GEORGINIO Wijnaldum is a prime example of how football can split opinion.
The Dutchman, playing in a role envisaged for him by Jürgen Klopp, has been a revelation in Liverpool’s midfield. However, not everyone thinks so – yet. Even those who appreciate him whisper quietly of his importance, for there is nothing really spectacular to shout of from the rooftops.
Wijnaldum may be gradually winning most fans over but when it comes to fans’ players of the season so far, the names of Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane, pre-injury Phil Coutinho and Roberto Firmino are those held in the highest regard.
Each of the aforementioned lads have consistently decorated Liverpool’s performances with grace, poise, pace, invention and goals. We’re not the league’s top scorers by accident.
All our flair players put a shift in. That is a prerequisite in any modern team, particularly in a Klopp team which grinds opponents into the dust as much with perspiration as inspiration. Lallana leads the press but also bursts a lung to get into the box from deep, Mane is all-determined pace and thrust, Coutinho jinks and dribbles relentlessly while Firmino is defined by his constant migration from the traditional areas of a number nine.
However, in any successful team there are unsung heroes; players who have an admirer here and there but are never the hero, cult or otherwise.
Diminutive, stocky Sammy Lee, for all his medals, was a borderline joke figure among some fans. “He’s fat, he’s round, he bounces on the ground,” wasn’t a refrain heard just from opposition fans. But, my God, Sammy worked hard on the right flank and the protection he gave Phil Neal behind him probably prolonged the right-back’s record-breaking Liverpool career.
Nor was Sammy actually fat. Pictured below is his match-worn shirt from 1984/5 season which hangs on my office wall. I can assure you it’s a tight fit. If we win the league, I’ll breathe in and wear it round town for a week. Promise.
Kevin MacDonald, the forgotten man of Kenny Dalglish’s double-winning team in 1986, was far from a crowd favourite. The sarcastic, success-spoilt, mid-eighties Kop were positively cruel to the Scot at times. MacDonald ran as though wading through treacle but if admiration was in short supply on the terraces, his team-mates and manager were grateful for the hard yards.
The second coming of Ronnie Whelan as a tough-tackling facilitator to the gifts of John Barnes and Peter Beardsley was underappreciated by many supporters. In the old Main Stand and Kemlyn Road, the coltish, popular wingman’s transition to central midfield saw his crowd favourite status descend to that of fans’ chosen whipping boy. At one point, it seemed his first name had been changed by a Scouse deed poll from Ronnie to “Fuckin’ hell…Whelan”
Wijnaldum, of course, wears Whelan’s number five shirt.
He might look like John Barnes (an uncanny facial resemblance – see the picture here on his wiki page) but he’s Whelan Mk II. “Gini” is endlessly mobile — shuttling constantly across the pitch and from box to box — is firm and decisive in the tackle and gives endless simple passes sideways and forward.
Perhaps his greatest gift, though, is his physicality and this is where a Barnes comparison is quite apt.
Wijnaldum is a strong bugger. On Monday night towards the end of the win at Everton, with his back to goal on halfway, he was buffeted from behind by a typically crude Everton presence. With every shunt his muscular frame withstood the repeated challenge. At no stage was there a chance he would lose his footing or the ball. It appeared Wijnaldum’s studs had sprouted roots deep into the lush Goodison turf.
That said, there’s more to Wijnaldum than physical presence and simple give-and-gos. For Liverpool’s winner, it is a 40-yard diagonal, cross-field ball to Nathaniel Clyne that triggers the move which literally set Goodison alight. At the start of all Liverpool’s best moves is often an intelligent and quick first pass supplied by the former Newcastle man.
The Dutchman’s drive and energy also sees him get ahead of the ball and into the attacking third. For those of us who have been watching closely, he’s been doing this since the opening weeks of the season. A well-crafted cross and assist for Lallana at the Emirates on his debut was a solid clue and, had Mane’s volleyed “goal” at Spurs not been wrongly ruled out, perhaps more would have been made of Wijnaldum’s run and pass to the more heralded Lallana in the build-up.
There is an excuse for some who have missed Wijnaldum’s full value to the team. He’s the definitive matchgoer’s player; much of his best work done off-screen.
The irony is that the reputation of the player Klopp bought is the antithesis to his reality. Wijnaldum was billed as a free-scoring, front three player with a dodgy attitude and fondness for going missing away from home.
There was, though, some merit in this description, given that he finished last season as the Toon’s leading scorer with 11 goals (all registered at home) in 38 games. It is fair to say, however, that we’ve seen a different footballer to the one advertised; one who on the face of it seemed to replicate some of Mane’s qualities. Conclusive proof, perhaps, that deciding on a player before you’ve seen him play regularly is a bit daft.
Eventually, once I had calmed down after Monday night and washed the smell of gunpowder out of my clothes, I settled down to The Anfield Wrap’s written Derby reviews.
Andy Heaton’s lengthy summary and player rating on Wijnaldum reads: “Tank. 10.” – Agreed.
Neil Atkinson, in between confirming for all of us that it is “a joy to be alive”, rightly lauds Wijnaldum and says he should be “adored as a Liverpool player.” Again, agreed.
Where I disagree with Neil is his acceptance that Wijnaldum “will not be scoring any goals any time soon.”
I’m not so sure. Yes, he’s playing here in a different position but his goalscoring record speaks for itself.
The lad knows where the net is. Before his time in the North East, he had 23 goals in 111 matches for Feyenoord and an eye-opening 40 in 109 for PSV Eindhoven. He also has seven goals for a Holland team that is a far cry from the Total Footballers of the 1970s.
For Liverpool, Wijnaldum is off the mark but only has one goal to his name so far. Again, the clues are there. Several efforts have whistled past posts — the most recent on Monday night — and shots aplenty have been blocked. At times the frustration at not finding the net has been clear to see.
“The Tank” might be rolling all over the Premier League but the guns are yet to fire. However, Wijnaldum’s growing comfort in a deeper midfield role shouldn’t preclude a talent for finding the net. If he can grow in conviction and glean confidence from what should be a soaring Red reputation, Wijnaldum can still add goals to his game.
God help the rest if he does.
Happy Christmas, everyone.
– Here is the Friday Show, our look ahead to the upcoming round of Premier League action, free this week as part of the TAW Christmas Hamper.