In a late-window scramble of seemingly greater significance than last season—for those who have forgotten, Liverpool signed Arthur Melo on loan on deadline day a year ago only for the Brazilian to play just 13 minutes before missing the rest of the season to injury—the Reds are set to bring in a player Jürgen Klopp has wanted since last summer by signing Ryan Gravenberch from Bayern Munich for a reported £34m (€40M).
It’s a bit of a surprising move given the squad composition as things stand, but it’s also a well-known name for a surprisingly low fee and overall represents an intriguing dip into the transfer market.
Ryan Jiro Gravenberch
Central Midfielder | Bayern Munich/Holland
DOB: May 16, 2002 (21) | Height: 6’3” (190cm)
2022-23: 33 appearances (937 min) | 1g/1a
Strengths: As might be expected from not just a graduate of Ajax’s vaunted academy but winner of their Abdelhak Nouri Trofee honouring the most talented player at the academy, Ryan Gravenberch is an outstanding technician. A soft touch provides the 21-year old with tremendous close control, and when combined with convincing body feints, phenomenal balance, and quick, shifty feet, you’re left with an excellent dribbler. When you put all that on a lean 6’3 frame, you can end up with something pretty special.
Gravenberch excels at receiving the ball, often on the half turn in crowded areas, and utilising hesitation steps and false stops along with a surprisingly effective first step to pick his way past opponents and burst into the open field.
While data set restrictions apply to everything that follows—the Dutchman played less than 1,000 minutes for Bayern last year—Gravenberch was seventh among central midfielders in the Bundesliga for progressive carries per 90 minutes last season, behind the likes of Jude Bellingham, Leon Goretzka, Konrad Laimer, and Kouadiou Koné. At Ajax the year before he joined Bayern, he was second in the Eredivisie for progressive carries per 90.
When he decides to progress the ball on the ground, the 21-year old succeeds with great regularity, boasting a 57.9% dribble success rate. Only one Bundesliga player completed more dribbles at a higher rate.
When he’s not moving the ball up the pitch by carrying it, Gravenberch will display his second most impressive attribute: his passing. Legitimately two-footed, the Ajax academy graduate can just as well improvise a toe-poke through ball with his off leg as hit a 60-yard crossfield switch.
Whatever the specific technique, though, Gravenberch is always looking to progress the ball and thrives with runners ahead of him. Only two central midfielders in the Bundesliga played more successful progressive passes per 90 minutes than Gravenberch last year, and they were Joshua Kimmich and Jude Bellingham. Decent company.
These are not just progressions from midfield into the final third either, but extend all the way into the opposition’s 18-yard box. From his central midfield position, he averaged 3.44 shot-creating actions from open play passes per game, more than any other midfielder in the league. Gravenberch’s ability to either find team-mates or a lane for a shot is reflected in his expected goals and assists numbers, and his 0.3 xG+xA per 90 would place him—by a wide margin—ahead of every Liverpool midfielder not named Harvey Elliott last season.
He can get in among the goals too, but while the highlight reels will undoubtedly focus on the handful of 25-yard belters on his resume, Gravenberch has 13 just career goals in 130-odd games and does his best work when he has the chance to take the penultimate touch in an attacking sequence.
Reading the description above—and missing any context about what Liverpool’s midfield is currently in short supply of—one might assume we are talking about the Reds’ new number 10, but the fact of the matter is that Gravenberch has largely featured either as an eight in a midfield three or as part of a double pivot alongside a more defensively-minded partner, and he does do much of his best work as the connecting piece between defense and attack.
With the Reds seemingly screaming out for is somebody who can win the ball, though, many will be asking if he can he defend. On that front, it’s comforting to know that Ryan Gravenberch averaged just north of 4 tackles and interceptions per 90 last year, more than any Liverpool player other than Thiago and good for seventh among central midfielders in the Bundesliga.
The Dutchman came of age in an aggressive pressing system under Erik ten Hag, being tasked with replacing Frenkie De Jong’s production on both sides of the ball after the starlet left for Barcelona, and while last year’s numbers are both taken from a small sample size and represent a significant increase—roughly 30%—from the previous season at Ajax, there is little doubt the 21-year old knows his way around the physical side of the game and will throw himself into duels with regularity.
Finally, at a lean, athletic 6’3, Gravenberch is a considerable presence in the air. Although he’s not a factor in the box on attacking set pieces — he has taken a total of three headed shots in his career thus far — he does average a 61% win rate in aerial duels, and will make his size matter when fighting for aerial balls in the middle of the field or his own area.
Question Marks: Whenever one can pick up a player widely considered one of the five most talented and promising midfielders on the continent a year ago for a relative pittance, there are going to be question marks. Ryan Gravenberch is no exception.
Despite being tipped for great things early—Paul Pogba comparisons have followed Gravenberch for years—and putting his definitive stamp on an impressive Ajax side as a teenager, the Dutchman just couldn’t get starts for a struggling Bayern team. There may be extenuating circumstances—Mr. Social Competence Julian Nagelsmann got himself fired seven months into the season and Thomas Tuchel was tasked with cleaning up the mess rather than build for the future—but consecutive Bayern managers have looked at Gravenberch and, for whatever reason, decided he shouldn’t play.
Whether a case of a player failing to understand what is expected of him on the pitch, simply not begin good enough, or a clash of personalities is as of yet unknown, but it is certainly a factor worth keeping in mind.
Secondly, it isn’t entirely clear what the plan is with regards to putting Gravenberch on the pitch for the Reds. While he has played in a double pivot and undoubtedly can defend, he is not, and never has been, a screening player or a solo six. Putting Gravenberch at the base of a midfield three with Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai ahead of him sounds like a recipe for 5-5 draws and copious cardiac events.
It may simply be a case, then, of a supremely talented player being available at a cut rate, a so-called undervalued asset, and thus the club seeing him as representing great value for money. Saying that, though, makes it sound more like a business decision than a football move.
To put it bluntly, the Dutchman made a lot more sense as an alternative before Alexis Mac Allister was signed at the start of summer than as a signing in addition to him, and so this signing does not alleviate the feeling that the Red’s midfield is going into the season lacking in defensive steel and experience.
To go with doubts about his defensive ability, some fans have raised questions about whether Gravenberch has the mettle to press the way one is expected in a Jürgen Klopp team. In this writer’s view, the Dutchman’s limitations in this regard appear to be largely physical, as although he understands pressing triggers and happily hunts down ball carriers when they enter his zone, he simply doesn’t have the engine to do so for 90 minutes.
Finally, while his passing is largely a massive upside to his game, Gravenberch will occasionally have matches where he appears to lose form or confidence and will repeatedly overhits passes, particularly at long range, leading to blown opportunities and frustration. A more consistent long passing game would be a wonderful next development for the 21-year old. Honestly, though, this is nitpicking. The on-field product of Ryan Gravenberch is almost always hugely impressive.
Summary: The Reds have picked up one of the most talented central midfielders to come out of Europe in the past five years at a bargain cost, and yet it’s not entirely clear exactly where and how much he’s going to play. Gravenberch is a supremely gifted footballer who will undoubtedly give fans moments—if all works out, perhaps even a whole decade—of joy, but he is clearly not what Liverpool needed most to improve their starting XI at this moment in time.
He is, though, really quite good at a great many things. Hopefully the Reds as a unit will be good enough that we can enjoy that this season rather than coming to regret what he isn’t.