Stefan Bajcetic is a calm young man with an unflappable playing style but, all of a sudden, he seems flustered and coy.
The Spanish midfielder has been a beacon of positivity for Liverpool this season, his performances illuminated with tenacity and class. Soon we will discuss his path to Merseyside, how he almost joined Manchester United and how he received a lesson from Luka Modric.
First, though, the 18-year-old is taken back to Villa Park on Boxing Night.
Bajcetic had just scored his first Premier League goal in a 3-1 win, leaving Jurgen Klopp ecstatic; when he returned to the dressing room, the rest of Liverpool’s squad were waiting to give him a standing ovation.
He seems a little embarrassed at first. Bajcetic isn’t comfortable being the centre of attention and is happier talking about how he wears a hat when walking around the city to stop anyone recognising him.
Stefan Bajcetic has been a beacon of positivity for Liverpool in what has been a tough season
The standing ovation, though, was symbolic: it showed he had earned the squad’s trust.
‘They were so happy for me,’ Bajcetic says, now smiling at the memory. ‘It’s the same for everyone. If a new player scores, there is always a nice feeling for him and everyone supports you. It was good. It is always nice when these big players trust you.
‘When they are trouble on the pitch, they look for you to help. They will give the ball in a situation that is tough but they believe in me. It gives me a lot of confidence, definitely. They are massive players. If they trust me, it makes me feel tall. I feel good, like I’m a better player.’
Bajcetic, most certainly, is getting better and better. These are early days but he is progressing so quickly that there is talk of him being called up to represent Spain and he will certainly not look out of place should he start Sunday’s showdown, the importance of which is not lost on him.
‘It’s the English “Clasico”, no?’ says Bajcetic. ‘It’s a massive game. I have confidence but I know it is very difficult to play in the Premier League… I think I’ve been doing decent so far. I wasn’t expecting it to happen this quickly, or this early, in my life. But I am taking it – 100 per cent, I’m taking it!’
Bajcetic scored his first Premier League goal during a 3-1 win over Aston Villa in December
The Spaniard celebrates scoring his first goal in what has been a breakout campaign at Anfield
After the game, his Liverpool team-mates gave him a standing ovation in the dressing room
It’s fanciful to think he will be able to avoid autograph hunters if he continues on this trajectory. Klopp, for one, is a huge fan and has been adamant since last summer that Bajcetic had all the tools to cut it in England, his willingness to give young talent a platform never more apparent.
‘He sees me every day in training and he tells me to show my confidence,’ Bajectic explains. He likes my intensity, I think. He wants me to be intense but calm with the ball. It’s been incredible, definitely! I’m just trying to help the team and at the same time, I’m trying to learn as well.’
Liverpool announced they had signed Bajcetic from Celta Vigo – where his Serbian father, Srdan, had been a player alongside Thiago Alcantara’s dad, Mazinho, in the late 1990s – on New Year’s Eve 2020 and the deal was hurried through after it had become clear that United were ready to move.
‘I’m at Liverpool now, I’m just focusing on that and I don’t want to talk about other clubs,’ says Bajcetic, who signed a long-term deal in January that reflected his progress.
‘But when I heard that Liverpool wanted to sign me, there was nobody else to decide on. This was the only one.’
Words like that will endear him to the masses but, more so, it is the way he goes about his work that has enabled Bajcetic to be accepted so quickly, one early tackle against Wolves on Wednesday on Matheus Nunes – who Liverpool want to become a team-mate next season – lit a fire in the stands and changed the mood.
Jurgen Klopp (right) is a huge fan of the 18-year-old and has instilled his trust in him
‘When I lose the ball, I try to win it back as fast as I can,’ says Bajcetic. ‘I run and I run. I also got a yellow, which personally I didn’t think it was but there you go. I take it. When I lose the ball, I have to react as soon as I can.’
He showed in that performance what he had picked up from trying to go toe-to-toe with Modric in the fateful 5-2 defeat to Real Madrid; some youngsters would have felt disheartened after such an experience but, if anything, it has stiffened Bajcetic’s resolve.
‘You face against one of the best midfielders in the last decade and of course you learn from them,’ Bajcetic says. ‘You see them but you learn so much from playing against them. The experience from a big game is important too. Modric was special, so calm with the ball, he doesn’t feel pressure!
‘If you press him, he knows everything around him. That impressed me a lot. Hopefully, one day, I can be close to him but I don’t know! Right now, I have to keep going. The time has come to focus on United. Hopefully we can get a win.’