Anyone who has seen Liverpool play in the last year will be acutely aware of the threat posed by their first choice striking trio, while the hitherto positive additions of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker have given their oft-criticised defensive unit a much sturdier look.
Roving full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have also earned rave reviews for their stellar performances, so it is the team’s midfield which is probably the least appreciated segment of Jurgen Klopp’s starting XI. Regular observers of the Reds will know, however, that they are not exactly weak in that area, and the key to their fine start to the campaign has been the contribution of Georginio Wijnaldum.
The Dutchman will almost always be overshadowed by those around him on the pitch but ardent Liverpool supporters would readily tell you that it is his unselfish play which provides the platform for the likes of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to thrive where it counts the most. There was talk in pre-season that Wijnaldum’s place at the club could be in doubt with the additions of Fabinho and Naby Keita, along with returns to full fitness for Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana, but in the matches against West Ham and Crystal Palace, he has done a lot of unseen work in joining together Liverpool’s fluid play.
Wijnaldum v Crystal Palace
We can see from the statistics above how effective he proved at Selhurst Park on Monday night (in addition to the figures in the graph, he had 67 touches in that game) and it begs the question as to where he stands in comparison with those who are considered the market leaders in a similar role in the Premier League. Here, we look at key stats for Wijnaldum up against other defensive midfielders at top five clubs.
Ngolo Kante (Chelsea v Arsenal)
92% passing accuracy (57/62), 3 tackles, 4 key passes, 70 touches
While it’s worth noting that Kante has been deployed in a freer role by Maurizio Sarri in the early weeks of the Chelsea manager’s reign, he has been the standard-setting defensive midfielder in the Premier League over the last three seasons, so comparisons between him and Wijnaldum are fair.
The statistical takeaways from the two players’ most recent outings are remarkably similar. Although Kante narrowly edges most of the stats that we’ve picked out, it is he against whom others in his position are judged in this country, so for Wijnaldum to be more or less matching the Frenchman’s performance in these key areas is very pleasing for Liverpool fans. It also makes you wonder why he was perceived as dispensable by some observers only a month ago when Kante has been so widely (and deservedly) lauded for his contributions.
Fernandinho (Manchester City v Huddersfield)
95% passing accuracy (61/64), 1 tackle, 0 key passes, 75 touches
Like Wijnaldum, the role of Fernandinho in Manchester City’s team is frequently overlooked amidst the attacking brilliance of his team-mates ahead of him. However, some believe that the Brazilian performed even better than Kante in his position last season, and his experience proved quite valuable as, prior to April, he was one of the few players in Pep Guardiola’s squad who had already won the Premier League.
Against Huddersfield on Sunday, Fernandinho barely put a foot wrong. His pass success rate was superb, misplacing just three of 64 passes, although it was a little surprising that he was not involved in any key passes considering that the champions scored six against their beleaguered opponents. The sheer dominance of Manchester City perhaps skews Fernandinho’s stats a bit considering that Wijnaldum had a far tougher assignment at Selhurst Park the following night, but the Brazilian showed again why his unglamorous work is so vital to Guardiola’s gameplan.
Fred (Brighton v Manchester United)
92% passing accuracy (73/79), 0 tackles, 0 key passes, 97 touches
The most memorable contribution from Fred’s afternoon at the Amex Stadium on Sunday was a comical miskick which, had he actually made contact, could have sent Luke Shaw to hospital on a day when little went right for Manchester United. A closer look at the statistics from the Red Devils’ 3-2 defeat, though, suggests that the 25-year-old Brazilian was one of the team’s most assured performers against Brighton.
His pass success rate slightly exceeded that of Wijnaldum against Crystal Palace, while he had almost 50% more touches of the ball, although those statistics may be qualified by the more conservative approach adopted by Jose Mourinho’s side, as well as the duress under which a rampant Brighton put them during a lopsided first half. Rather more worrying for United fans is that this defensive midfielder did not make one tackle against the Seagulls; the closest he came was the aforementioned hack near his team-mate which went viral. It’s early days at Old Trafford for the Brazilian, though, so fairer judgement will come in the weeks and months ahead.
Eric Dier (Tottenham v Fulham)
94% passing accuracy (49/52), 0 tackles, 2 key passes, 60 touches
The 24-year-old England midfielder has had his critics over the past couple of years, but a strong showing at the World Cup has carried over into the new Premier League season and, in keeping Moussa Dembele on the bench, he clearly has plenty of credit in the bank with Mauricio Pochettino.
Dier outperformed Wijnaldum in terms of passing accuracy and key passes from their respective weekend outings, although the Dutchman made more passes overall and had slightly more touches on the ball than his Tottenham counterpart. An argument could be made that Dier has a more difficult job overall given that he is the only engine room operator in Spurs’ midfield, whereas Wijnaldum operates alongside the equally diligent James Milner and Keita in a trio.
The early signs from the 2018/19 season indicate that Fernandinho is the leading defensive midfielder in the Premier League at the moment, but Wijnaldum’s statistics are just as impressive as anyone else in that position in the league. He looks set to be a mainstay in Klopp’s first XI for the foreseeable future and, if Liverpool are to end their seven-year trophy drought in the coming months, the Dutchman’s presence in the side will have been instrumental in the Reds finally landing silverware. He’s up there with the best in his position in this league right now.