Football fans have a lot in common. They love to celebrate when their team wins and gloat over the fans of the team they’ve beaten. They love to big up their teams’ stars and make them sound like world beaters while bashing those that play for their rivals and who might be on their level or higher. And football fans love to hate one of their own. Now, I’m not condoning fans screaming abuse at players, but every fan has a player in their favourite team that they just don’t like quite as much as the other players. For me, that player was Georginio Wijnaldum.
The main reason that fans dislike players is if they are susceptible to poor performances, particularly when their team lose, or the player begins to dream of a move away. Just look at the hostility Liverpool fans had towards Fernando Torres when it became clear that he was not happy at the club in his last six months and the despise that several fans felt towards Loris Karius and Dejan Lovren when form deserted them in big matches. However, Gini Wijnaldum has never once fallen into this category and so the reason for my disgruntlement when he was named in Liverpool’s side must be explained.
Put quite simply it came from not understanding his role and failing to see what he bought to the side. In his first season in England for Newcastle, Wijnaldum scored 11 goals and assisted five times in the Premier League playing on either the left wing or as an attacking midfielder. Since joining Liverpool, he has played 101 times and scored only nine while assisting 16 times. Obviously, these stats are misleading as Wijnaldum now makes most of his appearances in central or defensive midfield not on the wing or as number 10 as at Newcastle, but despite this, you would hope for more in the attacking department from the Dutchman.
The key parts of the box-to-box role that Wijnaldum plays for Liverpool are being the beating heart of the team and putting his body on the line to break up play. When compared to Liverpool’s other midfielders that played a similar role to him last season, Wijnaldum falls short in both aspects. Last season Wijnaldum averaged just 46.61 passes per 90 minutes, while Jordan Henderson and James Milner averaged well above 70 passes per 90 minutes and Emre Can averaged 64.27, showing how he was failing to stamp his authority on games in the same way as others in the engine room. Combine this with the fact that Wijnaldum hadn’t suddenly been reborn as a destructive defensive midfielder only winning 0.86 tackles per 90 minutes last season compared to Henderson’s 1.29 tackles, Milner’s 1.86 tackles and Can’s 2.42 tackles, I found myself believing Wijnaldum was less a water-carrier in this Liverpool team doing the dirty work to let more talented players flourish and was simply being carried by these more talented players.
I can pinpoint the moment my opinion of Wijnaldum began to change: Wednesday the 2nd of May 2018, the second leg of the Champions League semi-final. Liverpool ended up just holding onto the league and it was Wijnaldum’s 25th-minute goal that proved to be the buffer. This isn’t the only important goal that Wijnaldum has scored for Liverpool, with goals versus Manchester City, Arsenal and the first in the top four decider against Middlesbrough in the 16/17 season coming to mind. However, I was not alone in thinking that in other games in his first season Wijnaldum went missing, the same as he struggled to control games until the Roma match last season.
Following the Roma performance, Wijnaldum went on his best run of the season playing 90 minutes in all the remaining games of the season with his worst performance coming in the Champions League final where he was still the best Liverpool midfielder as Real Madrid outclassed the Reds in all areas of the park. This is form the Dutchman has carried into this season where alongside Milner, he has become a surprising key member of Jurgen Klopp’s starting 11 and is almost undroppable at the moment, something not many would have expected when Naby Keita and Fabinho were signed in the summer.
Where to Now?
Now that Wijnaldum is a key part of the Liverpool team and has won me over, he must keep doing what he has been doing. By this, I mean he must keep imposing himself on games more. So far Wijnaldum has averaged 54.84 passes per 90 minutes, which while still not as high as other midfielders last season, is an improvement by him. This marginal increase has seen me much more impressed with his passing as he currently has a pass success rate of 92.5% while trying 3.4 long-balls in the average game. This is indicative of a deep-lying playmaker, a role that Wijnaldum seems to suit more than the box-to-box role he had last season.
This season has also seen Wijnaldum become more robust with him averaging 1.3 tackles per game. This is likely down to his more defensive role in the team however, he appears less restricted than Henderson while sitting deep with Wijnaldum often appearing more advanced than Milner and Keita, something that Henderson rarely does when playing the same role. This adds yet another dimension to Liverpool’s attack while not really weakening the defensive structure of the team and may be a key reason why Liverpool have been able to win unconvincingly in the league so far this season. While he has now nullified the hatred I had for him, I can’t see Wijnaldum remaining a key member of the starting 11 for the whole season as Liverpool’s higher quality options will eventually come to the fore, but he definitely will remain a key squad member who will bring quality when called upon and won’t be met with me cursing under my breath every time he makes an appearance.