Last summer, reports suggested that Liverpool wanted to sign Ryan Gravenberch from Ajax, along with several other big clubs. Ultimately, the young Dutchman chose Bayern Munich, and Liverpool didn’t sign a midfielder until a panic loan deal for Arthur Melo on deadline day, which worked about as well as you would expect.
The club was – somewhat justifiably – criticised for their approach by fans, and so have sought to make up for that this summer by signing lots of midfielders, and in an almost perfect full-circle moment, their fourth and final one was secured on deadline day in the form of the man they tried to sign at the start of last summer.
Gravenberch has arrived at Liverpool after a frustrating year in Germany, where he made 33 appearances in all competitions but only six starts, not even amassing 1,000 minutes overall. Julian Nagelsmann and Thomas Tuchel both declined the chance to take a lengthy look at the former Ajax man, somewhat understandably opting for the experience of Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka the vast majority of the time.
Things may not have worked out for Gravenberch at Bayern, but at just 21 years old, he still has plenty of room to grow and Jürgen Klopp is one of the best in the business at helping talented players reach their potential.
Is he what Liverpool need? Well, that depends on what he’s going to be.
When we at Opta Analyst looked at potential replacements for Fabinho earlier this summer, Gravenberch’s name came up. While he has played as a number six, as we mentioned then, at Ajax it was in a double pivot, usually alongside the more defensive-minded Edson Álvarez (who has since joined West Ham). As shown below, in his final season in the Eredivisie, Gravenberch’s touch-zone map shows that he mostly drifted out to the left and was really playing more like a left-sided central midfielder.
During that campaign, Gravenberch registered 11 secondary assists (the pass before the assist for a goal) in the Eredivisie, the most of any player in the division, suggesting he could well be suited to a role as a number eight in Klopp’s system. Some may say he is a player struggling to define what he truly is, others will say it shows his versatility, but when you look at the positions he took up in just 559 minutes of Bundesliga football last season, you can perhaps see why his form was so up and down. Gravenberch was asked to play in seven different roles in that short period of time, so it’s little wonder he struggled to settle.
When you look at the positions he played for Ajax, he only featured either as a central midfielder or a defensive midfielder, flipping from the former to the latter in terms of where he predominantly played from the 2020-21 season to the 2021-22 season.
It therefore leaves it open to where Klopp might want to use him. The way the German coach altered another Dutch international, Georginio Wijnaldum, from an attacking midfielder/winger into a disciplined and controlling number eight may have tempted Gravenberch in terms of the next crucial stage of his development.
So, what is he good at? It wouldn’t be particularly fair to look at his time at Bayern in too much detail given how inconsistent almost everything about his sole season there was, though it should be noted that he won possession 9.2 times per 90 during his 24 Bundesliga outings, and attempted 3.4 dribbles per 90, while none of Kimmich, Goretzka or Marcel Sabitzer attempted more than 0.8 per 90.
It was the Gravenberch at Ajax who seduced Liverpool (and Bayern), though. He became Ajax’s youngest ever player when now Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag gave him an appearance against PSV Eindhoven in September 2018. At the age of just 16 years and 130 days, Gravenberch overtook the record of the legendary Clarence Seedorf, and Europe sat up and took notice.
After some time back at development side Jong Ajax, he played nine Eredivisie games in 2019-20, before becoming a regular under Ten Hag the following season. Gravenberch played 32 league games in 2020-21, starting all but one, recording three goals and five assists. For an 18-year-old at the time, his per-90 average of 75.3 passes at a success rate of 87.2% was impressive, as was his tackle success of 65.9%. He followed that up the following season with another two goals and five assists in the Eredivisie, but while his other numbers were a little down on his breakout season, possibly due to being played deeper, his performances in the Champions League improved markedly.
Ajax went from finishing third in their group the previous year to winning all six of their group games in 2021-22. They were eliminated by Benfica in the last 16 thanks to a goal from Gravenberch’s future teammate Darwin Núñez, but he saw his passing accuracy go up from 82.8% to 88.8%, and his tackle success shot up from 26.7% to 57.1%. It suggested that he was learning how to thrive at the elite level, which is perhaps what convinced Bayern to make their move.
On the face of it, Gravenberch currently seems more suited to the role of a number eight in Klopp’s system. He is a particularly keen ball carrier. In the 2020-21 campaign, no midfielder in the Eredivisie made as many as his 391 progressive carries, while in the 2021-22 season, of Eredivisie players who attempted at least 100 dribbles, only Luis Sinisterra had a better success rate than Gravenberch’s 63.4%.
At around 6-foot-3, you could see how he could be moulded into a number six, though it would be a huge ask to expect him to come and do that straight away. It likely means Wataru Endo will fill that role more often than not. It will be interesting to see if Gravenberch is used in a deeper role in instances when Trent Alexander-Arnold is also allowed to drift into midfield as he often made what was effectively a double pivot with Fabinho last year, meaning the Brazilian’s defensive responsibilities were essentially shared.
When you compare Gravenberch to Rodri, who joined Manchester City when he was 23 and was slowly eased in as Pep Guardiola’s regular number six, certain numbers could give Liverpool fans hope that the Dutchman can take a similar path. He only played 559 minutes in the Bundesliga last season, but as mentioned, Gravenberch won possession 9.2 times per 90, 1.0 more than Rodri in his first season at City in 2019-20, while performing 8.2 defensive actions per 90 to Rodri’s 6.4 and creating a similar number of chances (1.3 to 1.2).
That’s not to say Gravenberch will become the next Rodri – it’s a very small sample size – but there is a lot of potential there. He will need to learn how to use his tall frame a little better in aerial duels, though, winning just 0.6 per 90 last season, compared to Rodri’s 2.1 in 2019-20.
He would also need to look after the ball better, having lost possession 14.7 times per 90 last season and 15.1 times per 90 in his final year in the Eredivisie. By comparison, Fabinho lost possession 8.3 times per 90 last season, though in fairness Gravenberch was playing in higher areas that will have been more congested, and where he will have been tasked with playing more ambitious passes.
Initially, you would assume Gravenberch will be used on the left of a midfield three, likely rotating with Alexis Mac Allister and Curtis Jones, with the idea being that he keeps improving and ultimately becomes a key part of Liverpool’s new midfield. With him, Mac Allister (24), Dominik Szoboszlai (22), Jones (22), Harvey Elliott (20) and Stefan Bajcetic (18), Liverpool now have a selection of young midfielders who can grow together.
Gravenberch is moving to Liverpool because he was unhappy with his lack of football in Germany. He will expect to play games, but he also doesn’t need to be rushed. If he can fulfil the promise that up until last year had people comparing him with Jude Bellingham, the sky really will be the limit.