Gini Wijnaldum’s influence may not jump out on the stats sheet but it is his subtle brilliance and reliability which makes him a key cog for Jurgen Klopp, and it must not be forgotten in the midst of clamour for a certain Spaniard, writes Jason Hughes.
Recent weeks and months have seen growing excitement among Liverpool fans at the prospect of Jurgen Klopp transitioning from his largely functional midfield towards a more progressive one, be it via a resurgent Naby Keita or the acquisition of Spanish playmaker Thiago.
The most likely casualty should such an ‘upgrade’ occur appears to be Gini Wijnaldum, whose contract continues to dwindle towards its end with no indications of a new one being tabled, with many seemingly viewing Gini as dispensable or upgradable.
However, while Thiago is undoubtedly a world-class midfielder who would add a different skillset to the Reds’ midfield, it should not be overlooked how Wijnaldum has quietly established himself as a crucial cog in Klopp’s all-conquering Liverpool machine.
Reliable and durable
Perhaps one of the most underrated attributes in football, Gini’s virtual ever presence in Klopp’s side demonstrates not only his remarkable resilience to injury but also the faith that the manager places in him to perform a key role in making the side tick week in, week out.
The 29-year-old has played 186 out of a possible 213 games across all competitions since his arrival in the summer of 2016 and is one of the fittest among the Reds’ squad.
Wijnaldum’s importance to the Reds is highlighted further by the fact he made 37 appearances in the Premier League last season, 35 of which were starts, racking up 2948 minutes in the process.
These numbers saw Gini comfortably rank as Liverpool’s most relied upon midfielder last term, playing over 700 league minutes more than second-placed Jordan Henderson, with his almost impeccable fitness record allowing Klopp to consistently depend on him in the Reds’ engine room.
This constant availability is perhaps even more impressive considering the physical demands the German places on his midfielders, with Wijnaldum covering 283.86km in the Premier League prior to lockdown, second only to Roberto Firmino.
A key cog in the possession game
However, Wijnaldum’s importance to Klopp’s system goes far beyond his physical resilience, with his particular skillset and tactical nous making him the ideal candidate to perform a crucial, yet often underappreciated role in the side.
Liverpool’s use of a high defensive line that allows the full-backs to push up and provide width and creativity is well documented, and this high-risk strategy requires complete trust in every player to retain possession, in order to protect the centre-halves from becoming isolated on the counter.
While the Dutchman is not a creative midfielder, providing just six goals and zero assists in all competitions last season, his ability to keep the ball moving without conceding possession is evidenced by a passing accuracy of 90.8 percent across his average 43.9 passes per Premier League game.
It makes Wijnaldum Liverpool’s most accurate passer to have played five or more topflight games in 2019/20.
His detractors will point to his relatively low-risk passing style as a criticism, but ultimately Gini’s safe but efficient use of the ball is what allows Robertson and Alexander-Arnold to play high and wide without fear of being caught out of position on the counter-attack.
Wijnaldum’s knack of keeping Liverpool ticking over in possession is aided by his ability to protect the ball through his impressive strength and intelligent use of his body, with the sight of him holding off one or more opponents by shielding the ball until he breaks free or wins a free-kick now a common one for supporters.
In fact, only four Liverpool players bettered Gini’s 1.1 dribbles per game in the league last season, while only Sadio Mane was fouled more times per game.
Master of defensive positioning
Not only does Wijnaldum perform an important function in possession, but his positioning and work rate also allows him to cover for Robertson when he drives forward, just as Henderson covers Trent on the opposite flank.
While the 29-year-old’s defensive work is often less eye-catching than that of Fabinho and Henderson – he completed less than half as many tackles per game than the pair across 2019/20 – he boasts superior ball recoveries, making 189 in the league last season.
It demonstrates how his intelligent positioning not only protects Liverpool from the threat of a counter-attack but also allows the Reds to sustain attacks of their own by penning the opposition in their own half.
This positional sense is allied with the composure to avoid committing himself, highlighted by the fact that he is dribbled past on an average of just 0.8 times per game, less than his fellow midfield regulars – therefore, holding up opposition counter-attacks and allowing the Reds to regain their defensive shape.
While often understated and falling victim of statistics that don’t measure the intangibles, Wijnaldum’s role in the team is fundamental to the way Klopp’s Liverpool play, whether that be through retaining possession, sustaining attacks or snuffing out danger.
A big game player
While much of his work seems to go under the radar, he undoubtedly saves his headline moments for the big occasions under the lights, with Roma, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid all falling prey to the Dutchman’s aerial ability on huge European nights.
When added to Premier League strikes against Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs and Everton, it appears that Wijnaldum thrives against top opposition (and Everton). This ability to make a telling impact in high-pressure games is the cherry on top of Wijnaldum’s subtly brilliant cake.
In short, Wijnaldum’s durability, tactical nous, and technical and physical capabilities make him an invaluable asset who Jurgen Klopp wholeheartedly trusts to perform a vital role in a Liverpool team that strolled to the title last time out.
None of this is to say that the Reds shouldn’t seek to add a world-class operator such as Thiago to the ranks, however among the clamour for a marquee signing we must not underestimate the importance of Gini Wijnaldum’s subtle brilliance to how this Liverpool side functions.