Should Fading Wijnaldum Return to Face Chelsea?
Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita have felt like two sparkling new signings over the past week.
Both have done perfectly well at times throughout this season, particularly the former, but Liverpool’s last two matches have been significant for the likeable pair.
The wins over Southampton and Porto allowed the Reds to continue their winning streak, now at six victories in a row, and it was Henderson and Keita who were the biggest positives.
The skipper was left out of the trip to St Mary’s but he turned the game around with the help of James Milner in the second half, scoring his side’s third goal and flourishing in a more attacking midfield berth.
Henderson’s star showing against Saints persuaded Jurgen Klopp to start him as a No.8 for the visit of Porto and he was again a strong Man of the Match contender.
All of a sudden, we are watching the box-to-box 2013/14 and 2014/15 version of Henderson that used to earn rave reviews, rather than the divisive No.6 figure we have generally seen during Klopp’s tenure.
Then there’s Keita, who has been harshly treated in his first season at Anfield but who has also clearly underwhelmed on the whole.
The Guinean has scored in successive matches and started to purr – his first two goals for the club – looking a far more confident presence and proving influential both on and off the ball.
His header at Southampton was a vital moment in Liverpool’s season, at a time when they were toiling, while his all-round display in the 2-0 win over Porto caught the eye.
Keita is far too good a footballer not to eventually become a star on Merseyside and this is a hugely encouraging moment for him.
All of a sudden, Liverpool have Keita and Henderson full of confidence and shining alongside one another and it has given the depth of the midfield a completely different look.
There’s one problem, though: Gini Wijnaldum.
The short-termism that exists in the modern game means the Dutchman could easily be cast aside as yesterday’s man very quickly, but he has been the Reds’ best midfielder this season.
He is one of Klopp’s most trusted deputies and the tactical intelligence that he possesses makes him a key part of this Liverpool setup.
But Wijnaldum has been flagging over the last month or so, having far less effect in matches and reverting to the ghost-like figure that used to cause frustration, particularly away from home.
It is clear that a heavy workload has taken its toll on the 28-year-old more than his form deserting him, hence his omission for the Porto game.
With yet another potentially season-defining game against Chelsea on the horizon, Klopp has a big decision to make with his midfield.
While Fabinho looks a shoo-in to start, especially with the manager now seemingly altering Henderson’s role for the Premier League and Champions League run-in, selecting those who start alongside him is tough.
If you could be guaranteed that a fresh, in-your-face Wijnaldum was ready to take on the Blues, his inclusion would raise few eyebrows. But that is not the case.
The thought of one of Henderson or Keita making way, and Wijnaldum then throwing in an insipid performance that costs Liverpool dearly, is not a pleasant one.
On the flip side, it could be the kind of tactical affair between Klopp and Maurizio Sarri that ends up highlighting the void left by the Netherlands international, should he not be on the pitch.
Who’d be a manager?
Henderson looks likely to keep his place, considering the praise he has received from Klopp this week and his excellent leadership skills, making it a toss-up between Keita and Wijnaldum for the third midfield spot.
Should Keita make way, he has every right to feel hard done by, and the gut feeling is that he will miss out in favour of his more sturdy, experienced teammate.
Milner should also not be forgotten about, considering Klopp’s preference for using him in the big games. He could quite easily be drafted in.
The one slight question mark against Keita is some of his tracking off the ball and ability to snuff out danger, which occasionally caused issues at Southampton.
In what is sure to be a high-tempo affair against Chelsea, in one of Liverpool’s most pressurised Premier League games in years, could the occasion get to Keita?
It is this reason that makes Wijnaldum the favourite to return, not that that is necessarily the correct decision, should it happen.
For all of his free-flowing football and attacking mindset, Klopp is still a naturally conservative manager a lot of the time. He will know exactly what Wijnaldum can bring to the table in a match of this ilk, while Keita remains something of an unknown quantity.
The impressive form of the African superstar and Henderson have given Klopp a major selection dilemma, and the heat is now on Wijnaldum to find his best form ahead of a vital month of action.
He has become an anonymous presence in recent weeks and he cannot afford to replicate that this weekend, if he is given the nod.
The heart says stick with Keita, but the head says play it safe and select Wijnaldum, or possibly even Milner for that matter.
Klopp’s decision will only be proved right or wrong once the final whistle is blown at Anfield on Sunday – it’s a massive call.