When over £100 million of talent walked through the doors at Liverpool Football Club over the summer, few would have thought that a player who wasn’t a guaranteed starter last season would now be the most vital component of Jurgen Klopp’s midfield three. A lot was expected of Fabinho and Naby Keita, but neither have managed to nail down a starting spot in the Liverpool XI. That is down to the sharp upturn in form of Liverpool’s number five, Gini Wijnaldum.
The Dutch international has proved himself capable of playing both in the holding midfield role and as a box-to-box midfielder. One of his finest assets is his ability to maintain possession – an integral part of Liverpool’s style of play. His pass accuracy in the Premier League and the Champions League so far this campaign averages 91.7% – comfortably the highest of any Liverpool’s midfielder.
His stats were even more impressive earlier on in the season; he misplaced just one of his 76 passes against Brighton in August before achieving 100% success rate whilst playing for the Dutch national team against World Champions, France, in September. Not bad considering the French midfield that night consisted of Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi.
It is not just Wijnaldum’s capacity to retain the possession that has made him such an essential cog in Klopp’s heavy metal machine. Being deployed in a midfield three with James Milner and one of Jordan Henderson or Keita enables the Dutchman to share the defensive workload with his teammates. All of the aforementioned three do plenty of attacking and defensive work, meaning none of them have particularly outstanding individual defensive stats. However, Wijnaldum’s role in Liverpool’s vastly improved defensive record this year cannot be understated.
One of the more mobile central midfielders in the Premier League, Wijnaldum is able to close space down very quickly and efficiently. He has already lined up against some of the most creative players in the country, namely David Silva and Christian Eriksen, and did an excellent job in keeping them quiet and preventing them from controlling the game.
His ability to limit space thanks to his outstanding athleticism and dynamism is undoubtedly what makes him such an effective player for the Reds’ defensive system. Liverpool have only conceded three goals in their eight Premier League games this season; at the same point last season, they had conceded twelve times. Whilst the importance of recent arrivals Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker will, quite rightly, receive much of the credit for this, Liverpool’s improved defensive contributions from midfield – spearheaded by Wijnaldum – have also significantly aided the cause.
Having cemented himself as a fan favourite thanks to a string of imposing displays towards the end of last season, there is more to the 27-year-old’s attacking game than just high pass accuracy. Not only does he seldom give the ball away when looking to find a teammate, Wijnaldum is so tenacious with the ball at his feet. It is easy to forget that the Dutchman arrived in the Premier League as an attacking midfielder, going on to score eleven goals in his debut season for Newcastle United – including four in one game against Norwich City.
Whilst he has not maintained his previous goalscoring record on Merseyside, some of his offensive traits are still on show despite his more defensive role at Liverpool. Such an agile dribbler, Wijnaldum has often wowed the Anfield faithful with his mesmerising body feints and close control. His ability to produce these attributes against the big teams is another reason Klopp has so much faith in him. Notable highlights include Wijnaldum embarrassing Arsenal’s midfield back at the start of the 2017/18 season (watch it on YouTube), and more recently against Brighton in August.
Although his goalscoring record has dropped off significantly, Wijnaldum has an uncanny knack of scoring huge goals against other members of the big six. In the last two years he has scored winners, late equalisers, stoppage time goals and crucial away goals against Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Roma respectively. Whilst he could certainly improve his attacking output in terms of goals and assists, Wijnaldum more than makes up for this with the rest of his play, both offensively and defensively (besides, Liverpool’s goalscoring form has rarely been a problem in the past couple of seasons).
Gini Wijnaldum isn’t the stereotypical defensive midfielder in the mould of Nemanja Matic or Mousa Dembele. Nor will he produce the same defensive stats that N’Golo Kante does. But he doesn’t need to. The way he plays is exactly how he needs to under Jurgen Klopp. The summer signings seemingly rendered his position at the club in serious doubt, but his intensity out of possession and efficiency with the ball have made him undroppable. Wijnaldum’s versatility and outstanding recent performances mean that Fabinho and Keita will have to wait a little while longer before they can establish themselves at Liverpool Football Club. A remarkable turnaround in fortunes for Liverpool’s very own Flying Dutchman.