Gini Wijnaldum Gave Liverpool Exactly What It Needed
1:38 PM EDT on June 8, 2021
It's fitting that Georginio Wijnaldum's biggest performance for Liverpool was immediately overshadowed by one of his attacking teammates. On a loud night at Anfield on May 7, 2019, Wijnaldum and the Pool Boys took the field down 3-0 against Barcelona, with little hope of advancing to the Champions League final. Liverpool needed four goals to topple the Catalans, and even a seventh minute goal from Divock Origi did little more than give some hope. Enter the man nicknamed Gini, who subbed on at halftime for an injured Andy Robertson and promptly scored two goals to even the tie before 15 minutes had even elapsed in the second half.
Do most people remember Wijnaldum's goals? Liverpool fans surely do, and Barcelona fans probably try to forget them, but if a neutral fan remembers anything from that match, it's Trent Alexander-Arnold's quick corner leading to Origi's tie-winning goal in the 79th minute. That's fair. The goal was one of the more iconic moments in Champions League history, particularly since Liverpool won that year's tournament. But Wijnaldum deserves more, because his five-year stint at Anfield was the prime example of a player and club meshing in perfect harmony to provide each other what they needed.
It's hard to say exactly what position Wijnaldum played for Liverpool, beyond "center midfield." At times, he was the furthest attacking midfielder in Jürgen Klopp's system, providing the link-up from the back to the team's vaunted front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mané. Other times, he would be a possession outlet, giving his fellow midfield partners a player always in the right spot to relieve pressure. He also played as a traditional No. 6, the deepest midfielder, shielding the back line with his smart positioning and ruthlessness in the press. Oh, and he also played left wing sometimes, because why not?
Wijnaldum was able to play all of these roles because of his ability to pass in any situation. That seems like a basic trait for a top club midfielder, but his value was in providing both formational and tactical flexibility. If Liverpool wanted to play on the counter-attack, he could hit the long diagonals out to Mané and Salah. If, instead, the club wanted to play fast and short passes, he could do that, too, using his ability to dribble in tight spaces to find inches of room.
And if Liverpool needed to break down the many, many parked buses that it saw during his time at the club, Wijnaldum was able to recycle possession and move into the open zones on the field, no matter how small. Those things don't really show up on the score sheet—he tallied 16 goals in five seasons, which is a fine number for any midfielder, but nothing that will jump out on casual glance—but they were the things that Liverpool could always needed as it pushed for the top honors in club soccer.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Wijnaldum was always healthy. Since moving over to Merseyside in 2016 from Newcastle United, Wijnaldum missed a total of 11 matches due to a variety of minor knocks and illnesses. In this last season, which saw Liverpool get absolutely demolished by injuries, the Dutchman missed zero games. More than anyone else, Wijnaldum was a consistent presence in Liverpool's plans every single match during this stretch of success under Klopp. His versatility meant he could plug holes whenever anyone else went down, and he could do all of them at a level that hovered just below elite.
It's not surprising, then, that other clubs were willing to pay a premium to a 30-year-old to lure him away from Liverpool. A report from The Guardian soccer insider Fabrizio Romano and others have confirmed that Wijnaldum signed a contract with Paris Saint-Germain on Monday, stealing him away at the last second from Barcelona by doubling his wage requests. The numbers aren't out yet, so it's hard to say how much more he's going to get paid from his Liverpool deal, but given PSG's bottomless coffers, it's safe to say that it's a lot. (Barcelona probably dodged a bullet here; Wijnaldum is great, but the Catalans need help elsewhere and paying a lot of money for a 30-year-old probably wasn't going to be the wisest move for a debt-ridden team in desperate need of rebuilding.)
Wijnaldum should fit perfectly within PSG's system. He'll have stellar attackers in front of him once again—it feels crazy to say he's somehow upgrading on Liverpool's brilliant trio, but that's how good Neymar and Kylian Mbappé are—and he is going to play alongside fellow jacks of all trades Marco Verratti and Ander Herrera, among others. Though reports came out that new-ish manager Mauricio Pochettino might be on his way out after only half a season in Paris, he remains the manager, and his experience with versatile midfielders should bode well for Wijnaldum. In reverse, the Dutch vice-captain will give Pochettino a new tool to help with the long grind of league, cups, and Champions League.
As for Liverpool, the team is losing not just one of its more valuable players, but one of its most beloved. Though the club needs some help in attack and defense, it's pretty stacked in the center of the park, so perhaps the immediate on-field contributions won't be missed quite as much. At least, that is if everyone is healthy. But if Pool Boys start going down left and right, Wijnaldum's iron man qualities and his ability to play pretty much wherever he is needed will be in short supply for the Reds. More than that, his ability to hit the key pass or score the all-important goals, like he did two years ago against the club that almost became his next, will be the thing Liverpool misses the most. No one can say that the club and its fans didn't appreciate Wijnaldum before he was gone, but that won't make the absence any less painful.
Correction (6/9, 9:35 a.m.): A previous version of this blog said Wijnaldum was at Liverpool for four seasons. He was there for five. This has been corrected above.