Gini Wijnaldum‘s performances have caught the eye more than any other Liverpool midfielder this season, to the extent he is now considered a key man.
It wasn’t long ago that Wijnaldum was widely criticised for going missing away from home; he was so unnoticeable that you couldn’t even label his influence as subtle.
Too often, it felt as though he was willing to let others take responsibility and shirk it himself and a three-year wait for his maiden away Premier League goal did little to sway that opinion.
Wijnaldum has been a different prospect this season, though, with a full pre-season behind him and plenty of confidence in his game following a strong end to 2017/18.
Perhaps jolted into gear by the signings of Fabinho and Naby Keita, he has gone up a notch and Saturday’s 1-0 victory at Huddersfield Town was the latest showcasing of his talents.
Coming on at half time at the John Smith’s Stadium, the Dutchman produced an immaculate 45-minute showing, with many even singling him out as the Reds’ Man of the Match.
Slotting into the No.6 role left vacant by the injured Jordan Henderson, Wijnaldum’s presence was felt from the off, with an injection of authority immediately delivered.
He was imposing physically and slick in possession, completing 93 per cent of his passes—his average in the league this season is 91.7 per cent and he recorded 98.6 per cent against Brighton—but this was no exercise in keeping hold of the ball for the sake of it.
Wijnaldum picked the right options, received the ball well on the half-turn, a real strength of his, and generally settled a midfield that had lacked control in the first-half.
He was a far cry from the ghost-like figure who received so much flack in his first two years at Anfield, with no player enjoying as much influence in an ugly encounter with the Terriers.
Fred Rutton, Wijnaldum’s former youth team coach at PSV Eindhoven, once hailed the 27-year-old as “a true leader,” and that really shone through against David Wagner’s side.
It hadn’t been the case enough until recently.
There was an aura about him in possession, with his starring role for the Netherlands against Germany last weekend no doubt helping boost his self-esteem, having scored a slalom-like goal that echoed Steven Gerrard’s first-ever strike for Liverpool.
Dominant performances such as these have been a common occurrence in the last few months, suggesting we are in the midst of seeing the very best of him.
He is someone who has been touted for great things for many years, so this purple patch is an exciting prospect for anyone of a Reds persuasion.
Fulfilling His Potential
Wijnaldum arrived at Anfield to an almost bemused reception, with confusion surrounding how Jurgen Klopp would accommodate him and whether he was even needed.
Having often thrived in a front three or a No. 10 role at Newcastle United, during a spell that often saw him labelled as a luxury player, nobody had him pinned down as a quietly effective central midfielder.
That is exactly how Klopp used him, however, and most of his opening two seasons saw him as an effective cog in the wheel, but nothing else.
While the likes of Henderson, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and Emre Can were instantly noticeable, both for good and bad reasons, Wijnaldum knitted things together but rarely proved eye-catching.
When he was good he was excellent, but on those aforementioned quiet days he was an infuriating figure who you felt wasn’t giving his all.
At 27, and with plenty of game time at a huge club now under his belt, Wijnaldum looks to have reached a key moment in his career.
This season he is making more tackles (1.25 vs. 1.1) and blocks (0.45 vs. 0.1) per game than he managed last term (league and Champions League combined), perhaps in part due to playing a more defence-minded role, and his average passes per match in league play (49.6 vs. 38.4) also suggest a greater all-round involvement.
Singled out from his teenage years as a special talent, both in terms of technical expertise and tactical nous, he is finally threatening to reach his potential.
Best Opportunity To Shine
Such is the squad depth that Klopp has built, becoming an undisputed starter most weeks is some achievement.
Wijnaldum has often found himself on the fringes of matters since arriving in 2016, but this feels like his big chance to be one of the first two midfielders on the team-sheet.
Fabinho and Keita will continue to take time to adjust to their new surroundings, and given Klopp’s level of patience in that respect, they are unlikely to be guaranteed fixtures any time soon.
Henderson will forever divide opinion, but while those who endlessly berate him are sometimes wide of the mark, Wijnaldum is outshining him as a No.6.
Whether that is Wijnaldum’s best position is up for debate, but Liverpool have looked at their strongest with the powerful Dutchman sitting in front of the back four.
They have won all four of their Premier League matches in which he has been deployed in that role, with Saturday’s victory aided by his second-half input there.
Only Milner justifies a starting berth as much on current form, and with signs of the veteran flagging ever so slightly in the last few weeks, Wijnaldum is the Reds’ premier midfielder at this moment.
Hopefully, this doesn’t prove to be a false dawn, with these consistently authoritative displays suddenly evaporating, but he feels like a man on a mission.
A silky footballer who is pleasing on the eye, there is a substance to Wijnaldum’s game that has come to the fore in 18/19.
We have seen the more anonymous side of Wijnaldum and we have plenty of good; are we now about to see him announce himself as a top-drawer presence on a regular basis?