IT was a lovely way for Liverpool to send us into a 10-day break without football. The 5-0 demolition of Porto in the Champions League last 16 sent a message to the rest of Europe and gave us all a very welcome boost ahead of an important last few months of the season.
The players and staff have now returned from a sun-filled training camp in Marbella, having put in the hard work coupled with relaxation that hopefully puts enough in the tank for a full on assault of both the league and Europe between now and May.
I was actually in Marbella last year for a Hindu wedding (as you do), and though I didn’t attend the Marbella Football Centre, I did find myself in the nice, if slightly ostentatious, Ocean Club sat across from Kieron Dyer. If I’d known then what I know now I’d have shouted over “Gerrard was well better than Scholes you know, Kieron!” But I digress.
Liverpool are hitting form at the right time, but one player in particular has caught my eye over the last couple of games. The front three are doing bits, terrific bits, and Virgil van Dijk and his new pals are easing everyone’s fears at the back, but it has been in midfield that my eye has been drawn of late.
Gini Wijnaldum was excellent in both the victories over Southampton and Porto. However, what made his performances stand out was that it hasn’t felt like a particularly good season for him up to this point. You would be hard pushed to argue that the 27-year old has been as effective this season as he was in 2016-17.
Goals aren’t all he’s about of course but in the last campaign Wijnaldum scored six times and registered nine assists. This year he has scored just once and assisted three, one of which was the lay off for Sadio Mane for the opener last Wednesday in Portugal.
The Dutchman does seem to divide opinion. There are those who think he’s ace, that his award-winning smile (well, it should win awards) and his infectious personality coupled with his tenacity in midfield, his passing accuracy and eye for a crucial goal make him a must have for the first team. Then there’s others who are concerned at his well-reported lack of away goals, his ‘overly safe’ passing and how often he ‘goes missing’ in games.
Wijnaldum has had a strange career. As a youngster at Feyenoord he was a tricky winger, taking on full backs and generally beating them, whipping balls into the box and causing mayhem with pace and power. Then at PSV Eindhoven he developed into a central attacking player, making the number 10 role his own and impressing enough to earn a move to the Premier League.
At Newcastle he was utilised in both central and wide positions, often coming in off the left, but always being an attack-minded player nonetheless.
At Liverpool he has pretty much exclusively been a central midfielder. Even during the struggles that the team had when Mane was away at the African Cup of Nations last season, Wijnaldum was not used in a forward position, despite having played there to largely good effect the season before at St James’ Park.
The thing about his goals in 16-17 were that they were often memorable and/or crucial. When reminding myself of how many he scored last season I was surprised to see it was only six. It felt like more. However, the header to beat Manchester City, the equaliser against Chelsea, the late goal to clinch the win against Arsenal and the opening goal at a nervous time on the last day against Middlesbrough were all defining points of the season.
Even the equaliser against Burnley was a big goal in context.
This season he has registered just a solitary strike against Huddersfield in a game that was already won, though it was some strike in fairness. It might not be the biggest issue that a central midfielder isn’t scoring goals, especially when the rest of the team are quite good at doing that, but that he has scored less goals than Trent Alexander-Arnold is hard to ignore
This is a player who scored 18 in his last season in Holland, and then 11 at Newcastle, including four in one game against Norwich City.
That said, it is certain that his manager is not as concerned about such things as we might be. Jürgen Klopp clearly sees other plus points in his participation in the team.
In the Premier League this season Wijnaldum has averaged 88 per cent passing accuracy, better than any other Liverpool midfielder, and has won 52 per cent of his duels, joint most with Emre Can. On the other hand, he has only created 14 chances, less than Can (21), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (21) and Jordan Henderson (19). Whether by design or not, his role seems to be getting less and less attacking each season.
It has become a bit of a cliché that he ‘goes missing’ in games, but like most clichés, they only become so if there’s reason for people to keep saying it. In some games it has seemed an unfair stick to beat him with, but in others you can’t help but agree that he has seemed to shy away from taking the mantle.
‘Gini Wherenaldum’, ‘Where’s Wallynaldum’ and ‘Harry Hou-Gini’ are nicknames that have been used by, well, no one apart from me just now, but the issue of fans so often saying “I didn’t realise Gini was playing until the hour mark” is becoming just that. An issue.
At best, his form mirrors the team’s form, which is fine as long as the team is playing well, but what makes a great side is one that has players who will step up in moments of adversity. The goals he scored at crucial times last season suggests that he is capable of that, but it’s more his all-round play that needs to improve in games like, for instance, Swansea away.
The concern for Wijnaldum though is the future. With Naby Keita finally arriving from RB Leipzig in the summer, he will have a very real rival for his role in the team. Many have suggested that Keita will be the natural replacement for Can, but in terms of what they do for the team, it is Wijnaldum’s place that could well be under threat.
The thing that Wijnaldum is probably best at is take-ons, which is also Keita’s primary skill, and he’s better at it. In fact he outperforms Gini in most things, other than passing accuracy, and that could well be down to the fact that he plays more forward passes, though equally Wijnaldum plays a lot more than some of his critics would have you believe.
The question will be there this summer. Does he have a future at Liverpool? I would like to think so as I think Klopp wants his teams to have character and positive personalities as much as football ability. There is no doubt that Wijnaldum has all of that, but is the latter at a high enough level for a team that wants to be winning trophies and league titles? As a squad player, I would say yes. As a starter, probably not.
With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also likely to be a long-term feature of this Liverpool squad, Wijnaldum will have to battle to prove his worth, and if his last two very encouraging performances are anything to go by, he’s doing just that. More of that between now and the end of the season, and Klopp could find himself struggling to decide on his first-choice midfield for the following campaign.
Perhaps the biggest victim of him leaving though, if it came to that, would be his song. It was the worst part of Maxi Rodriguez leaving, and I’ll be damned if we’re going to lose the Wijnaldum one as well.
“Do-do-do-do-do-do, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic!” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
I suppose Liverpool could just sign another player with a five-syllable name, but I’d much rather Gini continued this upturn in form.