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Wijnaldum’s widely misunderstood role, and the sustainment of attacks

Georginio Wijnaldum is a player that divides opinion in the Liverpool fanbase despite being an integral figure for Jürgen Klopp both on the pitch and in the locker room. His future at the football club is up in the air due to a dispute in contract negotiations, with Barcelona heavily linked with the Dutchman. The uncertainty surrounding the relationship between the club and player have accelerated as a result of rumours linking Liverpool with the recent Champions League winner, Thiago Alcântara. This article aims to look at Wijnaldum in depth, and why some fans are looking at the wrong criteria when judging the player. The Spaniard, Thiago, will also be analysed as a player in relation to how he potentially fits in at Liverpool as a direct replacement for Wijnaldum.

WIJNALDUM’S ROLE

Liverpool’s midfield is notorious for its work ethic and athleticism. They’re often criticised individually for their lack of creativity, when in reality their role is a selfless contribution to the overall team. This description can be applied to all of Liverpool’s midfielders but fits none like it does Gini Wijnaldum. Gini’s game is all about staying central in the middle of the park. That sounds simple, right? Maybe it does, but Naby Keita was brought into Liverpool Football Club for 60m euros to play the same role but hasn’t been able to displace the Dutchman. Wijnaldum stays central in the second phase (the middle of the park) enabling Liverpool to do a multitude of things, all of which make the team great. In short, he’s the primary reason Liverpool’s unit is compact. The benefits of this translate to everything Liverpool are good at.

In the Super Cup at the start of the season, Chelsea caused Liverpool big problems in transitional situations. This was largely down to the absence of Gini Wijnaldum. Here we can see Milner drifting out to the left wing to try and influence proceedings. He thinks he’s helping Liverpool creatively but all he’s doing is leaving his teammates in a vulnerable position. Fabinho is totally isolated in the midfield and if a turnover occurs, the Brazilian will be outnumbered in the middle of the park. Below, we can see a situation where a turnover occurred and Liverpool’s defence and midfield is isolated and in a vulnerable defensive situation.

To the naked eye, it looks like Fabinho is a bad defensive midfielder because players are running around him easily, when in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. He’s simply outnumbered and is tasked with defending too much space. However, when Wijnaldum plays, these holes don’t appear in Liverpool’s midfield. 

Here is an example of when Liverpool give the ball away vs Southampton (1st picture). As you can see, Wijnaldum is already there to stop the counter attack, or in other words, he’s solving problems before they become one (2nd picture).

Gini’s ability to keep Liverpool’s midfield compact doesn’t only translate to defensive transitions. It’s also a necessity that he’s present in this area when Liverpool press high, otherwise the team’s depth management is poor. When Liverpool press from the front, they need players to counterpress from the front line. However, if everyone is blindly running after the ball there’s going to be space left in behind the press, leaving a midfielder isolated, or the midfield empty altogether.

However, if only one midfielder joins the press (depending on what side the ball is on), this leaves 2 midfield players in the second phase whilst the rest of the midfield, attack and fullback(s) press high. This equates to good depth management when pressing or counterpressing.

The benefits of being compact in defensive transitions and when (counter)pressing is key to how Liverpool play. Wijnaldum offers central compactness in the midfield, and the unit as a result of that, enabling Liverpool to attack, and defend, in a multitude of successful ways. All of the primary methods of scoring are centered around the press being compact, and being solid in defensive transitions. For example, Liverpool being able to win the ball back quickly from pressing results in opportunities to score in the moment the ball is won. However, if that opportunity to score isn’t readily available, the team can recycle possession and sustain attacks. The sustainment of attacks is crucial to breaking down low blocks. If the opposition can’t ‘get out’, the game becomes increasingly difficult to remain competitive in. The physical and mental toll it takes on the body and mind when defending wave after wave of attack is incredibly draining, particularly against the quality and intensity Liverpool possess. On the other hand, if a team wants to play direct against Liverpool, they firstly have to create space to play an accurate and direct pass. Secondly, and more importantly, the receiver must have sufficient time to take the ball down and play it to one of his teammates. Liverpool make both incredibly difficult to do due to the quality of the pressing and the compactness that’s present within the unit. These are the traits of the team but are all allowed due to the selflessness and the quality of the role that Gini Wijnaldum plays. To quantify Wijnaldum’s role from a statistical perspective is incredibly hard to do as it requires context, which stats themselves don’t provide. The player primarily plays an off ball role which makes the unit stronger. Wijnaldum’s role enables Liverpool to press as a unit and defend defensive transitions in a compact manner. There are no individual statistics that can quantify that, as he makes the overall team more compact. However, it’s clear that he makes the team far better from both an offensive and defensive perspective when he’s on the pitch.

This begs the question, can’t any player simply stay in the middle of the park and offer Liverpool the qualities Wijnaldum possesses? Not quite. The Dutchman is virtually impossible to dispossess when Liverpool are pressed, as seen here in the below picture in his infamous showcasing of press resistance against Barcelona. Somehow he found himself on the other side of Arthur and Busquets within a matter of a second. Wijnaldum is one of the safest players in the world vs a high press. He doesn’t try dangerous things and isn’t over-elaborate with his dribbling or passing. His sole focus is to attract a press to create space further up the pitch before either dribbling past his man, finding a player in space, or passing to somebody with a better angle to penetrate the opposition. Very few, if any, midfielders in world football can keep the ball like Gini Wijnaldum can. There are other press resistant midfielders but they possess a higher risk in the actions they take, and are rarely elite defensive players, like Gini is.   

He’s also a physical specimen who’s available every week and is as strong as an ox. The consistency in which he carries out his role is nothing short of amazing, particularly considering he used to be an extremely successful attacking player. Wijnaldum is almost never out of position. 

The criticism of Wijnaldum from Liverpool fans often falls under the microscope of his lack of ambition in possession combined with his ‘poor output’. This criteria is irrelevant when judging what he’s required to do on the pitch. The team doesn’t need him to be creative with his passing as the compactness he offers the unit is a form of creativity within itself, but that’s not easily explained to the casual fan. Judging Wijnaldum via on-ball actions is totally missing the point of his role. When judging him in the criteria of his role, he’s flawless at what he does. Besides, when Wijnaldum’s role was attacking throughout his career, he’s been nothing short of sensational output wise. For PSV, he contributed to 80 goals in 154 appearances for the club. At Newcastle, he contributed to 16 goals in 40 appearances for a club that was relegated that season. In his first season at Liverpool, when his role was to attack the box from deep, he contributed to 17 goals in 42 appearances. He also has 13 goal contributions in his last 12 appearances for the Dutch national team. These are the numbers of a world class goalscorer, let alone a midfield player. The fact that a player capable of such devastating output is content with making Liverpool better as a team whilst his individual numbers suffer speaks to the character of the man. Not only that, but his heroics against Barcelona when he was afforded an attacking role will go down in Liverpool folklore. He’s a proven goalscorer at the highest level. Wijnaldum is one of the most underappreciated players in Liverpool’s history and will be nothing short of a club legend when his time is done at the club. 

WHY KLOPP WANTS THIAGO

Thiago is a world-renowned footballer who has been the heartbeat of Bayern’s midfield for the past seven years. The Spanish international was instrumental in the club’s league and European winning campaign. Klopp has publicly praised Thiago on multiple occasions in the past few years. He praised his defensive work at Anfield last season whilst routinely complementing the ‘world class deep-lying playmaker’ throughout his time at Borussia Dortmund. 

Liverpool have a very specific system that requires a certain type of player to play in each role. Thiago fits the bill in relation to Wijnaldum’s role, except with different individual qualities. The Spaniard is similar to the Dutchman in the sense that both stay central in the second phase, which is the primary requirement of the left central midfield role for Liverpool. The position Wijnaldum is occupying in the image below is routinely where Thiago would find himself as well.

As discussed previously, his positioning is exactly what Klopp wants from his left central midfielder to keep the unit compact. Thiago isn’t quite the metronome-esque physical specimen that Wijnaldum is, but he’s still adept physically and doesn’t shy away from the physical side of the game. This is the second primary requirement for the role and albeit to a lesser standard, Thiago ticks the box for this criteria too. Thiago is also similarly press resistant and brave enough to receive vs a high press. Where the players differ is in how they aid the attack. Wijnaldum is a player that only aids the attack directly when he’s given license to attack the box from deep. When he’s allowed to do this his numbers equate to that of a top class striker, who also relishes the biggest moments. He was the hero of Liverpool’s special comeback vs Barcelona, broke the deadlock vs Atletico Madrid in the Champions League and was the reason Liverpool initially entered the Champions League with his wonder goal against Middlesborough in 2017. Thiago doesn’t possess anywhere near the goal threat of Gini Wijnaldum but is far superior in relation to passing, playmaking and creativity. Thiago is up there with the best midfielders in the world who are capable of dictating attacks from the middle of the park. His ability to circulate efficiently, play line-breaking and creative passes is nothing short of elite. This is an element of play that Liverpool don’t necessarily need from central midfield but Klopp will absolutely welcome with open arms. Any team in the world would improve with the added quality of Thiago in possession.

INJURY HISTORY AND AVAILABILITY

Georginio Wijnaldum has remarkably never been injured since his time in England. He has missed a total of 2 games since the 13/14 season, both of those games coming at his time at PSV in the 2014/15 campaign. This level of professionalism and availability is virtually unheard of, particularly considering the demands of the Premier League, let alone Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool’s heavy metal football, combined with the fact that Liverpool have played upwards of 62 games in their last 3 seasons alone. Thiago, on the other hand, is notorious for being injury prone. He missed 9 games last season, 7 the season before, 19 in 16/17, and virtually the entire season of 14/15 and 13/14. That’s 128 missed games for Thiago compared to Wijnaldum’s 0 in the same period of time. This is a big concern in such a crucial role for Liverpool, particularly considering the German campaign is shorter than the English one, meaning that he could potentially miss even more games at Liverpool through injury. Wijnaldum’s current deputy, Naby Keita, has also struggled with injuries at Liverpool, halting his pathway into the first team picture. He missed 11 games in 18/19 and 17 in the 19/20 season. If both Thiago and Keita find themselves to be injured at the same time, Liverpool have nobody to successfully play a crucial role in their system. This is a big concern for Jurgen Klopp should Thiago join the reds.

CONCLUSION

Gini Wijnaldum is one of the most underrated players in Liverpool’s history and deserves to be treated as a club legend, should he leave the club. He performs his role to a flawless standard, despite that resulting in a lack of personal recognition and significantly worse individual stats. His selflessness to do such a thing combined with the consistency and quality of the job he does on a weekly basis is nothing short of inspirational. Thiago Alacantra is a capable deputy from a qualitative perspective but there’s a much bigger risk surrounding the player, even though he fits the bill in relation to the type of player Klopp needs to replace Wijnaldum. His injury record cannot be ignored despite his world class quality. On the other hand, Liverpool haven’t signed a big name or a real first team challenging player in two seasons, so Thiago will lift the standards and keep things fresh in the dressing room whilst also being a suitable replacement for Wijnaldum, should he stay fit. The difference between the pair is there are question marks surrounding the Spaniard, whereas there isn’t a single doubt surrounding the Dutchman.

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