This weekend the Premier League takes a break and gives way to the FA Cup. But instead of competing for goals at Anfield or one of the dreary cold venues in England, Liverpool are spending these 4 days in bright sunshine in Marbella, Spain. This is because they were knocked out of the FA Cup by West Bromwich Albion in the last round. First knocked out early out of the League Cup and then from the FA Cup as well – these cup exits should have Liverpool fans concerned.
But these days, the Reds’ fans are bursting with joy and happiness. The reason is the uptick in their form, which has seen them inching towards the 2nd position in the Premier League table. That is the highest position possible for mere mortal teams this season as Manchester City are already out of sight with the title. Elsewhere, if Liverpool’s fans had any doubts about their progress to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League, their team laid those doubts to rest very emphatically on Valentine’s Day evening. Since that defeat to West Brom in January, Liverpool have scored 12 goals and conceded 2 (to Tottenham) with 3 clean sheets in 4 games. Clearly, both – their prolific attack and the now expensive defence are working up some great form.
In both these games, away at St. Mary’s as well as at the Dragao in Portugal, this uptick in form was evident. However, it was also evident that our midfield was performing much better than they had in the games against Swansea or West Brom. I felt that one individual, in particular, was performing way above what we have come to expect of him in these situations.
Georginio Wijnaldum – The Disappearing Ghost in Away Games
It is no secret that Georginio Wijnaldum tends to disappear in away games. So much so that the good folks at the Under-Pressure podcast at AI Pro have been calling him “The Ghost”. It is not something that we just feel. Wijanldum’s Squawka Performance Score in this season’s Premier League is 331 overall but it is only 90 away from Anfield, while at Anfield it is 241. He has achieved some of his worst WhoScored ratings in away games as well. Whether Liverpool is losing – 6.02 at Swansea or whether they are winning – 6.57 at Burnley, Wijnaldum’s struggles away from home are well documented.
But that has changed in these last two games. Wijnaldum has managed WhoScored ratings of 7.35 and 7.14. There has been only one away game this season when he has got a better rating – the 0-7 rout of Maribor. These improved away ratings make me hopeful, not just because they mean that he had two good games, but he had two good games playing a very good complete midfield game.
Better at Holding on to the Ball
Wijnaldum has been carrying the ball better in the last two games. In fact, his ability to carry the ball helped Liverpool’s first goal against Porto directly. As per Wyscout, on an average Wijnaldum is involved in 5.18 offensive duels (where he has possession of the ball and he is defending against opponents’ tackles/presses) per 90 minutes and 36.5% of them are successful. But these numbers are so because they are straight averages, not weighted by the volume. The fact is that these were the first two away games since the League Cup loss at Leicester where he was involved in more than 5 offensive duels and had a success of more than 35% (58% vs Porto, 38% vs Saints). There have been many games where he has been involved in one or two offensive duels and has been successful in defending the possession, resulting in 100% success rates but these one-off instances skew the average much higher than what it actually is.
More Involved in Creating Scoring Opportunities
Successful distribution close to opponents’ goal is necessary for a midfielder to have an impact on the attack. Against Southampton, his success rate of passing improved to 100% in the opponents’ half as a well as in the final third from close to 90% in all away games.
While the anecdotal evidence for his impact on Liverpool’s attacking capabilities comes from the first goal against Porto, where he ended up assisting the goal, his overall numbers also look a bit better. Understat.com provides us xGChain, which measures the total xG values of every possession that a player is involved in. For Wijnaldum, the average xGChain value in Premier League this season is 0.4. Against Southampton, it was 0.52, a considerable improvement and also his best xGChain numbers since the 0-4 win at Bournemouth in December. Unfortunately, we do not have such numbers for Champions League but given the nature of the defeat the Reds inflicted at Porto, his xGChain numbers would have been higher in that game.
It bodes well for Liverpool that not only are their attack and defence regaining form, their midfield too is gaining balance in this crucial phase of the season and Gini Wijnaldum’s performances in the last two games are indicative of this improvement.
While one can argue that Wijnaldum has not yet shown the form he reserves for home games or the kind that he showed last season, I feel that he has shown considerable improvement in the last two games, especially in carrying the ball and in ensuring that his possession of the ball has a positive impact on the Reds’ attack. The most important visual change for me was he was visible during these away games, while in the past, in numerous instances he has been as invisible as a “ghost”.