The Wonderkid Files: Ryan Gravenberch - the Dutch prospect linked with Liverpool

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Welcome back to The Wonderkid Files – each week, we run the rule over one of the hottest young properties in the game and give you the lowdown on his strengths, weaknesses and future prospects. This week, we take a look at a player who’s endured a disappointing season at Bayern Munich but now finds himself heavily linked with a move to Liverpool – Dutch midfielder Ryan Gravenberch.

So what’s gone wrong for Gravenberch in Bavaria, and why is he so highly rated despite spending most of the season on the bench? Let’s take a deep dive into the stats and see what comes out…

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A product of Ajax’s vaunted youth academy De Toekomst – literally ‘The Future’ – Gravenberch broke through in 2018, winning the Abdelhak Nouri Trofee for the best player in the academy and making his senior debut at just 16, becoming the youngest player in Ajax’s first-team history, overtaking a record set by the great Clarence Seedorf.

He made 103 appearances over the next few seasons, scoring eight goals from midfield and drawing the attention of just about every major club in Europe – as well as making his international debut in 2021, with eleven caps and a goal against Georgia to his name so far.

Playing as part of a double pivot, typically on the left side, Gravenberch has plenty of defensive quality but really shines in terms of his use of the ball – his positional awareness and anticipation of opposing midfielders’ movement is second to none and he uses the ball incredibly well. He also carries the ball well and racks extremely good numbers in terms of both progressive passes and dribbles, receiving the ball centrally and shifting his side up the pitch quickly.

He isn’t the most positionally flexible player and isn’t the type to pop up all over the park – heat maps typically show him holding his area down and rarely straying – but he still shows great instincts in terms of linking up with wing-backs and forwards through the left-hand channels and combined with his dribbling prowess he sparks huge numbers of attacks, even if he rarely gets into the box to finish them himself. To make the point, while he has a shot on goal almost twice a game on average, the average distance of those attempts is comfortably outside the area – although his relatively high xG of 0.19 per game suggests he picks his time to strike it well. Regardless of that, he starts a lot of attacks, but is seldom the guy who finishes them.

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Such a midfielder typically needs to win the ball back well too, especially in a double pivot like the one Bayern Munich typically use – and his numbers in that area are solid but not truly spectacular. His 2.33 tackles and 1.17 interceptions per 90 this season are thoroughly respectable but pale in comparison to Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich, who offer far more in the defensive third – and that may be why he’s spent so much of this campaign warming the seats in the Bayern dugout.

Signing for Bayern last summer for an estimated €18.5m, it’s clear that he expected first-team football, but has found that harder to come by than he thought. Almost invariably used off the bench, the Dutchman has made just one league start, against 1.FC Köln, and was taken off at the halfway mark. With Goretzka, Kimmich and Alphonso Davies all ahead of him in the central midfield pecking order, he’s made it fairly clear that he’s keen on a move.

“Training and playing at the top level for a year is beautiful and instructive — although it’s mainly training,” he told Voetbal International recently. “That has to change next season, I really want to play week in, week out… We just wait and see what happens. But it’s clear that this role does not match my expectations.”

Those aren’t the words of a man who expects to endure a second season in Munich, and there are reports that a contract has already been agreed between the player and Liverpool as negotiations over a transfer continue. But is he a Jürgen Klopp kind of player, and can he flourish at Anfield?

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At first glance he may not seem a natural fit – while his ball skills and talent for recycling possession are certainly worthy of the Premier League, he isn’t an ardent presser of the ball despite his evident athleticism and doesn’t match the usual “heavy metal football” profile of Klopp’s preferred type of player. But where he could excel is the Jordan Hederson role, the ‘water carrier’, the second of a midfield three – Henderson may have an unquestionable work rate but isn’t expected to regain possession regularly and indeed his numbers for tackles and interceptions are behind Gravenberch’s.

He offers many of the same qualities that Henderson does but is far more comfortable keeping hold of the ball, making him more of a dual threat when it comes to bringing possession forward and teeing up attacks for his team-mates. On the flip side, his visually languid and sometimes nonchalant playing style have opened him up to criticism in the past, and while such critiques are often overblown, it would be a stretch to describe him as a workhorse and that always has the potential to frustrate fans when he’s on an off day.

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It’s also apparent that he won’t settle for spending too much time sat down during gametime, so any move should be made with regular action in mind – but if Klopp has already sanctioned the move, he clearly has him firmly in his plans for next season. And if he gets the minutes he needs and the role he excels in, he has the potential to be a pivotal player for the club for many years to come.

The Wonderkid Files

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