Liverpool should look to Gini Wijnaldum for inspiration in their midfield transfer search as two recent signings fail to adequately fill the Dutchman’s void.
Jude Bellingham is a midfielder who likes to get forward, score goals and assists and it would be fantastic if Liverpool could get him,” Sky Sports’ Jamie Carragher said of the Borussia Dortmund midfielder on Friday.
“But they need a [Georginio] Wijnaldum figure to come in in the summer,” he continued (via The Express). “This midfield isn’t what you expect or what Jürgen Klopp really wants.
“It’s not just about certain players and a certain age, because the younger players are more technical than high energy. I talk about Harvey Elliott and [Fábio] Carvalho, it feels like Liverpool’s midfield isn’t high-energy.
Either side of Wijnaldum’s departure in 2021, the Reds have signed a couple of midfield players, recruiting Thiago from Bayern Munich and Arthur from Juventus, but neither should be seen as direct replacements. They’re both midfielders of a different profile and, perhaps more importantly, they’re injury prone.
Between the start of 2017/18 and his departure, Wijnaldum made 175 appearances for Liverpool, started 168 out of 196 games in the Premier League and Champions League and clocked up 14,839 minutes. That’s a remarkable average of 3,709 minutes per season.
Wijnaldum was physically bulletproof, and in his absence, it has often felt as if Liverpool’s midfield is beset by injury problems. The club’s failure to fill the huge void left by his departure to Paris Saint-Germain must rank as one of their poorest and most baffling decisions of the era. An ever-present departed and no adequate successor arrived.
There are, first and foremost, tactical reasons behind Liverpool’s midfield struggles without Wijnaldum. Indeed, Carragher went on to say that the Reds need someone ‘to help them defensively’ if they’re to adequately replace him.
Wijnaldum was a specialist when it came to defensive transitions, able to snuff them out and restart Liverpool’s attacks. Without him, they’ve become one of the Reds’ major weaknesses.
But intriguingly, Carragher also alludes to physical attributes, suggesting Liverpool are missing Wijnaldum’s athletic profile too. When you look through their midfield ranks, he may have a point. It felt as if the Dutchman had a longer battery life than most of his teammates, and he combined that with great strength and decent pace.
While there have been some signs of an improvement lately, Fabinho has largely looked leggy all season, and Jordan Henderson and James Milner are both past their athletic prime.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta could perhaps have been the answer, but it’s clear that they’ve both been significantly affected by the succession of injuries they’ve suffered.
The likes of Curtis Jones, Elliott and Carvalho, meanwhile, can all be described as ‘more technical than high-energy’, and you might say the same for Thiago and Arthur.
Many Liverpool fans have bemoaned the midfield’s perceived lack of physicality this season, aghast at the sight of their team being out-run and out-muscled. For a side that proclaims intensity as its identity and looks to overwhelm and overpower the opposition, this is highly problematic.
In their pomp, Liverpool and Manchester City weren’t simply the two best footballing sides in the division, they were the best athletically too. And so, the Reds’ fall from grace is inextricably tied to their apparent physical decline.
With these attributes potentially overlooked, they’ve not found the right balance in the composition of their midfield.
This, then, needs to be at the forefront of their minds as they search for reinforcements, whether that’s in the January transfer window or in the summer.
There are parallels here to the record-breaking departure of Philippe Coutinho in 2018. For a while, supporters questioned the club’s failure to find a direct replacement, but it became clear that Liverpool could replace his attributes in different ways and achieve great things without him, reaching back-to-back Champions League finals and picking up 97 points in their first full season after his exit.
Similar concerns were raised about Wijnaldum in the first half of last season before they faded into the background amid the Reds’ quadruple push. But with the midfield now a glaring area of weakness and the Reds dragged into a top-four battle, Liverpool’s blunder is back in the spotlight.