When Liverpool signed Georginio Wijnaldum from Newcastle in the Summer of 2016, did anyone really expect him to become Liverpool’s number six during their best start to a season in their history?
No, of course, they didn’t. And yet, here we are.
What Liverpool fans did believe they were signing was a talented, if not sometimes ethereal attacker who could also be deployed as the more reserved #10 in a midfield three – as he was deployed at PSV. The Dutchman had an impressive goal record at Newcastle – albeit with a tendency to favour the nets at St. James Park – and even captained the Eredivisie side that he helped guide to a title.
An impressive resume, and yet it’s fair to assume that not once in that lead-up to playing under Jürgen Klopp did he expect to be playing centre-half in the Premier League.
Yet here we are.
Gini Wijnaldum’s Liverpool career is a double-faceted one: he has once labelled a ghost-like presence in away matches and was widely perceived as the most anonymous facet of Liverpool’s favoured 4-3-3 system.
Except that as that system continued to evolve, and Jürgen Klopp continued to develop his side’s identity, Gini Wijnaldum was – and is – his mainstay.
In fact, he’s made more Premier League starts (60) in the previous two seasons than James Milner (52), Jordan Henderson (49) and Emre Can (50). Why? Because he does the work that doesn’t get noticed until he’s in a position where it does.
Take the recent pair of games: against Southampton, he wasn’t particularly necessary; the midfield wasn’t challenged by Saints and he was recycling possession as the front three waited for spaces to open up. Perhaps this was one of his less noticeable games, where he simply went about his business unheralded. What that performance followed, however, was a PSG midfield trying to take the game to Liverpool’s.
Wijnaldum was unfazed.
Adrien Rabiot was linked to Liverpool prior to his side’s Champions League clash with the Reds, and yet he was thoroughly outclassed by his opposite number in the middle of the park: as Wijnaldum held off any imposition that the Frenchman and his brethren could attempt, broke up play diligently, and was superb at spreading the ball quickly.
It was a performance not unlike those he’s been producing consistently, but only when the game suited that kind of player. That is where the crux lies: Klopp has built a machine that relies on the collective functioning as a whole, and some cogs in that machine are in the limelight more than others.
One of the men whose arrival threatened the position of Wijnaldum this summer: Naby Keita, is a far more noticeable cog: he’s flashier, more effective at bringing the ball forward, and more dynamic, but will perform a different role because Wijnaldum’s role in this side is unique, and clearly vital to the way Klopp wants his team to play.
It stands to reason that Wijnaldum’s influence is only properly seen when a team comes out and plays aggressively against Klopp’s Liverpool outfit: hence why he was so clearly impressive against PSG and Spurs – a game which also saw his first away goal in the Premier League.
But as Leroy Mah put in his piece for Anfield Index some months ago, that doesn’t mean his role is one that can be sacrificed when a smaller side comes to Anfield and parks the bus: it’s the intangible movements and recycling of the ball that matters in those games: traits which don’t immediately jump off the screen to a viewer. Indeed, his pass success rates (the highest of any Liverpool midfielder) over the last two seasons are 90% (2017/18) and 87% (2016/17) – he might not make the devastatingly incisive through ball, but his will be the one that leads to that pass.
“It’s important [as a No.6] that you don’t follow the ball or offer runs in behind when we have enough players to do that. We need a few reasonable persons on the pitch, if you want, and Gini has shown he can switch between both.”
Those comments followed a performance against Brighton in which Wijnaldum misplaced one of his 76 passes in the ninety minutes and was heralded as Liverpool’s best player on the day.
So, there will be days where he won’t get the plaudits, days where he doesn’t particularly stand out. But there’ll also be days like the ones seen in the last month, where Gini Wijnaldum is the most vital of cogs in Liverpool’s machine.