

    "He was always a high-level player," Otero, who coached him at U12 level, says. "And something very important is that he was always well liked by his team-mates and by the club's employees.

    "It was clear that he was the most impressive player in his age-group."

  • Stefan Bajcetic Liverpool 2021-22

    The big break

    Having caught the eye at Celta, and with Spain's youth teams, it was inevitable that Europe's big guns would eventually come calling.

    They did so in the winter of 2020, when Premier League clubs were keen to move before new Brexit rules, which would make it more complicated to recruit promising young overseas talent, came into force.

    Manchester United and Chelsea were among those who made pitches to Bajcetic and his family, while there was of course interest from a host of clubs in La Liga, including Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla.

    Liverpool, though, won the race. The Reds paid a fee of €250,000 (£220k/$243k) to land him, and he moved to Merseyside in February 2021.

    "The family were convinced that Liverpool is a club that looks after young men really well," Otero told The Athletic last year. "Other big clubs in Spain wanted him but they chose Liverpool for the academy system. We hoped he could be an elite player for Celta, but we understand the proposal came and Celta cannot be at that level."

    Bajcetic started out in Liverpool's U16 team, but by the end of the 2020-21 season he was a fixture in Marc Bridge-Wilkinson's U18 side, playing mainly as a central defender.

    "It was difficult to leave all my friends, my family and the place I was living for all my life," he told liverpoolfc.com in the summer. But I love the football here and it's my dream."

    It was in the following season, 2021-22, that the whispers started. "We've signed a gem," one Liverpool academy source told NXGN early in that campaign. Bajcetic was impressing on a weekly basis by that point, either in defence or at the base of midfield.

    He appeared in the UEFA Youth League against the likes of Atletico Madrid, AC Milan and Porto, and by November 2021, just a few weeks after his 17th birthday, he had been invited to train with Liverpool's first-team.

    It was there that he caught the eye of Klopp and his staff. Pep Lijnders remembers being struck by the youngster's poise and calmness.

    "Jurgen immediately said he could reach the No.6 for us," Lijnders wrote in his book, Intensity.  "I was so happy because we’d searched for a while for a talented No.6.

    "Hopefully he could fill this position one day, but he was the surprise of [that] international break. You only get seven seconds to make a first impression on whether people feel positively or negatively about you, but as a footballer it’s probably 70 minutes, so it was definitely a case of ‘Well done, Stefan!’"

  • How it's going

    Bajcetic continued to impress for Liverpool's U18s, and swiftly made the step up to Barry Lewtas' U21s while training regularly with the seniors.

    A back injury brought an early end to the 2021-22 campaign, but Klopp, Lijnders and Co. had seen enough to know they wanted him with the first-team for pre-season. Bajcetic joined fellow rookies Bobby Clark, Luke Chambers and Isaac Mabaya in the squad for the two-match tour of the Far East in July, impressing in run-outs against both Manchester United and Crystal Palace.

    He stayed with the senior squad when they returned to Europe, playing against RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg, and made his first Anfield appearance in the friendly defeat to Strasbourg on the eve of the campaign.

    With injuries biting, he was on the bench for Liverpool's first three Premier League games, and his debut would come in the fourth. He replaced Jordan Henderson for the final 20 minutes of the Reds' 9-0 thrashing of Bournemouth, walking through the mixed zone afterwards with a smile wider than the gulf between the two sides.

    His senior Champions League debut has followed since, a late cameo appearance against Ajax in September, and Bajcetic will have his eye on further first-team appearances in the coming months, especially with Liverpool's options depleted and so many of Klopp's senior players struggling for form and confidence.

  • Stefan Bajcetic Liverpool 2022-23

    Biggest strengths

    It is not hard to spot Bajcetic's strengths. Quite simply, he is just a fine footballer, who does the basics well but possesses a composure and awareness which goes way beyond his tender years.

    "He has great presence on the field," says Otero. "He turns very easily and has a great ability to go forward under pressure.

    "When he signed for Celta, the first thing I noticed was his stride. He has always had great physical ability, which will help him to stand out in modern football."

    At Kirkby, where Liverpool's first-team and academy sides are based, staff have been struck by Bajcetic's aerial ability. He is tall enough, a little over six foot, but it is his timing and aggression in the air which stands out. "The sign of a good player," as one academy source tells NXGN.

    On the ball, there is a poise and a calmness to Bajcetic's play. He stays central, bringing rhythm and tempo, but is able to break the press with a turn or first-time forward pass. Defensively, he offers protection to his centre-backs, reading the game well, picking up second balls and snapping into tackles when needed.

    "We’ve worked a lot with him in that position," says Bridge-Wilkinson, coach of Liverpool's U18s. "It’s all about attributes. Stefan is a very gifted footballer. He’s a good passer of the ball and he’s very good at winning possession back."

  • Room for improvement

    Clearly, there is still room for improvement, something Bajcetic himself is aware of.

    It takes a lot to play as a No.6 at the top level, and even more so for a coach as demanding as Klopp. Elite positional play, front-foot defending and huge physical output are musts in Liverpool's system.

    Bajcetic does not turn 18 until October 22, so there is still some development to come physically. He has already made big strides in that regard, but will get stronger, sharper and quicker through regular exposure to Klopp and his coaches.

    In terms of his on-the-ball qualities, it is about learning to play constantly, for 90 minutes at the highest intensity, making good decisions under pressure. That will come with experience, of which he should get plenty in the coming months and years.

  • Fabinho Liverpool 2022-23

    The next... Fabinho?

    Could Bajcetic become the long-term successor to Fabinho at Anfield, one wonders?

    It is a big ask, of course. Fabinho has won every honour going at Liverpool, is an established Brazil international and has proven himself to be one of the world's top defensive midfielders.

    "The way he plays, I think, is the best, and I always try to look at him and learn from him," Bajcetic has said. "It's obviously tough to play like him but I always try to look at him and learn from his positioning, his pressing and all that."

    Certainly, in terms of frame and style on the ball, there are similarities, while Bajcetic's ability to drive with the ball, and his past as a centre-back, bears comparison with someone like Declan Rice at West Ham.

    Like Rice, Bajcetic appears to have gears he can go through, stepping forward when the moment demands. His range of passing is good, and he has the intelligence and game awareness to ensure his defensive duties are not neglected.

    If he can go on to have anything like the same kind of impact, Liverpool will be very pleased.

  • Stefan Bajcetic Liverpool 2022-23

    What comes next?

    The aim for Bajcetic in the short-term is clear; to keep doing what he is doing, and make the most of whatever opportunities come his way.

    "To be honest, I just want to stay fit and be able to play games – if it's in the academy or first team," he said in the summer. "I just want to play football and stay fit because last year I was injured at the end of the season. I just want to be fit, playing and trying to impress."

    It is likely that he will focus his attention on playing as a midfielder. That is where Klopp and Lijnders see his potential, and he will have his eye on the Carabao Cup tie against Derby County in November as a potential first competitive start for the Reds.

    Beyond that, it will be interesting to see how Liverpool manage him. Would they consider, for example, a loan move to the Football League, a la Harvey Elliott?

    Tyler Morton, who featured for the first team last season, is doing well at Blackburn Rovers in the Championship, but Klopp may feel Bajcetic, who is further along in his development, would benefit more from training alongside the Reds' established stars on a daily basis. That policy worked for Trent Alexander-Arnold and Curtis Jones, and the instinct at this moment is that Bajcetic is cut from a similar cloth.