Georginio Wijnaldum’s underrated role in Liverpool’s rise means Thiago Alcantara is not an obvious upgrade

An element of Liverpool’s support will not appreciate Georginio Wijnaldum until he is gone. His departure is a possibility because Barcelona’s new coach Ronald Koeman is interested in taking the 29-year-old to Catalonia.
It is easy to understand Koeman’s logic. Barca lack energy in midfield and Wijnaldum provides vigour. The player has excelled under Jurgen Klopp and has been a vital cog in Liverpool’s success. The new man at the Nou Camp has worked with Wijnaldum at international level and is aware of his strengths. With just a year left on his contract at Anfield, the Dutchman offers plenty of value should he be determined to make the move to Barca.
The Covid-19 emergency’s economic ramifications on top of sustained financial mismanagement at the Nou Camp has left the club short of cash for rebuilding. Wijnaldum is a relatively cheap fix and his versatility would give Koeman options.
What is less comprehensible is the attitude of some Liverpool fans, who would be glad to see the midfielder leave. Because Wijnaldum’s function in Klopp’s team is not the most eye-catching role in the side, his contribution is sometimes overlooked or even downgraded. Jordan Henderson has suffered similar criticism. The perception of the captain changed this summer but for much of his Anfield career the 30-year-old has been one of the team’s whipping boys.
The modern-day obsession with statistics does not do Wijnaldum and Henderson any favours. Assessing their performances through the lens of a traditional midfielder does not work. The team that won the Champions League and the title in successive seasons operates with different tactical methods. Spectators are desperate to see surging runs from the middle of the park and point to the lack of goals scored by Liverpool’s midfielders as a sign of their underachievement. That misses the point.
Klopp’s central players bring balance to a side whose attacking brilliance comes from the front three and the full backs. Wijnaldum, Henderson and Fabinho – the manager’s favoured trio – need to be aware, disciplined and cautious to avoid being caught on the break when both full backs are in attacking mode. They give Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson the freedom to play.
There have been plenty of teams in the past whose gung-ho approach has left them brittle at the back. The main job for Wijnaldum and co is to ensure there is no cheap space left for opponents behind the full backs and guarantee that the defence is not left exposed.
This assignment means egos have to be parked in the dressing room. While the plaudits have rained down on the front three, the full backs, the central defenders and the goalkeeper – all of whom play crucial roles – the midfield has been the workhorse of Klopp’s side, often away from the eyes of the cameras. They excel at pressing but even more vital is the way they use space when the opposition has possession. There is no metric to measure this underrated skill but the ability to force rival ball carriers away from their preferred pass has been a key component in Liverpool’s effectiveness.
Wijnaldum’s forward-going impact has also been underrated. Like Henderson, his natural instincts are to get up the pitch. During his two Premier League seasons at Newcastle United he broke the ten-goal mark in each campaign. His best return at Anfield is six but he has developed into a much more rounded player whose tasks produce less personal glory but increase the team’s efficiency. He still maintains the goalscoring knack – his brace against Barcelona last year in the Champions League semi-final will never be forgotten at either club – but Koeman wants him for his adaptability and understated influence rather than any striking prowess.
On the face of it, replacing Wijnaldum with Thiago Alcantara looks like an upgrade. The Bayern Munich midfielder has a more obvious influence on the game and an impressive range of skills. Both players are the same age. In a conventional central role, Thiago would probably get the nod.
The question is whether the Spaniard would be as effective in a side where the main thrust is developed from the full back positions.
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