A Liverpool Legend
“Gini Wijnaldum. A Liverpool legend now and forever. What this person – this wonderful, joyful, selfless person – has done for our team and club, I cannot sum up in words,” said Jurgen Klopp in a heartfelt goodbye to Gini Wijnaldum upon his departure from Liverpool in the summer of 2021.
The Dutch midfielder joined Liverpool in 2016 from Newcastle and soon became the catalyst in the engine room. He was absolutely vital to the Liverpool’s success as he helped the club to 5 major trophies – including the Premier League and the Champions League. He played 237 games for the Anfield outfit and was an ever-present reliable performer in the midfield trio.
Many will remember him for the brace he scored coming off the bench against Barcelona in May 2019 in their incredible 4-0 comeback. But most Liverpool fans will remember him for different reasons – his press evasion, ball retention, legendary work ethic and most importantly, his reliability.
In five seasons, Gini only missed 11 league games – playing all 38 in his final season with the Reds. When you consider the fact he was also playing in multiple other competitions for club and country, plus being the number eight in a team known for their non-stop running, that is an impressive amount of durability.
“We built this Liverpool on his legs, lungs, brain and his huge beautiful heart”Jurgen Klopp when asked about Gini Wijnaldum’s contract situation early 2021
Why haven’t Liverpool replaced him?
In short, they tried.
But that is an oversimplification. They have brought in midfielders that are deployed in that role – in the form of Thiago and Naby Keita, but these don’t seem to have worked out in the way Jurgen Klopp would have imagined.
Before the arrival of Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich in 2020, there was a sense that the midfield needed an evolution – though after back-to-back seasons of success, I am still a little puzzled as to why. However, the idea was that the midfield needed more creativity, even if that meant sacrificing ‘workmanship’. And in the form of Thiago, this evolution came to fruition.
The Spaniard has been a success in a red shirt, but at 31 his longevity is in question. Naby Keita on the other hand has been a very disappointing acquisition.
Since the Guinean midfielder’s highly-anticipated arrival in 2017 following a £60 million move, he has struggled for any form of consistency. Keita has at times shown brilliance when he gets on the pitch, but that is the issue – when he gets on the pitch.
In five years, he has only played 122 times for the Merseyside squad – which is a very poor return on the hefty original investment made by FSG. On top of these issues, the owners haven’t invested nearly enough money to keep up with their competitors – evident in this season’s performances. Gini Wijnaldum has not been appropriately replaced but his midfield partners in Fabinho and captain Jordan Henderson are also starting to falter in the side.
Who’d be a good replacement?
It is clear that Liverpool miss the Dutch battery pack in their midfield. Since his departure, the running numbers are down, the performances are down and most importantly, so is the points tally. I’ve taken the liberty of playing sporting director and identified a few options the redmen could consider to fill this gap in their squad.
Jude Bellingham – the popular choice
Jude Bellingham is the hottest midfield prospect in world football – and it is not only Liverpool after his signature. The 19-year-old already boasts a wealth of experience and a proven ability to be a game changer at the top level. He would be the perfect Klopp-style midfielder and perhaps the perfect Wijnaldum replacement too.
After leaving England in 2020, the young Englishman has only missed three games due to injury and has also impressed the footballing world with his quality in-and-out of possession. Being in the 76th percentile for dribble success rate and boasting an 82.99% pass completion rate this season – according to FootyStats.org – it is clear that he possesses great quality on the ball just as Gini did on Merseyside. Winning 9.4 ground duels per 90 puts him in the 99th percentile, it’s evident that the young English midfielder also has the tools and athleticism to revitalise the Liverpool midfield and facilitate a better press. With Bellingham having a value of just shy of £100 million (according to Transfermarkt), and Liverpool having a reported £200-£250 million to spend in the summer, could we see Jude grace the Anfield turf next season?
“It’s not just about the quality, it’s about how he was leading and kicking and going to the referee, this guy is something special and has the mentality. He already is one of the captains [at Dortmund], the whole package is really good.”Pep Guardiola on Jude Bellingham, before Manchester City took on Borrussia Dortmund in the Champions League
Azzedine Ounahi – the cost-effective choice
Azzedine Ounahi recently made a name for himself in Qatar at the World Cup. Playing in the heart of an impressive Morocco team that reached the semi-finals, the 22-year-old has certainly put himself on the map and attracted the interest of some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
With a value of around £13 million (according to Transfermarkt), this option would be a little lighter on the pockets of FSG – which with the club up for sale, might be the more likely investment strategy.
The Moroccan midfield maestro is competent in areas similar to Gini, with a pass accuracy of 88.62% whilst averaging 5.5 ball recoveries per 90 (Opta), he is adept at going both ways in a box-to-box manner. Similar to Gini, he is also incredibly injury-averse, with the young midfielder not having missed any games due to injury. However, he does lose possession an average of 12.5 times per game (Opta), though that’s probably a symptom of his youth – but still something that doesn’t fit the high ball retention rate required when making the jump from Ligue 1 to the Premier League. Regardless, this won’t scare off Klopp who has a proven track record of turning young players into world beaters. Could Ounahi be his next miracle?
Matheus Nunes – the best of both worlds
Linked with a move to Anfield in the summer of 2022, Nunes has once again been linked with a move to the North of England. Matheus Nunes isn’t exactly a carbon copy of Gini, but could be a player Liverpool turn to in hopes of bolstering their midfield in his place.
His athleticism and physical profile are his stand out traits. In a game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the early stages of the 2022/23 season, these skills were showcased. Nunes picked up the ball at the edge of his own box and proceeded to carry it 70+ yards, riding tackles and gliding past defenders before playing in a pass to create a chance on goal.
As well as his ball carrying ability, Nunes shows great aggression in the tackle – averaging 2.4 per 90 (Opta) – and has the vision to find his team mates in goal-scoring positions with 1.2 chances created per 90 (Opta). With a market value close to £40 million (Transfermarkt), he is the perfect financial middle ground between Bellingham and Ounahi. However, only having just recently moved to Wolves 6 months ago, that price tag is likely to be inflated if Liverpool are to move for him in the winter window.
Will we see Liverpool action their interest in the young Portuguese midfielder?
Back to the present problems
At the end of the day, the gap left by Gini Winjaldum’s departure was never going to be a simple fix – but the effort made by the owners at Liverpool has been subpar. The options are there, and at a club like Liverpool, you’d imagine the money is also.
But the problems at Liverpool won’t be solved with one signing – in fact, FSG wouldn’t go wrong with the purchase of multiple midfielders. All that can be said is that right now is that Jurgen Klopp’s men could do with the ‘legs and lungs’ of a new face, because they are definitely missing an old one in the form of Gini Wijnaldum.