by Sam Patterson (@sam0007ster)
In fact, no other member of Liverpool’s midfield played more Premier League minutes than the indefatigable Dutchman last season. Only Roberto Firmino, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andrew Robertson and Virgil Van Dijk played more.
Jurgen Klopp’s midfield core is unlike any other. It’s uniquely adept with and without the ball, defensively and offensively, in and out of transition.
It works as one cohesive whole and is purposefully idiosyncratic – a vehicle for ensuring Liverpool’s wide men, Robbo and Trent, are afforded enough space to create – in the way it functions. Wijnaldum, for that matter, is a vital cog within it and has been since the beginning of Klopp’s tenure.
It’s a slight on Wijaldum to label him a ‘steady eddy’, but he’s certainly ‘tried and tested’. And in a gun-ho-swashbuckling-never-stop-running midfield such as Liverpool’s, the ‘tried and tested’ are key.
Thiago, however good he is, will naturally be ‘untried’ and ‘untested’ if he does indeed arrive at Anfield this summer.
Why is selling Wijnaldum a gamble?
First and foremost, by no means will his replacement – whatever their reputation – merely walk into this midfield.
Fabinho is one such example. The Brazillian arrived from Monaco in 2018 for a fee in the region of £40million+. He was and still is, seen as one of the best in his position, but it took him six to seven months before Klopp deemed him ‘ready’ to be a first-team regular.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph in April 2019, Fabinho even admitted he was initially frustrated by his lack of minutes:
“…when it came to the start of the season the coach had everyone available and he wanted to go with players who he had already worked with before.
“It was a case of learning, watching and getting up to speed. Watching from the side-lines as to how the team works.
“I was hoping for opportunities early on but I knew this could happen, I knew that I needed to be patient, work hard and that when the chance came to play I had already adapted and I could see what the team was trying to do so I was up to the pace of it…”
He continued: “You just don’t have time to think. And in the first few games, I think I played well but I needed to be faster.
“Jurgen Klopp wanted me to learn how to play in the team and what my role was and I think time was the most important thing in doing this.”
Naby Keita is, of course, another example. Whilst the Guinean’s price-tag was also substantial – £50million substantial – he also found the going tough when he arrived in 2018. And, to a certain extent, he still does.
Highly sought after, Keita was a hugely exciting prospect known for his excellent ball retention skills; a player who could seamlessly slalom his way through a defensive block and then, most importantly, find ‘the right pass’.
But he’s still, admittedly, a working progress and, as yet, has failed to nail down a consistent starting berth. That’s largely because of players like Wijnaldum.
Be careful what you wish for
The Dutchman, 29, has just one year left on his current Liverpool contract. New Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman, who’s worked with Wijnaldum as couch for the Holland national team, is keen to acquire his services.
Whilst Liverpool are reluctant to let go of the midfielder – for reasons spelt out above – a sizable bid (£25-30million) from the Spanish giants could force their hand.
The Reds are, conversely, interested in Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcantara, and, by all accounts, would happily make a move if Wijanldum leaves for Spain.
But be careful what you wish for. There are no guarantees that Thiago, however talented, walks into Liverpool’s midfield. That may sound outright ridiculous given his portfolio, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the Champions League winner is a certified ‘upgrade’. He’s not.
Wijnaldum’s an archetype Klopp midfielder and hardly ever gets injured. Thiago, on the other hand, has struggled with ten different injures over the past three seasons, including ankle ligament problems, according to Transfermarkt.
So, who’s to say he won’t struggle to deal with the gritty physical battles synonymous with the English game? Who’s to say he’ll stay fit and, concomitantly, maintain a level of performance on par with what Wijnaldum has produced over the last couple of years? Again, there are no guarantees. None.
The last word
That’s not to say that I am categorically against signing what is a world-class midfielder this summer. Far from it.
In an ideal world, Liverpool accrue £20-30million for the likes of Marko Grujic and Harry Wilson, and then have the funds (and the space in the squad) to justify a move for Thiago and do so.
Though, the idea of one in, one out – Wijnaldum leaving and Thiago replacing him – concerns me. The former has been a custodian of Liverpool’s near-invincibility in recent seasons.
He’s also the man who scored ‘the goal’ which secured Champions League football in 2017; the player who inspired ‘that comeback’ against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final in 2019; and much more.
Some people, notably LFC Twitter keyboard warriors, seem almost blithely uninterested in recognising his patent importance to Liverpool’s success in recent seasons and what he can still continue to offer.