The performance of Georginio Wijnaldum for the Netherlands in their 3-2 victory over Ukraine on Sunday night showed a very different side of the Dutchman’s game to the one on display during much of the 30-year-old’s five years at Liverpool. Wijnaldum is significantly more prolific for the national side than he was at Anfield. His opening goal in the Johan Cruyff Arena was his 23rd in 76 international appearances – one more than the midfielder scored in 237 appearances while on Merseyside.
In tomorrow’s second Group C game against Austria, the man who last week left Liverpool for Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer will likely operate in a more traditional midfield role than the way he played under Jurgen Klopp. Wijnaldum was sometimes the object of criticism from a section of the Anfield support but he was prepared to sacrifice personal glory for the good of the team. The Liverpool trade-off was to swap goals from the midfield in a bid to release the full-backs. It worked and the team won the Champions League and the club’s first title in 30 years. Wijnaldum’s departure leaves a huge hole for Klopp to fill.
Liverpool’s issues in the middle of the park were further highlighted during Spain’s 0-0 draw with Sweden in Group E on Monday night. Much was expected of Thiago Alcantara when he arrived from Bayern Munich last year but the 30-year-old took time to adjust to the Premier League.
Although he improved in the last weeks of the season, Thiago struggled with the pace of the English game. He featured as a substitute for Spain for the final 25 minutes in Seville against Sweden but too many of his passes were ponderous, went sideways and lacked incision. Liverpool’s past and future were on display in the Euros and Wijnaldum was considerably more dynamic.
The most impressive part of the Dutchman’s game under Klopp was his discipline. He has a much wider range of skills than he was allowed to show. Replacing him will be tough. Plenty of players have similar energy but few are prepared to subvert their ego for the greater good in the style of Wijnaldum.
There is some logic in allowing Wijnaldum to leave. His age made it unlikely that the club would offer him the sort of contract he wanted. He was one of the least well-paid members of the first-choice XI and as the contract discussions rumbled on he was looking to claw back some cash for the years when he felt under-rewarded. Ultimately, it would have taken a pay rise in the region of £100,000 per week to satisfy him and Fenway Sports Group (FSG), the owners, would never commit to that, especially over a three-year deal.
The team’s tactics, too, were less successful in the title-defence campaign. Opposition coaches have worked out how to blunt Liverpool’s edge. From that perspective, playing through the midfield rather than across or over it makes sense. Thiago with his ball control and precise passing changes the point of attack.
Yet Wijnaldum’s adaptability is more apparent on the international stage. He thrived in Frank de Boer’s 3-5-2 system and is a much better up-and-down midfielder than his time at Anfield might have suggested.
One of the game’s truisms is not to buy a player on the basis of a summer tournament. Likewise, it would be foolish to judge how badly Wijnaldum will be missed through the lens of the Euros.
That said, there are a number of players in Klopp’s squad who are surplus to requirements and who should have been offloaded last summer. The likes of Xherdan Shaqiri – who gets another chance to shine in the shop window tonight when Switzerland face Italy in Rome in Group A – stayed at least one campaign too long on Merseyside. The suspicion is that Wijnaldum has departed a little early.
The onus is now on the club to replace him with a quality performer. Thiago is only part of the answer. Everyone at Anfield has known for some time that a parting of the ways was unavoidable. FSG has had time to plan. As good as Wijnaldum looks this summer, Liverpool think they can do better in terms of cost, youth and ability.
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