Premier League will miss understated but brilliant Wijnaldum
Gini Wijnaldum left Liverpool with respect and love. He had proven himself at Anfield, as the first cog in Jürgen Klopp’s unstoppable Red machine.
It was the summer of 2017, the German’s maiden summer in charge and he had inherited a middling squad from Brendan Rodgers. It was technical but limited and needed an upgrade in almost every department, starting in the engine room. There was one target in mind.
The previous December, when Klopp’s reign was still in its infancy even if his ideology was already beginning to shine through, Wijnaldum had made his case to Liverpool. At St James’ Park, he was in midfield for Newcastle United, who were already struggling in a campaign which ultimately resulted in relegation from the Premier League. He scored one and had another robbed from him (given as a Martin Skrtel own goal) in a rare Steve McClaren victory, inflicting Klopp’s first defeat in English football.
Even then, it felt as though he wouldn’t be on Tyneside too much longer, regardless of Newcastle’s league status. Their chief scout, Graham Carr, who had unearthed plenty of gems over the years, pushed harder for Wijnaldum than anyone else. Mike Ashley is a frugal, clinical owner, but he parted with £14.5million to sign the player in 2015 from PSV Eindhoven.
While at PSV, Wijnaldum had helped break Ajax’s monopoly on the Eredivisie title. Memphis Depay, his club-mate, was Europe’s Golden Boy. He’d go on to join Manchester United after a transfer saga involving the continent’s true elite. Wijnaldum, though, was voted Player of the Year, and it was a minor miracle that Newcastle were able to get him, let alone for a fairly modest fee, given the fact he was 24 and with an already wide-reaching reputation at the time. His arrival promised so much; there was no sign of the carnage which engulfed Newcastle and ultimately led to him leaving just one season into a five-year deal.
McClaren deployed him in a number 10 role but he was never a playmaker, his job was built on late runs into the box and scoring goals. Liverpool were on the receiving end, but so, perhaps most famously, were Norwich City. Wijnaldum scored in a 6-2 win in October, before ending the campaign with 11 goals, all of which came at St James’ Park. There were afternoons where he could appear absent and they were thrown in his face somewhat when he left Newcastle languishing in the Championship.
But the truth of the matter was he was never involved in play until his team were on the front foot by virtue of his position. There wasn’t sufficient quality in his teammates or tactics to unlock him more consistently. His sale still brought a healthy profit of £10million when Liverpool came calling, justifying his on impact and allowing McClaren’s replacement Rafael Benitez to shape his era and target instant promotion.
Yet, Klopp used Wijnaldum differently. He was part of the team, no longer the talisman. There wasn’t too much creativity in the output, but he recycled and pushed possession forward brilliantly for the likes of Sadio Mane, who joined in the same summer, Roberto Firmino, already at the club, and the star signing of 12 months later, Mohamed Salah.
There were intermittent moments of individual brilliance — his goal in the 2019 Champions League semi final comeback against Barcelona en route to winning the competition for a sixth time cemented his legendary status forever — but he was a member of the supporting cast and it is testament to his character, quality and intelligence that he was able to make a seamless transition in both role and level.
He and Liverpool wanted a positive solution to his contract standoff at the end of last season but evidently neither side wanted it enough. Wijnaldum became the kind of player who can be invisible on the pitch for Klopp but not in the sense he was at Newcastle. Now, he is someone you can miss only when he isn’t there. Perhaps there wasn’t a huge clamour to keep him because of that, but replacing him has become the first crucial point on Liverpool’s summer recruitment agenda and upgrading on him is a real task that will almost certainly eat into whatever summer budget Klopp and sporting director Michael Edwards have at their disposal.
From Wijnaldum’s perspective, moving away from his crucial role in Klopp’s setup could be a blessing. He was expected to team up with Depay again at Barcelona, with both believed to be heading to Camp Nou on free transfers but he had his head turned by Mauricio Pochettino at Paris Saint-Germain. Pochettino was Klopp’s most ardent competition for the services of Wijnaldum when he was at Tottenham Hotspur and finally struck the deal he wanted four years later. But which Wijnaldum has he signed, the number 8 or number 10?
Few players have taken to the big stage at Euro 2020 quite like Wijnaldum. Frank de Boer’s Netherlands were dismissed and even mocked pre-tournament but have propelled themselves into contention with three wins from three, led so expertly by their talismanic attacking midfielder.
Playing more in a false 9 at times, Wijnaldum has dragged his side through tough moments and made the difference, his brace in the final group game against North Macedonia standing as case in point. This is the player Newcastle signed but could never quite find regularly. He is thriving and probing and dominating and leading, lifted up by a system and teammates geared to get the best from him.
He was Dutch Player of the Year when Newcastle signed him and he could, on this evidence at least, be Player of the Tournament heading to Paris. With Neymar and Kylian Mbappe at his disposal, it is unlikely that Pochettino will build his attacking approach around his new midfielder but, having just overtaken Marco van Basten in the international goals charts, Wijnaldum is proving he is one of Europe’s most well-rounded players. He may be on a free, but if PSG use him correctly, they may just have one of the best signings around on their hands.
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