Football Features

Will we see a different Georginio Wijnaldum if Liverpool’s unsung hero joins Barcelona?

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 14:37, 3 September 2020 | Updated: 12:17, 5 September 2020

Georginio Wijnaldum is likely to leave Liverpool for Barcelona this summer, according to reports.

Catalan daily paper Sport say the Dutch midfielder, who has one year left on his contract at Anfield, has been requested by Ronald Koeman and that talks between club and player are going well.

Wijnaldum played a huge part in Liverpool’s recent glory, often acting as a counterbalance in midfield as well as providing energy and goals. His brace against Barcelona back in 2018/19 was arguably the moment the Reds gained their sense of invincibility, so he cannot be said to have been a passenger even if he hasn’t been one of the main protagonists of their success.

The Reds would be losing an incredible engine from their midfield. Since the start of 2016/17, only Roberto Firmino has played more Premier League minutes than Wijnaldum’s 11,046. His constant availability for such a physically demanding role was crucial in letting Jurgen Klopp establish a high intensity to Liverpool’s play.

So you’d be tempted to cast Liverpool as losers here, but in losing Wijnaldum for around €20m, suddenly the funds would be available for the Reds to go out and get Thiago Alcantara. The Spanish midfielder has been long linked with the Reds but their notoriously frugal owners have shown a reluctance to spend given they could get Thiago for free next summer.

However, should he leave, they would have a minimal outlay to avoid missing out on Thiago, either completely should another club sign him this summer or at the very least a whole season of his peak years. And as such, they would be replacing a Wijnaldum with a wizard, fresh off the back of a star performance in a Champions League final win that secured a treble.

As for his would-be club manager, the notion that Ronald Koeman could request Gini Wijnaldum and then within a few weeks a cash-strapped Barcelona made it happen bodes well for the Dutchman’s time in charge, at least in terms of him being allowed to coach the way he wants unhindered by others.

With Ivan Rakitic having left the club, soon to be followed by Arturo Vidal, you can see why Barcelona need another body in midfield. And Koeman has worked with Wijnaldum in the national team set-up so will know him well.

Wijnaldum wins possession in the Premier League at a rate of 6.1 times per 90 minutes, an upper-average figure across the whole division. But there are four past or present Liverpool midfielders who have been more active in this sense, namely Jordan Henderson (8.2), Naby Keita (8), Emre Can (7.6) and James Milner (6.3, albeit often from full-back).

But as much as we previously associated Klopp’s tactics with winning the ball, a greater emphasis should be placed on how his possession-heavy Liverpool keep it. Only two Premier League teams have maintained a possession average of above 60% since the 2016/17 season. Liverpool are one of them (no prizes for guessing the other team, Manchester City), in part thanks to one of Wijnaldum’s most remarkable abilities.

Since his first full Premier League season at Liverpool (2016/17), Wijnaldum has lost possession at an average of 9.1 times per 90 minutes. That’s the lowest average of any midfielder at the club. Across all outfield positions, only centre-backs Ragnar Klavan and Virgil van Dijk can beat it. So it’s no surprise to hear Wijnaldum has the best passing accuracy (90%) of any Liverpool player in the Premier League since he joined.

Will we see a different Wijnaldum at Barcelona?

Of course Wijnaldum’s arrival would entail someone dropping out of the side. Now if you assume, as reported, that Frenkie de Jong is going to assume his natural role at the base of midfield then Riqui Puig, based on the way last season ended, would be the natural fit to be at the tip of midfield. And then Wijnaldum as an all-round dynamo, able to constantly provide passing options to teammates in both the defensive or attacking thirds.

But if you look at the way Koeman constructed his Netherlands midfield, it points to an entirely different scenario. There he has Frenkie de Jong at the base, yes, but next to him was Maarten de Roon as the shuttle whilst Wijnaldum played as the most advanced midfielder.

And Wijnaldum has thrived in that role, offering a real goal threat. He has eight goals in his last 10 international matches and is the top-scoring midfielder in Euro 2020 qualification.

“Riqui Puig’s future could go either way”

Transpose this onto Barcelona and you’ve got the new 60m signing Miralem Pjanic, a natural fit for De Roon’s role, which leaves Barcelona’s midfield wonderkid stuck on the bench yet again.

Riqui Puig’s future could go either way depending on how Koeman intends to line up his midfield. If Puig makes the XI, he’ll likely have a breakout season. If he doesn’t, then it’s hard to see a future for him at the club.

The one undisputed issue in all of this is that Gini Wijnaldum is a winner. A big winner. After experiencing relegation with Newcastle he joins Liverpool and helps lift them to the very pinnacle of world football. Then, as his contract runs down, he earns a move to one of the world’s biggest clubs to be a central part of their most thorough rebuild for over a decade. And given the way the Blaugrana negotiate, he’s probably getting a significant payrise out of the deal as well.

Nice work if you can get it.