Phillip Cocu once quipped that due to his comfortability in playing across numerous positions that only “goalkeeper and right-back” were the roles he never filled during his illustrious career.
His story, though, is commonplace across the Netherlands, the country which gave birth to a system of football that encourages universality – being able to operate in various areas of the pitch – which came to be known as Total Football.
So it’s normal to see players constantly changing roles as they develop, and no one today exemplifies this more than Georginio Wijnaldum, who is now starting to live up to those Ruud Gullit comparisons for both club and country.
The first modern total-footballer
When looking back you’re reminded what a brilliant footballer Gullit was. Part of the first wave of Dutch footballers that followed after Rinus Michels changed the game, Gullit was a blueprint going forward. He just about played in every on-field position, even starting as a centre-back at his first professional club HFC Haarlem before joining Feyenoord, where he found himself on the right flank, only to become an attacking sweeper at PSV. And, during his peak world class years at AC Milan he played as an attacking midfielder.
No matter where his manager fielded him, the overall impact was still the same. Versatility was a blessing not a hindrance. He was an example to his teammates, who he greatly inspired, while he was also widely respected by his opponents. For the national team he predominantly operated in the classic ‘No. 9 and 10’ tandem with his AC Milan clubmate Marco van Basten.
His 17 goals across 66 matches for Oranje, which included a stunning header in their victorious Euro 1988 final meeting with the USSR, was recently surpassed by Wijnaldum, who grabbed a first international hat-trick against Estonia. The Liverpool midfielder also wore the armband at the Johan Cruyff Arena, highlighting the Rotterdammer’s newfound importance under manager Ronald Koeman, who also knew a thing or two about playing in multiple roles.
During his formative years in Sparta Rotterdam’s youth academy Wijnaldum’s home was in the opposition’s penalty box, but as he grew up and further developed his footballing acumen, the further back he went – a la legendary Ajax midfielder Arie Haan – though aged 29 there’s plenty more to come from him for club and country, where he’s equally important to both, though in different ways. It genuinely feels like there are two versions of him.
Jurgen Klopp’s love of selfless multifunctional footballers is well-documented and the longer he’s at Anfield and Wijnaldum continues hitting those high notes you can’t see Liverpool dispensing of him. That means the familiar No. 5 shirt, which tends to cover acres of ground, will continue to be a sight to behold. And much like the equally selfless Gullit, the duties he performs at international level couldn’t be any more different than playing week in and week out for his club.
We know where he prefers to play, but putting self-interest before the European champions has never crossed his mind. That being said, being utilised as a No. 8 in a Dutch-esque 4-3-3 is not that far away from playing in the space behind Roberto Firmino – his main position for the Netherlands – though a lack of goals – 15 across 157 appearances – can be explained by Klopp’s instruction to balance his presence at both ends of the pitch.
Having a defensive midfielder, nominally Fabino, operating just in front of the backline means he’s not a typical box-to-box midfielder. Wijnaldum, though, is an effective distributor (averaging 47.5 passes per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season) and can win possession through either his impeccable tackling (1.3 per 90 minutes) or good positional sense.
Klopp, who signed Wijnaldum following Newcastle United’s last relegation from the Premier League, and where he curiously played as a right winger under Steve McClaren, has fielded him as a defensive midfielder in no fewer than 16 matches to date. Here, the engine he possesses shines; it enables him to cover ground, making those deep runs – a trait valued by Klopp as it’s useful to their pressing and positional game.
In the final third
One wonders if Klopp will ever play him again in the deep-lying forward role, something he last did for 14 minutes against Wolves last December, which became occasion number seven. It’s not like Wijnaldum needs to do any brushing up given it’s where his national team boss, Koeman, feels he belongs.
In fact, this is where Wijnaldum made his name during an incredible spell at PSV, bagging 56 goals in 154 matches. For much of his time in Eindhoven he played alongside left-winger Memphis Depay, forging an irresistible partnership, which they’ve rekindled with the Netherlands.
Depay, though, performs akin to what Firmino does for the Reds, a move spearheaded by Koeman to great success. The former Manchester United forward is Oranje’s most prolific star following Koeman’s appointment, having scored 11 times across 18 matches. Just behind him in the standings is Depay’s partner in crime Wijnaldum, whose registered seven goals across his last five appearances.
What a night!! Unbelievably honoured to make my debut as captain today, to combine that with 3 goals is just unforgettable 🙏🏾 So excited for the summer with this incredible squad! 🔶🦁 We are one team 🤜🏻🤛🏾 pic.twitter.com/KtuMKuiIGC
— Gini Wijnaldum (@GWijnaldum) November 19, 2019
Being stationed near the final third obviously plays a big role, and in some ways it feels like a temporary escape, not that he doesn’t enjoy playing for the European champions, but there’s less restriction imposed on him, which makes sense given how both teams he represents couldn’t be any more stark.
The workmanlike triumvirate he belongs to in Merseyside – which also includes the aforementioned Fabino and skipper Jordan Henderson – is essential in allowing their full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to become Liverpool’s creative hub. Koeman’s equivalent pair are your more traditional versions, meaning that no onus is placed on Wijnaldum to replicate his Liverpool self, instead he has the freedom to operate like he used to for PSV.
Wijnaldum pulls off his role for Klopp effortlessly, again because of his upbringing and football IQ, but he’s also devastating playing as a No. 10, which defined Gullit. Like the 1987 Ballon d’Or winner he’s a manager’s dream. It’s taken a while, but Gini is finally living up to that promise as well as getting the plaudits he deserves.