Between 2020 and 2022, two immensely talented young central midfielders were lighting up Europe. Similar in age, playing style and profile, they each had first broken into their respective teams and then gone on to become practically undroppable. They were both scoring, assisting and dictating the play, instinctively dragging fans to the edges of their seats. And they were doing this for two of Europe’s biggest and well-supported clubs – Ajax and Borussia Dortmund – playing under an intense spotlight and expectation. 

And it is at this point that the pathways of Ryan Gravenberch and Jude Bellingham have, for now,  gone down drastically different routes.

For Bellingham, an extra season in Dortmund as club captain and a fantastic World Cup with England have seen him become the most sought-after player in world football. The money being discussed to sign him this summer is enormous but fully justified for a 19-year-old who is already one of the best midfielders around and only going to get better.

Yet for 20-year-old Gravenberch, the last year has been the polar opposite. Rather than continuing to develop in an environment he knew well, he said farewell to those home comforts by packing his bags for Bavaria, being understandably tempted by the opportunity to play for Bayern Munich. Yet he has barely featured, having not started a single Bundesliga game. At the time of writing Bellingham has over 3,000 minutes of club football this season in all competitions. If he is lucky, Gravenberch might get to a third of that total. The Dutchman has subsequently also fallen well down the pecking order for the Netherlands, just when the Oranje is crying out for someone of his quality in their midfield to support Frenkie de Jong.

Until very recently, all the transfer talk has been about Bellingham. Yet as the summer window has moved ever closer, reports have started to emerge about clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United being interested in Gravenberch as a cheaper alternative. It sets the stage for a fascinating scenario in which both players, despite their contrasting recent fortunes, find their paths aligning once again as they both make pivotal decisions on the next steps in their careers. 

A recent claim by the traditionally outspoken Raphael van de Vaart that Gravenberch is even better than Bellingham is wide of the mark. Indeed, comparing the two is unfair at this stage and not really even possible due to current circumstances. However, a degree of hype about the Amsterdam man is fair. There is a reason Bayern is adamant that Gravenberch is not for sale – he is an unbelievable talent. You have to be in order to come through the famed Ajax academy to make your club debut at just 16, making him the youngest debutant in Eredivisie history, and to be the sixth youngest Dutch international when he won his first cap when still only 18. 

Fans couldn’t blame Gravenberch for leaving the Johan Cruijff ArenA but there were questions about whether he made the jump too early. Even now, former Ajax legend Marco van Basten believes a move to Liverpool would be too big for him at this stage in his career. Across two full seasons in the Ajax first team, Gravenberch placed himself firmly amongst the long tradition of excellent midfielders to have played for the club. He was vital to Erik ten Hag’s side, playing 30 plus times in consecutive league seasons, forming an effective midfield triumvirate with Edson Alvarez and one of Steven Berghuis or Davy Klaassen. Those two seasons delivered back-to-back league titles and a Dutch Cup, where he opened the scoring in the final.

Having seen Gravenberch play in the flesh – when Ajax came from behind to beat Feyenoord in March 2022 – I can vouch for him being a special player. He has been compared to Frank Rijkaard because of the way he naturally combines real skill, technique, and vision with athleticism and power. On paper, he is the prototype modern box-to-box midfielder capable of playing as a number 6, in behind as a number 10 or as a left-sided number 8. Whoever coaches him next season has a gem to work with. Need him to drop deep and dictate the play? Covered. What about springing an attack with measured through balls or driving runs? Not a problem. How about playing between the lines to link up play with deft touches and movement? More than fine. The elegance on the ball and the way he glides across the pitch doesn’t at first watch compute with someone so physically imposing. Often midfielders are categorised as goal-scorers, playmakers, or more-defensive shields. Similarly to Bellingham, Gravenberch can be all three. 

The lack of playing time at Bayern is down to the competition of being up against Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, who is sublime individually and as a partnership and play together for Germany. It has been reported that Gravenberch continues to train hard, with no signs of unprofessionalism or of any throwing toys out of the proverbial pram. Considering Bayern has not been flying at their efficient best this season, it is a mystery why he has not been given more of an opportunity. 

Although their respective paths have diverged this season, there is symmetry in how both Bellingham and Gravenberch each have a big decision to make this summer, albeit for different reasons. For Gravenberch, he must weigh up risking another season warming the bench at Bayern or making a second move in two seasons in the hope that he can kick on following that excellent start at Ajax. With Euro 2024 only a year or so away, it is a decision that could have big ramifications for the Netherlands too.

In theory, he looks ideally suited for a Premier League team. A common critique of foreign signings is that they can’t cope with the pace and physicality of English football but that would not be an issue for Gravenberch. It is also well documented that the likes of Manchester United and especially Liverpool need midfield reinforcements. There are no obvious reasons why he couldn’t also thrive at a top team in Serie A or La Liga. 

To date, Gravenberch and his representatives have stayed coy on his next move. Yet they will be fully aware of the importance of making the right decision for his development. Football waits for nobody and it would be an almighty shame if he were to end up on the scrap heap of supremely talented players who never quite delivered on their obvious potential. 

It is widely accepted that Bellingham could now walk into most teams in world football.  It is not hyperbolic to suggest that Gravenberch could one day be perceived in the same way. 

However, if that is to happen, and if Gravenberch wants to rejoin Bellingham on their parallel paths to stardom, he surely needs to move this summer. He has options. Let’s hope he picks the right one… 

Joe Baker (11 Posts)