The improbable rise to prominence of Stefan Bajcetic was, to many, the saving grace of a gloomy 2022/23 season.
The date is 29 October, 2022. Liverpool have just suffered back-to-back defeats at the hands of Nottingham Forest and Leeds United – the latter being the Reds' first home defeat in 30 games – and are paling in comparison to the team that just five months earlier were two wins away from clinching the quadruple.
The centre of Liverpool's dismal start to the season was their midfield. The club's failure to adequately invest in the centre of the park the summer prior left them bearing the brunt of a leggy, ageing midfield that simply wasn't up to the standard to compete at the top of the table.
Instead of revitalising the team with exciting talents like Aurelien Tchouameni or Jude Bellingham, the club chose to stick with the growingly tired 2018/19 tribute act for yet another season – and this time, sticking with the tried and trusted did not pay off for Jurgen Klopp.
Arise, Stefan Bajcetic.
A new star?
Bajcetic originally joined Liverpool in December 2020 at the age of 16, just before post-Brexit regulations kicked in on New Year’s Day – rules which would prevent clubs from signing overseas players under the age of 18.
Then a highly sought-after defender who could also play in midfield, Bajcetic turned down approaches from the likes of Manchester United in favour of joining Liverpool's development setup - convinced to do so by Academy director Alex Inglethorpe.
Those aware of the Spaniard's ability knew that the Reds had signed a gem. As the youth football co-ordinator at Celta Vigo, Alex Otero oversaw Bajcetic's early development, and spoke of the 'standout' qualities the teenager possessed upon his Liverpool arrival.
“It was clear he was a standout player in his age group," Otero told The Athletic in January 2021.
"He can really play and help construct attacks but he is also noticeable for his comfort with his left and right foot and the ability to play on the right or left of the centre-backs. That is quite rare.”
Bajcetic worked his way up the youth ranks for two years before bursting onto the first-team scene, earning his shot in the side amidst the club's midfield crisis.
The 18-year-old took his chance by the scruff of the neck. His energy and appetite for ball-winning were much-welcomed attributes to a then lacklustre Liverpool side, displaying a knowledge of the game far beyond his years.
Bajcetic's crowning moment came in the Merseyside derby in February. The Spaniard covered each inch of the pitch, spraying balls left and right while tormenting Everton with his unwavering commitment to recover possession.
As Reds fans left Anfield that night, astonished by the masterclass they'd just witness, many would have believed Liverpool's imminent and expected midfield rebuild would centre around one man: Stefan Bajcetic.
A new era beckoned for Liverpool, and Bajcetic looked to have an undisputed seat at the table.
And then, disaster struck.
Suffering a stress response around the adductor area in March, Bajcetic's breakout season was prematurely curtailed through injury; a gutting development for all parties as Liverpool's hopes of a miraculous top four finish took a heavy blow.
Bajcetic started his long road to recovery, hoping that upon his return, he would find his place in the starting XI reinstated.
However, as the Spaniard worked his way towards a comeback, Liverpool drew up summer plans that centred around a midfield overhaul.
In the following months, the Reds completed the signings of Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai, Wataru Endo and Ryan Gravenberch, reinforcing their ranks and giving Jurgen Klopp an enviable selection dilemma in the middle of the park – something the German manager had been severely lacking in the season just gone.
Liverpool's transfer business addressed much of what fans had been clamouring for – a departure from the stale system of old, investing in players that would bring goals to the midfield, as well as acquiring a proven 'number six'.
Investment to rejuvenate Liverpool's midfield has so far paid dividends, with the Reds enjoying a superb start to the new season, sitting pretty in third after going unbeaten in their first five games.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) February 20, 2023
New boys Mac Allister and Szoboszlai have been at the centre of Liverpool's early success, with the latter's dazzling displays earning him Liverpool's Player of the Month award for August.
This has left Bajcetic in an awkward position of limbo.
Having just returned to full fitness, the state of Liverpool's midfield ranks is unrecognisable compared to six months ago.
The level of competition has grown exponentially in that time, and despite being a certain starter prior to his injury, it's now difficult to see how the Spaniard fits into Liverpool's starting lineup.
How does he find his way back?
Bajcetic is still being eased back into the side after a long-term injury - but nevertheless, he is struggling for minutes in midfield.
He finally made his long-awaited return to the starting XI against LASK on Thursday, albeit in an unfamiliar inverted full-back role, beaten out by Gravenberch, Elliott and Endo for a place in the midfield three.
The youngster endured a difficult comeback game, struggling to deal with the responsibilities of the new role before being dragged in the 60th minute.
He did show signs of promise, in particular when he foraged into midfield, which suited him far more than the wider areas.
But overall, it wasn't Bajcetic's best outing – which was fair enough, given the circumstances.
Nonetheless, it once again raised the question of where the Spaniard fits in to this new-look Liverpool team.
The first argument would, unsurprisingly, be in midfield.
We know Bajcetic's quality, and at just 18, the sky is truly the limit.
Comparisons with Reds legend and fellow countryman Xabi Alonso are not unfounded, and if he bides his time, who's to say he won't break back into the first choice central three?
That said, considering the talent brought in during this summer's overhaul, it's a sad reality that Bajcetic has slipped down the midfield pecking order - which explains why Klopp would be keen to utilise his services in an alternative role.
Of course, Bajcetic does have experience when it comes to switching positions, successfully making the transition from centre-back to versatile midfielder, able to assume both a holding and box-to-box role.
Therefore, it may be the case that Liverpool are looking to develop the youngster as an inverted full-back, evolving him into an understudy for Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Regardless of what path Bajcetic goes down, it's pertinent to remember that this is only just the beginning for Liverpool's top wonderkid.
After six months of struggle, he's finally back in the mix and will be raring to prove that he deserves a place in Klopp's team.
Whether that be in midfield or a fresh role at the back, the Spaniard undoubtedly has the tools to make it work for himself on Merseyside.
And judging by his role against LASK, it's clear that even if there's no room in midfield, Liverpool do not want to waste the immense talents of Bajcetic.