The rumours linking Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum to Barcelona continue to circulate.
In this Sunday’s Sunday Times, Duncan Castles wrote that the Dutchman –whose contract at Anfield expires on June the 30th — has chosen to join the La Liga team and reunite with his former Netherlands national team coach, Ronald Koeman.
Whether the Nou Camp is the Reds’ number 5’s destination or he ends up plying his trade elsewhere, it now appears — with no speculation about a new deal with his current employers bandied about — that Wijnaldum is in the final months of his career with Liverpool.
Losing the 30-year-old — especially on a free transfer — will represent a blow to Jurgen Klopp, who implicitly trusts the Dutch international. Ironically, Wijnaldum’s versatility and tactical intelligence were perhaps best showcased in the Reds’ 2019 Champions League semi-final victory over what could be his next club, Barcelona.
Starting the Camp Nou fixture as a false 9, the former Newcastle man — in a game of huge magnitude — was tasked with playing in a role he had never played in Liverpool red. In the return leg, Wijnaldum — who started the game on the bench and replaced the injured Andy Robertson at half time — excelled as a box to box midfielder and scored two goals that helped the Reds forge a path to the final in an epic 4-0 win after trailing 3-0 on aggregate going into the match. That’s not to mention to occasions where he has played as a centre half — famously away to Brighton in the 17/18 season — and on the wings.
Before defensive injuries ravaged their league hope this season, the Anfield club boasted the best defence in the Premier League in the proceeding two seasons. This was achieved even when playing attacking football and encouraging their full-backs — Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold — to bomb forward. A huge part of that stubborn rearguard was the tactically savvy former Feyenoord youth system graduate, whose discipline and insightful reading of the game allowed the team to attack without exposing themselves defensively.
Such versatility, tactical knowledge and, indeed, durability — Wijnaldum has only missed 11 games in almost five years as a Liverpool player — will be hard to replace, but Klopp finds himself at a crossroads this summer.
At 30, the Dutchman isn’t getting any younger and he is in the same age bracket as Jordan Henderson, 30, Thiago, 30, and James Milner, 35, and there will have to be a point where the Reds start a new cycle and this will necessitate younger blood being drafted into the midfield.
On paper, Naby Keita, 26, Fabinho, 27, and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, 27, are well placed to be Liverpool’s go-to midfielders over the course of the next few years. However, when you consider Keita and Oxlade Chamberlain’s injury records — the duo have missed 128 games between them since joining the club, although the England international owes much of his to a cruciate ligament rupture — then maybe relying on the talented, yet injury-prone, midfielders isn’t the best course of action.
Curtis Jones, 20, looks fit to play a major role for his hometown club in the coming years but hoping for him to replace Wijnaldum — given, for one, they aren’t similar players — may be too much pressure on a young player who is only this season really establishing himself in the team.
Looking to the market to lower the average age of the midfield seems the obvious step, but whether the Reds have the financial muscle this summer to bolster their squad with high-quality additions remains to be seen, especially when they do not know whether they will play in the Champions League and benefit from that revenue stream as of yet.
So, perhaps Klopp — knowing that the world and, by extension, the transfer market will return to “normal” after the global pandemic — will lobby to offer Wijnaldum a new deal in order to bridge the gap in time and use the money it would have taken to replace the Dutch international elsewhere.
It is a tough decision, and I’m glad I’m not making it, but one thing is for certain: whether he stays or leaves, Wijnaldum will go down as a Liverpool legend.