For a player like Mesut Özil, despite all the technical ability he possesses such as his elite ball control and dribbling ability, his vision and precise execution of passes – among many others – his career, at least whilst wearing a kit in Arsenal colours, will always be marred by fans labelling him as the player who “goes missing”, especially in big games. This still turns out to be the case even though there are other variables and factors such as Arsène Wenger’s approach to certain games, teammates not having a particular skill-set or not possessing particular strong points that can get the most out of Özil, and so on.
For Liverpool during the closing months of the 2016/17 season, Georginio “Gini” Wijnaldum has been to the Kop what Mesut Özil has been for Arsenal fans. Using stats such as passes or touches made by the Dutchman compared to other midfielders has been a norm since his level of involvement or lack thereof was noticed. The drastic change would come as a shock to some, considering that “Gini” has been dubbed as one of Liverpool’s most important players earlier in the same season, not including the goals he’s scored against big teams yet.
However, going against the social media grain, perhaps there is a reason for the sudden drop in touches made or “involvement” by Wijnaldum towards the end of the 2016/17 season, one that can only stem from having a tactical look at the team’s approach, as deployed by Jürgen Klopp, and then to zero in on the small piece of the puzzle that is Georginio Wijnaldum.
Jürgen Klopp’s Approach to Certain Games
By the second game of the season, Liverpool fans already know the mantra – Klopp’s Liverpool play marvellously against teams who look to match the side’s attacking aggression, but painfully struggle against teams who want virtually nothing to do with the ball, and have their sights set on defending deeper to facilitate counter-attacking play.
Liverpool’s last 10-15 games of the 2016/17 season consisted of teams like Leicester City, Burnley, Bournemouth, West Brom and Watford – all of whom are capable of deploying the above style that causes Liverpool to struggle. A come-and-get-us-if-you-can playing style, which consists of setting up a low block of 5 to 6 players across the box, a line of midfielders ahead of them to force sideways movement of the ball, and quick forwards to latch onto long-balls have been a norm.
To combat this, Jürgen Klopp generally looks at the following 4 key aspects.
- Allow the centre-backs (typically Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren) to control possession more in higher areas of the pitch. Since teams are sitting deeper, the two centre-backs have more of a leeway to play the controlling role rather than to utilise another midfielder for the same purpose.
- Utilise two midfielders (typically Emre Can and Lucas Leiva) as the ball recyclers. When passes are attempting to be made into the final third but to no avail, these two midfielders act as recycles who are in charge of playing the ball to the flanks, and switching play to the opposite side if need be.
- The full-backs (Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner) occupy wide areas of the pitch to put crosses into the box. Divock Origi who plays as the lone striker stays inside the box to meet crosses, while Georginio Wijnaldum moves from areas just outside the box, to areas inside the box to become the second target for crosses.
- Emre Can and Philippe Coutinho stay within close proximity to try and latch on to second balls with the option of being long(er)-range shooters where the situation allows for it. Otherwise, possession is retained and the plan reverts back to the second key aspect as mentioned above.
In theory, the approach above is one of a few viable options against teams who sit deep but when put into practice, the much-transformed Liverpool side is far from the one fans know and love. In the mix of it, one player has been a victim of tactical circumstance.
Georginio Wijnaldum’s “Disappearance” in a New System
From a tactical point of view, Wijnaldum’s lack of involvement or visibility can be somewhat explained. The current demand for him in Jürgen Klopp’s approach against teams who sit deep is drastically different to what he has done against teams who don’t. This, again, is seen in several key aspects:
- Against teams who sit deeper, opposing midfielders won’t be pushed up as much so as to maintain a narrow gap between the back-line (of 4-6 players) and the midfield line. This means that opposing midfielders won’t need to push up and press higher up the pitch, thus rendering Wijnaldum’s biggest asset in build-up play – his on-ball ability in receiving passes, turning away from defenders, and so on – somewhat useless.
- In light of a lesser degree of midfield pressure, there is a high possibility that Jürgen Klopp wants Wijnaldum to move from the midfield line into spaces between the midfielders and defenders, allowing more space in midfield areas for other midfielders (typically Emre Can and Lucas Leiva) to work with. This is why we see Wijnaldum making more runs and occupying areas between lines.
- Additionally, the easiest avenue for Liverpool to isolate wide players can be argued to be on the left wing. With Philippe Coutinho’s tendency to drive infield with the ball and attracting players to him in the process, James Milner is often isolated on the left side in order to have a higher chance of getting a cross in. He is also typically supported by Emre Can who occupies the zone of the left side of the pitch as well. When this happens, Wijnaldum looks to make the run into the box along with Origi rather than to focus on further build-up play.
- Lastly, being a target for the cross, it makes it less viable for Wijnaldum to be an option to latch on to second balls as teams who sit deeper tend to head the ball away from the box.
Taking into account all of the above – from Jürgen Klopp’s recent approach to games where the opposing team defends a lot deeper, to injuries forcing players off the pitch (especially Sadio Mané), and a drastic change in Wijnaldum’s role as well as the attacking pattern of the team – it appears that Georginio Wijnaldum hasn’t gone “missing”, per se, from a tactical viewpoint.
With that said, while there is a possible tactical explanation as to why Georginio Wijnaldum hasn’t continued to show his usually subtly good performances as seen in the earlier parts of the season, the room for improvements should also be recognised. Perhaps there is also an added effect of potential fatigue should he be tasked with dropping deep and being heavily involved in the earlier stages of build-up play before making runs into the box and challenging to meet crosses.
Regardless, with Liverpool continuing to struggle against teams who defend deeper down the pitch and this issue potentially carrying over into the 2017/18 season, Jürgen Klopp has to start experimenting ways to break down the low blocks and parked buses without compromising on the performance of certain players within the starting XI – be it Georginio Wijnaldum, or anyone else.
For further discussions on Jürgen Klopp’s approach versus teams who defend deeper down the pitch and Georginio’s Wijnaldum’s absence, have a listen to this episode of the AnfieldIndex Talking Tactics podcast, or tweet any further questions/discussion points to @LFCImpulse.