Article by Sam McGuire @SamMcGuire90
Gini Wijnaldum is a bit of an enigma and has been since he swapped the black and white of Newcastle United for the red of Liverpool. The Netherlands International arrived on Merseyside as a goalscoring midfielder having found the net, on average, every 3.5 matches prior to his £25million move.
Jürgen Klopp, however, had other ideas. Content with a three-man forward line made up of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and new-boy Sadio Mané, the German tactician opted to use the Liverpool No.5 in a more withdrawn role. He was deployed in centre-midfield alongside Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana in a new-look middle third unit.
The idea, in theory at least, was to have box-to-box midfielders either side of the Liverpool skipper who were able to break the defensive lines, beat a man both with and without the ball and to be able to chip in with a goal so that the team had threats from a number of positions.
The genesis of Gini
Lallana was given the freedom to be the fourth attacker while Wijnaldum acted as the go-between. The shuttler in midfield who was tasked with not only helping Henderson cover the width of the pitch but who was also expected to get into the penalty area when Liverpool had the majority of possession.
Because he was neither here nor there it was, at times, difficult to pinpoint what the former Newcastle man did.
But it quickly became apparent that he was at home in his new surroundings playing in a new role and he was involved in a number of big goals as the Reds secured a top-four finish. He grabbed an assist in the opening day win over Arsenal, he netted the winner against Manchester City on New Year’s Eve and, with Liverpool needing to win their final match of the season to qualify for the Champions League, he rifled the ball home to give his side the lead against Middlesbrough.
A return of six goals from 42 appearances wasn’t as good as 11 in 40 during his time at St James’ Park but given he was playing in a deeper role it wasn’t a bad return at all. A goal every seven matches from a centre-midfielder not taking set pieces or penalties is nothing to be ashamed of in the modern game.
His second season at Anfield, from a personal point of view, was a disappointing one. The Reds may have finished fourth and made it all the way to a Champions League final, but Wijnaldum saw his role in the first-team diminish somewhat.
He played roughly 600 minutes fewer in the Premier League than he did during his debut season with the club. Not only that, his involvement in Liverpool’s attacking play seemed to dwindle. Of course, It didn’t help that Klopp switched things up a little by having Coutinho play in midfield at times, the boss then had to bed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain into the team all while keeping a balance with Henderson, Lallana and Emre Can suffering from injuries throughout.
The one-time dreadlocked PSV captain even played as a centre-back against Brighton in December. It was clear the German tactician valued Wijnaldum’s athleticism over his goal-scoring ability.
There are mitigating factors for it but when the numbers are analysed it didn’t make pretty reading.
On a per 90 minute basis, Wijnaldum averaged 0.27 fewer open-play key passes, he created 0.03 big changes compared to the 0.27 from 2016/17, the Dutchman played 6% fewer passes forward and his goal involvement dropped off dramatically. The Liverpool No.5 scored once in the Premier League and assisted on just two occasions, way down on the nine assists and five goals he contributed during his first season with the club.
His expected numbers took a hit, too. His expected goals and assists per 90 during the 2016/17 campaign was 0.36 while last season it came in at 0.19. He wasn’t creating high-quality chances and he wasn’t getting into goalscoring positions with great regularity.
Fortunately for him Liverpool weren’t short of goals but it didn’t go unnoticed. His role in the squad had come under scrutiny over recent weeks after the arrivals of Fabinho and Naby Keïta.
But if his performances in pre-season are anything to go by, Wijnaldum may have rediscovered his goalscoring touch and in the process helped carve out a position in this new Liverpool midfield.
He scored in back to back games for the first time in red with goals against Napoli and Torino. And his performances in those games suggested there would be plenty of opportunities for him to bolster his goal return this season.
Letting the Gini out of the bottle
Wijnaldum, throughout his career, has averaged a goal every 4.17 matches and that’s even after including the two goals in 49 appearances he managed last term. He’s a player who knows how to time runs into the area. He’s just not been able to do so as often as perhaps he would’ve liked while at Liverpool.
But Keïta and Fabinho allowed him that freedom in the match against Torino. It felt very much like Liverpool of 2016/17 with Wijnaldum allowed to join the attacking trio to make it a quartet and this might be a tactic used by Klopp this season as he attempts to break down those teams content with sitting deep and sacrificing possession. It meant when in possession, the shape in attack looked like a 3-1. It can be seen below.
Last season this picture would’ve looked a little different. During build-up phases, those playing either side of the number 6 would push into wide areas to allow the wide forward on that side of the pitch to drift inside. Essentially, Salah would’ve been where Wijnaldum is and vice versa. But in the recent pre-season matches it’s been tweaked so the midfielder has taken up a central area and often got beyond the attacking three.
It makes a lot of sense, too.
Teams are so often occupied with Salah, Firmino and Mané that they will double up at times and leave spaces to exploit. Liverpool’s problem last season, especially in the 12 draws, is that they didn’t commit enough men into dangerous areas. In the picture above, two Torino players are keeping tabs on Salah and this allows Wijnaldum to drift into an advanced area.
It’s a scenario that will be repeated time and time again this season with all three of the Liverpool forward line comfortable dropping off to drag the opposition out of shape. With Wijnaldum seemingly keen to gamble in the attacking third he’s going to get chances on a regular basis. It happened on a number of occasions against the Serie A side.
Taken just prior to his goal. It’s Wijnaldum occupying the right flank, Salah’s taken up a central area and Firmino’s the deepest of the four. The versatile midfielder continues his run and is eventually played in by the Brazilian. But again, this only comes about because of his off the ball running and desire to get into a dangerous position.
Just his movement created space for the Liverpool No.9, space and time he wouldn’t have otherwise had if Wijnaldum was joining the play late as opposed to already anticipating it.
Wijnaldum could have and probably should have, had a second on the night. He was thwarted by Salvatore Sirigu after bursting through from a deeper area not long before halftime.
He could’ve shuffled over closer to the play and offered up a simple pass which is then played back to Fabinho and Liverpool are able to work the ball to Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right. He also could’ve made a half-hearted run across the face of the man tracking him to open up even more space. Instead, he darted into the space behind the three Torino players looking to close down Firmino and Mané. It was full of purpose. A demanding run, and an incisive action, which simply couldn’t be ignored.
It’s the sort of move which is the difference between a cross being put in which is easily dealt with or a genuine goalscoring chance being carved out. Liverpool needed the latter last season but often ended up with the former.
Not many are on the same wavelength as Liverpool’s attacking trio, but there’s evidence to suggest Wijnaldum is. It was a dynamic performance from the midfielder and it showcased why he could be a valuable asset for Klopp and the team as they look to turn dropped points into wins and challenge for the elusive Premier League crown.
His goals could help bridge the gap between the Reds and title favourites Manchester City, who added more goals to their team in the shape of Riyad Mahrez.
Article by Sam McGuire @SamMcGuire90