World Cup One to Watch: Marko Grujic - Serbia

 REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

The name might sound familiar. The sage nodding from ‘in-the-knows’ even more so. Two seasons ago, you see, Marko Grujic was a very big deal.

Jurgen Klopp’s first signing at Liverpool was an astute one. Grujic was a teenage phenomenon at Red Star Belgrade. Tall and dominant, he helped the Serbians romp to a domestic title in 2016. At 21, he seemed ready to challenge the likes of Jordan Henderson and Emre Can for a starting berth.

If Grujic was daunted by the competition then, he was buried by it this year. Gini Wijnaldum is Liverpool’s Mr. Reliable in the middle, whilst Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had reinvented himself in the position before succumbing to long-term injury. 

Exasperated by a lack of opportunity, Grujic departed for Cardiff on loan in January. 

His quality, both in the defensive and attacking spheres, was soon obvious. Grujic became an ever-present in Neil Warnock’s midfield, an energetic presence who seemed adept at whatever task he was given. 

Few eyebrows were raised when the 21-year-old was nominated for the club’s Player of the Year Award, as the Bluebirds secured automatic promotion to the Premier League. 

International Experience

Grujic barely got a look in under Slavoljub Muslin, the erstwhile coach of the national team. 

Despite finishing top of Group D in qualifying, the 64-year-old was dethroned last autumn, replaced by former Werder Bremen defender Mladen Krstajic.  

Krstajic has been far more accommodating of the youngster’s talents, granting two of his six caps in Serbia’s most recent friendlies against Morocco and Nigeria. 

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REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

At this point in time, Grujic’s future remains unclear. His parent club look well-stocked in all midfield positions, and another short-term loan could suit all parties from a sporting sense. 

If the Serb enjoys a good tournament in Russia, however, then certain economic realities will kick in. Liverpool would attract a handsome fee for a player whose path to the first team looks arduous at best. 

Their loss, perhaps, could be another club’s canny gain.

Tactical Profile

What has Mladen Krstajic seen that Muslin didn’t? 

It’s hard to point at any glaring weakness in Grujic’s game. At 6 foot 3, he is physically dominant, as imposing for his technical prowess as he is in terms of size alone. His long legs consume the grass beneath him, but an underrated technique and greedy close control make comparisons with Patrick Vieira less fanciful than they might first appear. 

However, Grujic has more pace than the Frenchman ever had, whilst he is still young enough to offer competition to new boys Naby Keita and Fabinho if given a chance at Anfield next year.

For all his merits, though, Grujic is still a work-in-progress. Whether it was a lack of match sharpness or a process of adaptation to the Championship’s rigours, he took his time in becoming an influential cog for Warnock.  

On occasion, his enthusiasm and willingness to jump-start attacks can lead to needless concessions of the ball. That might be acceptable in the lower reaches of English football, but it would be criminal in the Summer, with Serbia drawn alongside favourites Brazil and the battle-hardened Swiss. 

Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group B in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.

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