A Progress Report on Red Star Belgrade's Liverpool Loanee Marko Grujic

Jack Lusby@jacklusby_Featured ColumnistMarch 8, 2016

BELGRADE, SERBIA - JANUARY 29: Marko Grujic of FC Liverpool attends the 2015-2016 Turkish Airlines Euroleague Top 16 game between Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade and Lokomotiv Kuban at Pionir Hall on January 29, 2016 in Belgrade, Serbia.  (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)
Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

Jurgen Klopp has taken a relatively frugal approach to reinforcing his Liverpool squad ahead of the 2015/16 season, looking to emulate his success in the transfer market from his time at Borussia Dortmund, and his biggest outlay so far at the Merseyside club has been on Red Star Belgrade midfielder Marko Grujic.

Grujic signed from the Serbian SuperLiga side at the beginning of January, in a deal worth £5.1 million, and was subsequently loaned back to Red Star in order to continue his development and push for the title.

The 19-year-old will be joined by Schalke centre-back Joel Matip at Liverpool this summer, with the latter arriving on a free transfer on the expiry of his contract, and this is unlikely to be the end of Klopp's spending this summer.

While Matip is somewhat more familiar to observers of European football, Grujic remains something of an unknown—so who is the young Serbian, and what can he bring to Liverpool next season?

When Grujic signed for Liverpool, Red Star were in the middle of a midseason break, plotting to continue their season at the top of the Serbian SuperLiga.

Speaking to the club's official website on securing the deal, Klopp expressed his delight at signing a player with such high potential as Grujic, whom he explained would be arriving from "the best team in Serbia":

We're very pleased because Marko is a big talent and we’ve seen him a lot of times.

When I came here, our scouts showed me some footage of a very skilled player from Red Star Belgrade. We watched it, we spoke to him, we met each other—he’s a good boy, a young boy but plays an important role at the moment at Red Star, who are the best team in Serbia.

To describe him, I would say he’s a tall boy, but quick and good at technical things. He can play passes and can dribble. But he is young, so he has to develop.

He will do this, so everything is okay.

As Grujic travelled to Merseyside to put pen to paper, Red Star sat comfortably ahead of their Serbian rivals, 25 points clear of FK Cukaricki in second and 26 ahead of city rivals Partizan Belgrade.

BELGRADE, SERBIA - FEBRUARY 27 : Marko Grujic (L) of FK Crvena Zvezda in action against Sasa Ilic (R) of FK Partizan during the Serbian Super League match between FK Partizan and FK Crvena Zvezda at Stadium FK Partizan on February 27, 2016 in Belgrade, Se
Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

Red Star were unbeaten, with 20 wins and two draws from 22 outings, and Grujic had scored five goals and assisted a further seven in 21 appearances from his position at the heart of the midfield.

Having already qualified for the championship play-offs—with the SuperLiga similar to MLS in its two-tiered structure, splitting off the top and bottom eight sides at the end of the regular season—Red Star could enjoy the rest of the season, with Grujic well placed to continue his development at a successful side.

With Klopp promoting Grujic as a talented, all-round midfielder, the 19-year-old has sustained his progress in that vein as the SuperLiga recommenced last month.

BELGRADE, SERBIA - FEBRUARY 27 : Hugo Oliveira Vieira (TOP) and Marko Grujic (DOWN) of FK Crvena Zvezda celebrate victory after the Serbian Super League match between FK Partizan and FK Crvena Zvezda at Stadium FK Partizan on February 27, 2016 in Belgrade
Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

Red Star's midseason preparations prompted a change in emphasis from manager Miodrag Bozovic, who looked to utilise Grujic's attacking talents—particularly his ability to test the goalkeeper from long range—in a more advanced role.

This saw the 19-year-old deployed behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, shifting forward from his regular box-to-box duties in the midfield.

Taking on Lithuanian side FK Atlantas at the beginning of February, Grujic scored twice to help his side to a 2-1 victory, with both finishes coming within the penalty area after intelligent, third-man runs.

Former Liverpool football star Steven Gerrard applauds the fans after playing for Liverpool Legends against Australian Legends in an exhibition football game at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney on January 7, 2016. AFP PHOTO / Peter PARKS    IMAGE STRICTLY FOR ED
PETER PARKS/Getty Images

This performance resonated with Serbian journalist Vlastimir Stevanovic's view of Grujic, telling the Liverpool Echo's James Pearce in January that the midfielder resembles former Reds captain Steven Gerrard.

Grujic has continued in this role in the SuperLiga so far this season, deployed as Bozovic's No. 10 in three outings following the midseason break, resulting in three victories for Red Star.

This included a 2-1 win away to bitter rivals Partizan, with Red Star coming from behind to seal a priceless victory courtesy of goals from Luis Ibanez and Hugo Vieira, and while Grujic is yet to add to his tally of goals and assists in this new role, This is Anfield's Ben Twelves described the midfielder as his side's "driving force" in their latest triumph, a 3-1 win at home to FK Jagodina.

BELGRADE, SERBIA - FEBRUARY 27 : Head coach Miodrag Bozovic (L) and Aleksandar Katai (R) of FK Crvena Zvezda celebrate victory after the Serbian Super League match between FK Partizan and FK Crvena Zvezda at Stadium FK Partizan on February 27, 2016 in Bel
Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

Bozovic's use of Grujic in this new role is an intriguing shift, with the Montenegrin clearly looking to take advantage of the midfielder's power and technical ability as he pushes to finish the season unbeaten.

Grujic has continued to showcase his vast potential for Red Star in 2015/16, and perhaps most indicative of his influence is that, in 24 league appearances so far, he has completed the full 90 minutes on 20 occasions; he is one of Bozovic's most important players, despite his inexperience at senior level.

With Red Star favourites to secure the SuperLiga title this season, Grujic has enjoyed the perfect atmosphere to continue his development—but when he moves to Liverpool this summer, where will this find him?

Speaking to Serbian publication Blic (h/t the Liverpool Echo) towards the end of February, Grujic explained how Klopp's influence was the main factor behind his decision to join Liverpool, and what role the German has earmarked for him at Anfield:

Everything started with the now famous phone call from Klopp.

No-one told me that he was going to call. I was just sitting around when my phone started ringing and I saw a number on the screen starting with +44...England!

When I answered I immediately recognised that German accent and that voice. He did most of the talking and told me about the plans that he had for me.

His vision is that I should be something between a No. 6 and a No. 10. What they call a box-to-box midfielder.

My only request was that I didn’t want to be loaned out, I just want to play for Liverpool.

Klopp's personal approach in convincing Grujic to join the Reds, as well as the intervention of fellow Balkans Lazar Markovic and Dejan Lovren, highlights the bright future the 19-year-old has at Liverpool; with the former Dortmund manager eager to secure his signing, he can be expected to play a key role.

But, as Grujic suggests, this is unlikely to be as a No. 10, with the midfielder instead set to compete with the likes of Emre Can and Jordan Henderson for a place in Klopp's two-man unit in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Grujic stands at a formidable 6'4" and, combining brute force with nimble technicality, is primed for success in this box-to-box role at Liverpool.

However, while his successful season with Red Star can serve as the perfect primer for Grujic's move to Merseyside, this is no guarantee that he will adjust the Premier League immediately—as Markovic's hit-and-miss 2014/15 campaign shows.

But making steady progress at Red Star in 2015/16, Grujic can look forward to life in the first team at Liverpool.

Statistics via Transfermarkt.co.uk.


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