Amidst all of the transfer speculation across the summer, there were suggestions that Gini Wijnaldum could leave the Reds due to increasing competition in our midfield. Although at times the Dutchman can flatter to deceive, Gini is an integral part of this Liverpool squad and should be a crucial part of our midfield for the coming years. You can imagine how his teammates must love having him on their side in training – he hardly gives the ball away, regularly wins it back and has great awareness about him. ESPN’s Glenn Price also commented on Wijnaldum’s impressive engine when watching the Reds in pre-season training this summer.
– Gini Wijnaldum never stops running, shuttling side to side and up and down all the time. It's about 28 degrees in Evian today.
— Glenn Price (@GlennPrice94) August 2, 2018
Possessing theses attributes has seen him play a key part in some of Liverpool’s most impressive wins over the past couple of years especially in matches which involve ‘high transitions’ against teams such as Manchester City, Tottenham and Roma.
Wijnaldum’s reputation was further enhanced last year when captain Jordan Henderson picked up a suspension to rule him out of the second leg quarter-final against Manchester City which meant Liverpool’s number 5 was asked to play in the defensive midfield position – a role he was unfamiliar with. Having had just one game against Everton to prepare himself for the huge test that would lie ahead at the Etihad, Gini flourished, despite the team being put under severe pressure for an intense first 45 minutes. Rather fittingly it was the Dutchman who calmly retained the ball under pressure and played in Oxlade-Chamberlain to tee up Mo Salah in the second half to send the travelling Kop into jubilation. Wijnaldum demonstrated huge tactical and technical intelligence that night – recognising danger, filling gaps and instigating attacks.
The main criticism that has been labelled at the Dutchman – and rightly so – when playing in his more familiar box to box role is his inability to influence the game in an attacking sense. His ability to retain the ball and win possession back can’t be questioned but when playing in a midfield three you have to contribute to the attacking unit and far to often we have seen Gini be too passive in this aspect of his game. Last season he managed just 2 goals and 4 assists in the Premier League and Champions League combined. However, in pre-season and in the first game of this season we have seen Wijnaldum becoming much more positive in an attacking sense. Picking his moments to make penetrative runs in-behind the opposition’s midfield and back-line. The image below from the final pre-season game versus Torino is a great example of the type of runs Gini should be making more often. He recognises there is space in Torino’s left back channel and carries on his movement to exploit this weakness which results in him scoring.
Key to Klopp’s midfield is having rotation which essentially means all of the players working off of each others position. Despite operating as the deepest midfielder last Saturday, Gini was confident at making third man runs in the final third knowing one of Naby Keita or James Milner would recognise this and fill in for him. Wijnaldum appears to have increased confidence in the quality of players surrounding him which could go a long way to aiding his development into an all-round midfielder.
To be a complete midfielder you essentially have to be very good at every aspect of the game – the technical and tactical, attack, defence and transition. Gini has all the attributes for this. As mentioned he retains the ball in tight areas brilliantly, wins the ball back regularly, recognises danger and instigates attacks. The one area most would agree he needs to improve in would be contributing to attacks in the final third. James Milner largely played in a similar position to him last season and racked up an impressive 11 assists in the League and CL combined compared with Gini’s 2 goals and 4 assists. Similarly, Gini had a much lower xGBuildup90 and xGChain90 compared to his midfield compatriots last year. Jordan Henderson had the highest xGBuildup90 of the three with 0.44, followed closely by Milner at 0.43 with Wijnaldum at a lowly 0.26. It’s a similar story when we compare their xGChain90, Milner has the highest at 0.53, followed by Henderson with 0.52 and Wijnaldum way down at 0.37. What this tells us is that the Dutchman must be far more active and involved in Liverpool’s attacking phases, not merely satisfied with instigating attacks but determined to influence the play in the final third.
For me, one of Gini’s biggest strengths is that he rarely loses 1v1 battles an essential quality for all complete midfielders emphasising exactly why he is so effective in ‘high transition’ games. He won 53.5% of his total duels last year, considerably higher than Henderson and Milner’s at 42.2% and 46.5% respectively. On the handful of occasions, Klopp switched to a midfield two last season it was the Dutchman who often played, again highlighting Klopp’s belief in him as an all-round midfielder. When operating in a two there is greater emphasis on the player executing and being effective at every aspect of his game as quite often you are outnumbered in this area of the pitch, therefore, you cannot be reliant on other people doing certain aspects of your job for you. Something Gini can sometimes be found guilty of when playing in a three.
The boss now has enough quality in midfield to comfortably switch to a two-man midfield and this could benefit Wijnaldum’s development massively as he is forced to evolve and improve the weaknesses in his game in order to win the midfield battle. Should Klopp stick with his favoured three man midfield then it is us up to Gini to contribute more in the attacking third of the pitch providing greater rotation in midfield. If Wijnaldum can continue to adapt and evolve his game further then Liverpool will have another midfield beast in their squad making Gini indispensable. This is some force Jurgen Klopp is building.