David Tully2 Comments

TO HULL AND BACK: HOW LIVERPOOL STRUGGLED TO GET THE BEST OF LAZAR MARKOVIC

David Tully2 Comments
TO HULL AND BACK: HOW LIVERPOOL STRUGGLED TO GET THE BEST OF LAZAR MARKOVIC

Considering all the recent talk about Liverpool’s inability to sign a forward player in January, it’s a surprise that one such completed move almost went under the radar. Lazar Marković, still a Liverpool player, had his loan spell at Sporting Lisbon cut short, and returned to his parent club. He was back in L4 for just as long as a John W. Henry visit, before heading back out on loan again. Having now joined Hull City, this is Marković’s third temporary move since August 2015, but this is a move that’s arguably come 18 months too late.

One of his parent club’s more peculiar traits of recent times is to loan young overseas players back out to the continent. While Liverpool are content to farm their young homegrown academy players out to domestic clubs in the leagues below, their overseas contingent usually find themselves unpacking their suitcases elsewhere in Europe. This can sometimes be due to visa issues, such as in the case of Allan Rodrigues and Taiwo Awoniyi (no, me neither), but, more often than not, the Merseyside club’s young overseas players are rarely afforded the opportunity to learn their trade within the lower echelons of English football.

While this has obvious benefits - the player in question is still (it’s hoped) getting regular first-team football elsewhere - it’s still difficult to see how playing in the Belgian or Dutch leagues prepares a young player for an away trip to Plymouth in January, for example. In the case of Lazar Marković, what was required in the summer of 2015, following a desperately disappointing debut season at Liverpool, was a loan move to another Premier League team, and a chance to get to grips with the English football away from the pressure cooker that is the Anfield atmosphere.

Now, even if you were his biggest supporter, you’d have to admit that Marković disappointed in the 2014/2015 season. True, there were mitigating circumstances surrounding his perceived failure to adapt to a new environment. For one, the Liverpool team he had joined were a far cry from the previous season’s near-vintage. Having joined a team seemingly on the rise, the 2014/2015 Liverpool soon deteriorated into a disjointed, Mario Balotelli-led, mess of an outfit. It wasn’t all manager Brendan Rodgers’ fault; Suarez had rocked up at the Camp Nou, an ageing Steven Gerrard had come a bridge too far, while Daniel Sturridge had an ongoing relationship with Liverpool’s Spire hospital.

Marković started brightly enough, with a 20-minute cameo from the bench against Manchester City showing some significant promise, but he couldn’t sustain it. Around this time, he gave an ill-advised, slightly cringe-inducing interview in which he predicted that he’d be recognised as one of the best players in the Premier League by season’s end. Against this backdrop, and a £20 million fee that made him one of Liverpool’s most expensive purchases of all time, Marković was expected to deliver an awful lot more than what he was showing.

It wasn’t entirely fair. Marković was 20 years old, and few overseas players can quickly adapt to the furious hustle and bustle of the Premier League. During the first half of the season, he was not given many opportunities in his favoured position. But when he did get a run out, Marković wore that familiar startled deer-in-the-headlights expression - the one that you see from players when they realise that they underestimated the in-your-face resolve of opponents at lesser clubs. Murmurs started about his commitment, about his willingness to put his body on the line when it mattered. Marković was giving off an impression of somebody who didn’t fancy it.

Many onlookers began to declare Marković and the Premier League as being ill-suited, but in his defence, he had been dogged by niggling injuries throughout, and when he did eventually get a run of games in the first XI, it was as a right wing-back in a 3-4-2-1 system that didn’t otherwise provide a natural home for him. In fairness to Brendan Rodgers, the system did revive Liverpool at a time when they were floundering, but Marković was clearly a stopgap in the position, and he couldn’t maintain the decent-ish form he showed from January to March.

As the team’s form began to trail off in the business end of the season, so did Marković’s. During a wretched FA Cup semi-final loss to Aston Villa, he was dragged off at half-time, and he hasn’t made a competitive appearance for Liverpool since. For a player that reportedly had the club’s recruitment team high-fiving in jubilant celebration when news filtered through that he’d agreed to join the club, it had been some fall from grace.

In the summer of 2015, once it became clear that Marković was available for a temporary assignment, interest from various Premier League clubs was rumoured, but went no further. Instead, Marković found himself beginning the 2015/2016 in Turkey, plying his trade for Fenerbahçe. It can be argued that this was the wrong move for him to begin with. What surely would have benefited club and player more would have been for him to stay within English football, and have the opportunity to play in his favoured position elsewhere.

For whatever reason, be it a generous loan fee or otherwise, he instead found himself in Istanbul. His time in Turkey was mediocre; just 20 appearances, two goals, and lots of time on the treatment table. For those of us tracking his progress from afar, his most-watched clip was one where he flinched embarrassingly, and covered his face, as an angry Trabzonspor opponent hit out at him. It was an incident in keeping with the initial impressions of Marković during his debut season in English football the year previous.

In the years before he joined Liverpool, he was featured in IBWM’s “The 100” feature to a great deal of fanfare. Marković was, for those keeping tabs on world football’s next big things, quite well-known as a young player with a special talent. The obligatory YouTube highlights clips showed a flair player with a deft touch, serious pace, and an ability to pick a pass. He built this growing reputation at Partizan Belgrade, before eventually moving onto Benfica. He spent only one season in Portugal, a mistake he might regret in retrospect, before Liverpool activated a £20 million release clause in his contract and took him to Merseyside as part of a £107 million spending spree in 2014.

It might never have happened. Chelsea had, one year earlier, come to an agreement with a third-party investment group, a group that owned 50% of the rights to the player, to have an option to buy Marković for the relatively modest fee of £12.5 million. As news of Liverpool’s serious interest leaked, supporters waited for Chelsea to make their move, but José Mourinho, then in his second spell at Stamford Bridge, opted against signing him. A lot of Liverpool fans rejoiced, but the more sobering voices amongst them read a lot into Mourinho’s decision.

Two years later, after two seasons of stagnation, Marković found himself back at Melwood for pre-season training. This time, there was a new face in the manager’s chair. Having witnessed what Jürgen Klopp had done with the likes of Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, and Divock Origi, there was genuine hope that the last member of the summer 2014 contingent could revive his Liverpool career too. It didn’t really happen. In fairness to Klopp, Marković did get his chances in the friendly games, but his direct competition stood out more. The major signing of the summer, Sadio Mané, playing in the same position as Marković, was doing everything he wasn’t. Marković seemed to lack belief in his ability. It was hard to believe it was the same player that had everybody talking just a few years prior.

As ever, there was the odd flash of quality. Ever since he departed Benfica’s Estádio da Luz, there’s always been a suggestion or a hint, rather than solid evidence, that he could provide the goods. In his brief Liverpool career, he’s had a few moments; a lovely curling effort, perfectly placed from outside the box, against Bournemouth, an incredible scissor-kicked thunderbolt from 30 yards out against Sunderland that rattled the crossbar, and countless little deft passes that showed his vision.

The problem was that they remained scraps to cling onto when he was anonymous for the rest of the time. There was suggestions of homesickness in his first season and, when you look past the player, and focus on the person, here was a 20-year old boy moving to a country where he couldn’t speak the language, and, as was rumoured, had a manager in Brendan Rodgers that didn’t really want him to begin with. Marković was always going to be up against it.

His last contribution to Liverpool before he was farmed back out on loan to Sporting Lisbon in August 2016 was a lovely dinked ball over the Barcelona back-line for Marko Grujić to head up and over Claudio Bravo to complete the scoring in a 4-0 friendly win. It might yet prove to be his final contribution to Liverpool FC. After another disastrous injury-hit loan spell in Lisbon was cut short, Marković finds himself back in the Premier League in the less glamorous surroundings of Hull. His performances, albeit judging from a small sample size, are the most promising since his time at Benfica. He appears to have a manager in Marco Silva that believes in him, and, crucially, he’s getting a run of games in a position that can bring the best out of him.  Already he’s come agonizingly close to scoring the winner at Old Trafford with a sublime trick-shot, and he ran the Arsenal backline ragged more recently in a narrow defeat.


But nobody wants to be the nearly man. In a way, these nearly moments have blighted his career in recent years. But somehow there’s still a feeling about Marković - something that makes you think he’s only a change of fortune away from an upward trajectory. He’s a player that can be rightly criticized for a lack of contribution lately, but only a fool wouldn’t recognise that there’s something about the player. Whether that something can be harnessed in a way that could contribute to Liverpool Football Club is still in serious doubt. But stranger things have happened.

By David Tully. Header image credit goes fully to PANNATHORN SUKMANO

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