When Georginio Wijnaldum signed for Liverpool last summer, he did under a cloud of negativity, doubt and criticism. The Dutchman cost £25million, despite having just been relegated as a Newcastle United player. Few denied his talent, least of all at St James’ Park, but his consistency and application were rightly scrutinised.
Eleven goals is a good return on paper, but the context of the season and how it panned out suggests otherwise. Wijnaldum did not score one away goal for the Magpies, and has not yet for Liverpool either. His performances at home varied, too. The issues in the North East were clear, and the club’s disastrous relegation to the Championship cannot be put solely down to Wijnaldum, but a lot of fans were pleased with his exit.
His form at Liverpool this season has progressed well. Jurgen Klopp has got him playing in a deeper role than either Steve McClaren or Rafa Benitez did at Newcastle, and as a result it has taken more time for him to shine through at Anfield.
The modern day midfielder must be a jack-of-all-trades, able to play a number of roles within the central position. He and Jordan Henderson have provided the engine this season and it took time to get used to the new system. Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane are expected to score the goals and it doesn’t take a genius to tell that Wijnaldum is thriving away from the spotlight, but it would be amiss to suggest he doesn’t make an impact in attack at all, scoring five goals already and coming alive in the big games.
Liverpool have struggled for consistency this season, but mainly against sides in the bottom half of the table. Defeats to Burnley, Leicester City and Hull City have set the tone for a frustrating campaign, especially considering Klopp’s side’s impeccable record against teams around them in the table. Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium continued their unbeaten run against teams in the top six of the Premier League. Some rough form around Christmas derailed their title bid and threatened their Champions League hopes, too.
Throughout that spell, the lack of a midfield enforcer, similar to N’Golo Kante at Chelsea and Victor Wanyama at Tottenham, was said to be the main factor in their demise. Since, though, the same area of the pitch has been held responsible for the return to form. An injury to Henderson has put added pressure on Wijnaldum, but his energy has helped maintain the high pressing game Klopp employs.
Against City, for example, Liverpool’s main tactic was to put pressure on Yaya Toure, who Pep Guardiola played as a lone central midfielder behind four attacking midfielders. Alongside Emre Can and Adam Lallana, Wijnaldum helped the away side take the game to City, but also kept the balance in the team by covering both boxes, nullifying David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling as they moved forward.
In many ways, Wijnaldum has become a better, more rounded player since joining Liverpool. His composure on the ball allows the side to play at their intense best without fear of being left open in the bigger games, but issues remain against the lesser opponents. Newcastle fans would suggest that was typical of his time there.
All of the top six have now faced Liverpool twice, which could be a negative because of their mentality issues against those lower down in the table. It says a lot about Wijnaldum’s impact on the team that, when he plays with the freedom he has done in the big games, Liverpool hit their stride, but when he fails to assert himself, the Reds struggle, much like Newcastle last season.
Georginio Wijnaldum is a different player now than the one at Newcastle; goalscoring is not as natural as it was. Affecting the game directly in a general sense isn’t, in fact.
But make no mistake; his positional change has not reduced his impact. He is still as vital to Liverpool now as he was Newcastle then, and the more consistent he becomes, the better the chance of Liverpool cementing a place in the Champions League next season.
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