The futures of Thiago Alcantara and Georginio Wijnaldum seemed inextricably linked.
The 29-year-old midfielders, whose respective contracts at FC Bayern and Liverpool had a year left to run, were both widely expected to move on this summer.
Thiago, after signalling his intent to leave the European Champions in pursuit of a new challenge, was expected to drop anchor at Liverpool, provided Wijnaldum — who has been linked heavily to his former national team manager Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona — left the Reds.
But the Spaniard, pending official confirmation, will join the English Champions for a fee of £20,000,000 plus bonuses to partner and supplement the Dutchman and not to replace him.
According to the well-connected Simon Hughes of the Athletic, Liverpool expected Wijnaldum to stay at the club this season. Whether or not the former Newcastle man remains past that point by signing a new deal or leaves — in a move reminiscent of Emre Can joining Juventus — on a free remains to be seen, but, should he stay, the prospect of a Wijnaldum, Thiago midfield is mouth-watering.
Since the 2017/2018 season, the Dutch midfielder — whose on-field versatility has seen him cover the wide attacking, number 10 and box to box midfield roles in both the Eredivisie and Premier League with distinction — has altered his natural, free running game to become a more conservative, tactically disciplined sitting midfielder.
With the centre of creative gravity moving to Liverpool’s full-backs, Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson, it became incumbent on the Reds’ midfielders to provide the coverage and defensive solidity that would protect the team from the counter-attack.
It is easy to read between the lines and infer that — with the best defence in the Premier League for the past two seasons, as well as registering almost 50 league assists from their pair of attacking full-back — the Merseysiders engine room personnel are carrying out Jurgen Klopp’s orders to the nth degree.
But with the impending arrival of Thiago, the Reds may well change their approach and this could free up Wijnaldum to provide the midfield goal scoring thrust that he regularly provides for the Dutch national team.
In his 64 caps for the Netherlands, the former PSV and Feyenoord linchpin, has scored 18 times. Under the tutelage of Koeman, who recently left his post with the Oranje the take the Barcelona job, Wijnaldum thrived as the number 10 in a 4231 formation, with Frenkie de Jong and Marten De Roon providing the ball progression and defensive diligence in the double pivot.
With Klopp experimenting with a 4231 shape in pre-season, Liverpool have the personnel to mirror this Dutch approach.
Thiago, a superior player to De Jong — which is not to be construed as an insult to the excellent former Ajax playmaker — and Fabinho and or Jordan Henderson, players you would take over Atalanta’s De Roon, could provide the ammunition, spatial coverage and athleticism to provide the balance to allow Wijnaldum to get into the box and influence goal-scoring proceedings.
In the 16/17 season, the Reds’ newly acquired £25,000,000 signing from relegated Newcastle scored six Premier League goals and laid on nine assists. A common feature of these goals was his manipulation of space and opponents and the timing with which he attacked the box, traits that were shown in all their glory with his brace against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final of 2019.
Whether it is a target from high crosses intended to be headed, or as the third man runner latching on to through balls, Wijnaldum — as shown in both his international and club career to date — has shown he can be a consistent goal threat from midfield.
The signing of Thiago, who was thought by many to be his replacement, will likely help the bright smiling Dutchman to turn back the clock and play his more natural, attacking game.