Gini Wijnaldum did not have a great Community Shield. But then, no one expected a team two weeks into pre-season to play with any rhythm or consistency and every Liverpool player’s performance on the day reflected that. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s absence exacerbated matters further and the Reds seemed bereft of ideas until Naby Keita and Takumi Minamino entered the fray on the hour mark.
The game provided those who bemoan the lack of creativity in Liverpool’s midfield with an opportunity to train their guns on Wijnaldum. The Dutchman is often targeted, partly because of the one quality that Jürgen Klopp would be delighted by; his availability to start matches. He played 2948 minutes in the league last season, more than any other midfielder in the team and symbolized the ‘functionality’ that puts off certain watchers. The captain, Jordan Henderson, has got some stick over the years too and it says a lot about how Klopp views his midfield when the two players who have been under-appreciated the most play more than others.
It’s interesting that Thiago Alcântara, coveted by many Liverpool fans, name-checked Henderson, Milner and Chamberlain in a 2018 interview at the World Cup. With tons of admiration for the way they pressed like animals and ate up the midfield in that year’s Champion’s League campaign, he appreciated what his fellow practitioners in the middle of the park brought to the table. It was prescient in a way, as the Reds knocked his Bayern Munich side out of the same competition a year later.
The Spaniard would definitely add another dimension to a Klopp team heavily dependent on their full-backs in attacking phases. Trent and Andy Robertson improved on numbers from the previous season which were already outliers in the league’s history by notching six goals and twenty-five assists between them in 2019-20. If opposition teams have caught onto Klopp’s ways, it isn’t evident yet.
Thiago could come in and replace any of the three midfielders who provide the balance that Liverpool’s system requires. Wijnaldum’s attributes will be the hardest for him to replicate though. Over the last four seasons, he has played 11046 minutes of league football. That is 30% more than Henderson has managed over that period. And 43% more than Thiago has accumulated in Germany. For Liverpool, his services have been like gold dust; a veritable machine guaranteed to last the course.
His running stats can be misleading. He covers more distance over the course of a campaign than other midfielders but when one plays the number of minutes he does, that’s a given. In all four seasons that he has spent at Anfield, his average distance covered per ninety has been the lowest of all midfield regulars. It hints at a player often asked to be the more withdrawn of the eights and whose primary responsibility is to provide cover to the full-back on his flank. His positioning is impeccable and in a counter-attack, he is the Reds midfielder least likely to be dribbled past.
In possession, his high passing accuracy involves a bit of stat-padding but is integral to Liverpool’s build-up play. He is the player I would back most to retain possession when harried by one or more opposition players. He uses his physicality well to escape attention and it is no surprise that he was the most fouled Liverpool player per game after Sadio Mane last season. Add to these the efficacy of his recovery runs, and one is left with a player whose importance statistics will never capture, at least not yet.
Many are salivating at the prospect of a Thiago-Fabinho-Keita axis next season if the Spaniard’s hotly discussed transfer comes through. In reality, the Brazilian and Guinean would be more at risk of losing their places to the recently crowned Champions League winner than the Dutchman. If Liverpool were to force the tempo through the middle of the park with Thiago’s arrival, Klopp would need the ever-present and steady hand of Wijnaldum even more to retain balance to his team.
It was always a question of retaining Wijnaldum and adding Thiago to the mix, if possible. Newly appointed Barcelona manager, Ronald Koeman, seems keen on his countryman and if he cajoles Liverpool into accepting an offer, the Reds run the risk of throwing away hard-earned rewards for some stardust they probably didn’t need in the first place.