23 July 2016

On Georginio Wijnaldum

Liverpool now have its seventh signing since Jürgen Klopp became manager. Liverpool now have its second £20m+ signing of the summer. And after months of speculation and multiple names mooted, Liverpool now have a new midfielder.

Welcome to Liverpool, Georginio Wijnaldum.

Most importantly, like Sadio Mané – and, at least so far in preseason, Marko Grujic – Wijnaldum provides goals from midfield. He scored 11 last season, including one penalty, which was a quarter of Newcastle's total. Liverpool need goals. More goals. All the goals. Especially from midfield: Milner scored five last season, Henderson and Allen two, and Can just one.

Yes, Wijnaldum scored six of his 11 in two matches: four against Norwich and two against Tottenham on the last day of the season. Yes, Wijnaldum failed to score between mid-January and mid-May, with Newcastle mired in its struggle against relegation. Yes, Wijnaldum scored all of his goals at St. James' Park.

I'm willing to chalk that up to Newcastle being a bad team. Maybe it's more out of hope than fact. The record away from home is the most forgivable. Newcastle scored 73% of their total goals at St. James' Park. Bad teams are usually dramatically better at home. It's not unreasonable to assume Wijnaldum will be better away from home in a better team. It's not unreasonable to assume Wijnaldum will simply be better in a better team.

So many runs into the box from deep, in position to convert from crosses, cut-backs, knock-downs, and lay-offs. That's exactly what Liverpool need from midfield.

It's notable that four of his goals – four of the first five he scored last season – came from headers, despite being a 5'9" midfielder. But that's more evidence of the clever positions he takes up on the pitch and in attack. Because, like Sadio Mané, Wijnaldum gets a lot of goals by getting into good shooting positions.

Only two Liverpool players with 10 or more shots in the league last year took a higher percentage from inside the box than Wijnaldum: Benteke and Skrtel. Benteke's a center-forward reliant on headers. All of Skrtel's shots came from set plays.

Incidentally, only three Liverpool players took more shots in total than Wijnaldum's 54: Coutinho, Firmino, and Benteke.

More importantly, compare Wijnaldum's proportion to Liverpool's other midfielders, whether attacking or central. Attacking midfielders? Firmino 61.9% inside the box, Lallana 61.4%, Ibe 44.8%, Coutinho 37.8%. Central midfielders? Allen 66.7% (just 12 shots), Milner 48.7%, Can 33.3%, Henderson 30.8%.

Liverpool took 629 shots last season, more than any other side but Tottenham. But just 53.9% of Liverpool's shots came from inside the box. Only five teams – Watford, Swansea, Bournemouth, Aston Villa, and Stoke – took a lower proportion of their shots from inside the box.

It is harder for Liverpool players to find space inside the opposition's penalty box than for Newcastle players, just because of how deep most opposition defenders were against Liverpool. Sit back, stay compact, keep Liverpool out. And Liverpool will eventually begin frustratedly firing from any and all angles. Time and time again last season. But lesser teams sit deep against Arsenal, Manchester City, etc. and those sides didn't have the same problem getting shots from inside the box that Liverpool routinely had. So Liverpool need to add players ready, willing, and able to look for and get those shots.

Yes, it will be harder for Wijnaldum to find that space next season, but that he's always trying to do so, and at least capable of doing so, remains a very crucial element which this Liverpool squad has needed.

Wijnaldum's also incredibly versatile – just like Sadio Mané. He can play in a two- or three-man central midfield, as a #10, or on the left flank. His best performances last season came as the #10, but I suspect he'll be much more of a central midfielder at Liverpool, a box-to-box player ahead of Henderson, Can, Lucas, etc, making the late runs into the box that Liverpool have so desperately lacked. Liverpool have the players in attack – Firmino, Coutinho, Mané, Lallana, even Ojo and maybe Markovic if need be. Liverpool assuredly need more in central midfield, especially after Allen's inevitable exit.

Still, a variety of options are a great problem to have, especially since Liverpool will certainly use a smaller squad this season, something already pointed out by the manager.


I'm admittedly a bit concerned about Wijnaldum's ability to play in a deeper position, just because he didn't do it as often or as effectively for Newcastle. His defensive profile is closer to Firmino and Coutinho rather than Allen, Henderson, Can, or even Lallana. But Klopp's seemingly not; after ostensibly chasing Dahoud and Zielinski, this is the player that Liverpool decided on, and are happy to pay £25m for. And, to be fair, Wijnaldum has done in more often and effectively for the Netherlands (pay no attention to the Netherlands failing to qualify for Euro 2016).

And like Sadio Mané (are you sensing a trend here?), Wijnaldum is entering the prime of his career, 25, to turn 26 in four months. Liverpool, with one of the youngest squads in the league over the last two seasons, are finally entering their prime, and Liverpool's two star summer signings fit directly into that demographic.

These are the 22 players I'd consider as Liverpool's most important, those who'll see the vast majority of next season's minutes. Others will assuredly feature – there will be domestic cups and injuries, and I still expect Liverpool to sign one more player to challenge Moreno at left-back – but these will be on the pitch most often, especially since Liverpool are without European competition. In 2013-14, the last time Liverpool just had domestic football, only 16 players saw at least 700 minutes in the league.

12 of these 22 players are between the ages of 24 and 27. In or entering their prime. Including the two players than Klopp signed for £20m+ this summer.

It's time for Liverpool to grow up, and this summer's additions – except for Grujic's potential, Klavan taking Toure's role, and Manninger basically signed to be the new goalkeeping coach – fit right into that category.

The contradictory narrative is that Wijnaldum is yet another over-priced PL player who played well against Liverpool. So many signed since FSG took over, whether by Dalglish, Rodgers, or Klopp. Liverpool fail to get Götze, so Liverpool go for the PL-proven Mané. Liverpool fail to get Dahoud or Zielinski, so Liverpool go for Wijnaldum.

I do not care. Those deals are old deals. This is a different manager who's working off what appears to be a cohesive plan. Who's adding the type of players that Liverpool need to add, in the age range that Liverpool should be working in. Jürgen Klopp's already done enough to get the benefit of the doubt, at the absolute least.

Georginio Wijnaldum provides Liverpool with mobility, versatility, shots in the box, and goals from midfield. He's already shown more than competence in the Premier League but still has the potential to do so much more. That's what I'm focusing on. That's all I'm focusing on.

Next season's shaping up very nicely.