ONCE upon a time not very long ago, many fans questioned the worth of Roberto Firmino. Now, after a flurry of goals and a string of performances packed with tricks and turns, few would suggest he doesn’t have the quality to play for Liverpool.
In the summer, when discussing his new signings, Jürgen Klopp used the example of Firmino as he pleaded for patience for his new signings to settle at Liverpool. “What we can learn from Roberto’s situation going forward when it comes to next season’s signings is wait to make judgements,” he told the Liverpool Echo.
“Don’t be too quick to judge players.”
Easier said than done though in modern football. After just three league games had been played, a lot of questions were being asked of Georginio Wijnaldum. Many wondered what he was bringing to the team and whether he was really on upgrade on the now departed Joe Allen. He was also seen as complicit in the Burnley debacle, with reports from Newcastle fans of the player underperforming in many games still ringing in the ears.
Since then though, quietly and efficiently, the Dutchman has started to answer some of those questions.
His performance against Leicester City at Anfield was more like what those who spoke highly of the player expected when Liverpool signed him for £25million from Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle. It was subtle, but less so than in previous games. His contributions were more telling.
After largely being considered to flourish in a number 10 role, his selection in a deeper role for Liverpool raised eyebrows, despite him being stationed there at times during appearances for Holland. Whatever the merits of the argument, he seems to be adapting now.
On Saturday, it was evident he’s a powerful runner on the ball, capable of moving the play quickly up the pitch, but it was his running off the ball that impressed most.
Once the ball is moved into Liverpool’s second phase of midfield, the area that Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana occupy, the Dutchman gets on his bike. At times he was one of the furthest forward, popping up on the edge of — or inside — the box, showing for a pass and instigating play with his back to goal.
This attribute was on full display when setting up Lallana’s goal, Liverpool’s third of the afternoon. Once Daniel Sturridge received the ball on the right-hand side, Wijnaldum burst forward and ended up as the centre piece of the forward three. As the ball caught up behind him, he held off the intentions of Luis Hernandez, jigged to get a yard of space and then played a perfect soft pass into Lallana — who made absolutely no mistake with the bullet finish.
The stats also show the impact he had. He created three chances, with one assist and two key passes. He had the third best passing accuracy of any Liverpool player, and won the third most duels of any player — not bad considering his natural position is assumed to be attacking midfield.
Also impressive is the former PSV man’s ability in the air. At just five foot seven, he hardly cuts an imposing figure on the pitch, but he has won 50 per cent of the 10 aerial duels he has found himself in this season. Considering four of his 11 goals for Newcastle last season came from his forehead, maybe this is something Liverpool can exploit as the season unfolds.
Along with Lallana, Wijnaldum is giving Liverpool a different dimension going forward — almost like a third wave of attack. He has created the second most chances of any Liverpool player this season — behind the increasingly impressive Roberto Firmino — seven of which were key passes and two of which were assists.
At 85 per cent, his passing accuracy is the joint fourth best of the Reds’ current crop, despite nearly 60 per cent of his 216 passes being forward passes — with 11 attempted long balls. He can make things happen from deeper positions.
The Reds’ front three can cause such an attacking threat that teams are attempting to close them in — which is difficult enough with Firmino’s tricks and flicks, and Sadio Mane’s pace — which is giving the likes of Wijnaldum and Lallana more space to work with. It is something we can see with the full-backs pushing on, too.
It is clear that this new role is bringing out the best in Lallana, who now has two goals in four games with just double that after 30 games last season, and as Wijnaldum continues to adapt his track record suggests he will join in on shouldering the goalscoring burden, too.
It is clear why Klopp has chosen to have these two playing as part of an industrious midfield three. No secret has been made of the fact that Lallana never stops running — having already set the record for distance covered twice this season. Wijnaldum was similar, in terms of energy and running, last season covering on average 10.1km per game, less than only three Liverpool players. With the distance these two cover it makes sense that they should be given the freedom of central midfield roles, and both have shown they aren’t afraid to help out when the Reds are on the back foot.
Defensively, Wijnaldum has made one blocked shot, two interceptions, three clearances, 26 recoveries and has won 19 of his 36 duels. He’s clearly no pushover when it comes to defending, and should rid any fears that him and Lallana are too offensively minded to occupy central midfield positions when the opposition raid forward.
Next time out, watch Wijnaldum — particularly when we win the ball back and are looking to counter quickly. At times he will likely be the one to win the ball back, in which case watch how he carries it forward and look at the type of passes he makes. It’s not always flash, but it’s effective.
When somebody else has won it back, or another red shirt is in possession around the box, watch the runs he makes and the positions he takes up. His reading of the game in certain situations is what makes him the player he is, and potentially well worth the £25m the Reds spent on him this summer.
When the goals start to flow, it will be magic. It may take time, but as Klopp says, players need time.
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