Wijnaldum seems plagued by the tag that Liverpool’s midfield has: functional—as if that word means something is missing, rather than that it literally makes the rest of the team work.
The Dutch No. 5 has been an integral cog in Klopp’s engine room, with perhaps more appreciation these days coming from within the Kop ranks that he plays a vital tactical role.
But even so, throughout the season when there’s a question over who might rotate in and out of the side, it’s sometimes Wijnaldum who is offered up for a starting 11 sacrifice without too much thought. It’s still Wijnaldum who is pointed at for no assists in a second consecutive season.
It’s still Wijnaldum, now at the end of the campaign, about who there are whispers of discontent, of replacement, of potential betterment.
That same Gini Wijnaldum missed precisely one league game this season for the champions, who were miles better than the rest of the division.
Georginio Wijnaldum, 2019/20
Started: 41 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 6
Unused sub: 1
Overall season rating: 8
Earning his way
It’s easy to overlook, but Wijnaldum hasn’t actually been first-choice for much of his time at Anfield. He has, like several other players, had to convince and continually prove his worth to Klopp—but he has one massive trait on his side: Resilience.
While others have come in and out, injured and fit, losing form and gaining it, Gini is simply ‘there’ and ready to perform to his usual standard. That might not often be the 9s and 10s, but it’s almost always better than the opposition. So he’s brought back in, plays a lot, and the cycle is repeated.
Back in 17/18 he wasn’t a guaranteed starter in midfield; he came back into the side toward the end of the season and the run to the Champions League final, but it was after injuries to first Emre Can and then Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
In 18/19, too, he was used all over the pitch, from centre-back to centre-forward, the moveable part for the boss as he can do everything and anything, without having to be in one specific part of the pitch.
It was Wijnaldum moved up front for the first leg against Barcelona, and Wijnaldum left out entirely for the second leg.
But then there’s Angry Gini, too, who made a second-half appearance off the bench back at Anfield against Messi and Co and the rest is history.
This season quickly became the opposite. This season he was Klopp’s go-to man in the middle, right from day one. The first and only Premier League game Wijnaldum didn’t start pre-corona was at Bournemouth in December.
His only two appearances off the bench came after lockdown, as the squad was juggled, rotated and allowed to regain fitness.
So he’s important, then. What does he do again? Ah yes, back to the functional midfield.
In short, they do everything to allow the other five to win matches. Liverpool’s attack is based on creativity and delivery from the channels, movement and quick exchanges in the front line, and winning the ball back so quickly everywhere that the opposition can’t do anything except wait for their beating.
Wijnaldum (and his fellow 8s) facilitate all of the above, and he excels at it.
He fills in to the left of the centre-backs, allowing a first out-ball and starting the build-up from deep at times. In turn, it also allows the full-back to push upfield, where we want them.
He later helps create that block for opposition counters, for their attempts to pass out, for closing down their own build-ups and leading to our counter-presses which are the hallmark of this title-winning team.
And, yes, he plays reasonably safe, predictable, constant passes in the middle third, doing what we do: recycling the ball centrally until those other five are in position and in possession to do what they do.
Some people hate the fact that Liverpool’s midfield don’t play a total-risk, high-octane, constantly involved, full-throttle style.
Particularly as we know Wijnaldum, in particular, is capable of doing so: he gets big goals for us, he gets regular goals for Netherlands, he’s great at the late run into the box and is decent in the air.
More could be done, so why isn’t it always? Because football matches, and specifically winning them, is about balance. Wijnaldum provides it in the way he is asked to. More could be done. More might be; it could be next season’s progression to get the midfield more involved.
And if that’s the case, Wijnaldum is already one who can provide that.
But his season has been far more about ball retention, space-filling, holding off opponents, making shuttle runs, making recovery runs and generally being a pain in the backside than it has been about scoring, creating, winning the headlines.
The midfield, with Wijnaldum at the heart of it, functions very, very well.
Next season and Wijnaldum’s future role
Well, the rumours have started already so there’s no point avoiding it—it’s unclear just where Wijnaldum will be by the time the transfer window shuts.
Some have pointed to his angry celebration after scoring against Chelsea and a few moody looks after the trophy presentation.
He has one year left on his contract and the suggestion is that he’s the one the Reds might offload to bring in an upgrade in Thiago Alcantara—but, really, it’s a wild suggestion which doesn’t seem to have entirely firm foundation, more of an exercise in logic and possibility than a reflection of reality.
While reports are conflicting over whether he’ll be offered an extension or sold and replaced, there’s no easy answer to what his role will be—but if he stays, he’ll play a whole lot of football yet again.
He’s a critical and regular part of the team and, assuming he stays and extends, the same will be true next year once again.
Best moment: Scoring against Atletico Madrid at Anfield at a time it looked like we’d continue our European adventure.
Worst moment: Not being involved for a single minute as the Reds won the Club World Cup.
Role next season: Regular starting option…but at Anfield, or elsewhere?