Georginio “Gini” Wijnaldum has been at the heart of Liverpool’s robust, hard-working midfield for the past five seasons. He’s a player Culés know all too well, as he scored two goals in two minutes to help lift Liverpool past Barcelona in the 2018/19 Champions League semi-finals.
Wijnaldum is an impending free agent this summer and has been linked with Barcelona ever since Ronald Koeman took over in the fall. Koeman coached him with the Dutch national team and has a real affinity for the player, even coming out in interviews claiming he was on his “transfer list”.
Barça are in a tough situation as they need to revamp their squad but lack the proper funds to do so. Wijnaldum could potentially be signed for free in the summer, but should Barça pursue him?
Wijnaldum rose through the ranks of the Feyenoord youth system before making his senior club debut at 16 years-old in 2007. In fact, he is the youngest debutant in the Dutch club’s history. He made 135 appearances with his boyhood club and won the Dutch Cup in 2008. Wijnaldum then had spells with PSV Eindhoven and Newcastle United before signing with Liverpool in 2016.
With Liverpool, Wijnaldum has won practically every trophy possible, from the Champions League in 2019 to the Premier League in 2020. He has made over 212 appearances for The Reds and is a staple in their midfield. Under manager Jürgen Klopp, he’s made a name for himself as a midfield engine, one whose high energy and pressing gives the team defensive stability as well as a quick outlet for transitional play.
Playing alongside Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, and Naby Keita in a midfield three, his work rate allows Liverpool to dominate opposing teams. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Against Barcelona in 2019, he played as a centre forward, and he’s even played matches at centre back.
The 30-year old is capable of fulfilling various roles in the middle of the park. In the early stages of his career with Feyenoord and PSV, he played as an advanced midfielder, a number ten, and even on both wings. To showcase his attacking prowess, he had seasons of 14, 15, and 16 goal hauls in 2010/11, 2012/13, and 2014/15 respectively. His roles during his one-season stint with Newcastle were varied, and he was impressively their leading goalscorer (11) in the Premier League that season (2015/16).
Wijnaldum is also a key squad member for the Dutch National team. He made his debut in September of 2011 and has made 70 appearances ever since. He often plays as an advanced midfielder and has scored 21 goals for the Oranje. Looking at the heap map below, it’s clear to see the different roles he fulfills for his club side and national team.
Wijnaldum is an extremely hard-worker on the pitch. Defensively, he’s nearly impossible to shake off with his physicality and positioning. Offensively, he’s press-resistant, efficient with his passing and has a knack for scoring goals. Once again, he’s not asked to do much on the creative-end for Liverpool, but his time in the Netherlands and with the national team proves he’s more than capable of fulfilling those duties.
Last season, he averaged 45.9 passes per game with a completion rate of 90.4%, 9.10 made passes while under pressure from opponents, and 1.69 tackles plus interceptions per game. This season, he is one of the squad leaders for Liverpool in terms of most passes made while under pressure (7.51). In the Premier League this season, he is winning 2.4 of his ground duels per game.
His averages of only 0.08 goal-creating actions per 90 minutes and 0.15 goal contributions per game last season may indicate a lack of creativity, but that’s only due to his positioning and tactical instructions from Klopp. For the Dutch National team, in which he plays in a more advanced position, he has tallied a staggering 11 goals and four assists in 17 appearances since 2019. That’s a rate of 0.88 goal contributions per game, albeit at a smaller sample size.
Where would he fit in at Barça?
Evidently, Wijnaldum is one of the most versatile players in the world. He does a little bit of everything and as such, could potentially fill a variety of roles for Barça.
In Koeman’s 4-2-3-1, Wijnaldum can play in the double pivot or even the number ten role. There, Winjaldum’s high energy and defensive work rate could cover a more attack-minded player, like Frenkie De Jong. Koeman has recently reverted to Barça’s typical 4-3-3, however, the 2014-2015 Netherlands Footballer of the Year can play in any of the three midfield positions. He’s had some experience as a number 6, playing in front of the defence and anchoring the midfield, but his box-to-box capabilities would best serve the team if he played as an “interior”, one of the two central midfielders.
Barça fans have often clamoured for a workhorse in the midfield, someone who will do the team’s dirty work night in and night out. This player’s defensive work rate would counterbalance the more attack-oriented and free-roaming midfielders. Arturo Vidal filled this role for a season or two and Ivan Rakitic to a different degree before him. Wijnaldum could play this part admirably for the Blaugrana, just as he currently does for Liverpool.
It’s easy to see why Koeman wants to sign him. The question is, should Barcelona move ahead with it?
Although there are many arguments in favour of signing Wijnaldum, particularly regarding his versatility and box-to-box acumen, there are equally as many against it.
To start, he is already 30-years old and would be 31 by the start of next season. While he is still performing at a high level and not showing signs of slowing down, signing him would put the club in an awkward place. His salary demands are reportedly why he wants to leave Liverpool, and the Catalans should be hesitant before signing him to a potentially long-term, high salary deal. He could easily end up in Arturo Vidal’s situation, where the club signed him at 31-years old and after a season and a half, decided to offload him for free.
Furthermore, because Barcelona are in dire straits financially, they need to spend what little money they have wisely. Squad building should be focused on long-term replacements for key positions such as left-back, centre forward, and defensive mid. Wijnaldum would be a complimentary piece, and while he could be a solid temporary fix, Barça require core pieces.
His addition would also crowd the Blaugrana’s jam-packed midfield, not to mention take minutes away from their various “gems.” To fill the three centre-mid positions, Barcelona have Sergio Busquets, Frenkie De Jong, Pedri, Riqui Puig, Miralem Pjanić, the up-and-coming Ilaix Moriba (set to make his debut this Friday in the Spanish Cup), and even Sergi Roberto or Philippe Coutinho once they return from injury.
As mentioned, some fans would want him because of his work rate and tireless effort on the defensive end, but the squad’s defensive issues won’t disappear because of one hard-working player.
In years past, a signing like Wijnaldum would make perfect sense. He would have been younger and could fill a long-term need as a versatile squad piece, but Barcelona are now in a different place both on and off-the-pitch. It can be frustrating for culés to hear the age-old arguments about how their club is struggling financially. Still, the reality is that Barça must now be extremely diligent and effective with their signings, focusing instead on finding long-term replacements in key positions. Wijaldum could be a solid addition, but he is not a player the club absolutely needs.
Barcelona’s rebirth is inevitable, but it will take time
Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner. In early March, the club will finally get their long-awaited new president following the tyranny that was Josep Maria Bartomeu’s tenure. And perhaps ‘tyranny’ may be a bit too harsh of a verdict, but how else would you call years of systematically destroying the club, consciously or subconsciously, plunging it deeper and deeper into the abyss? On second thoughts, ‘tyranny‘ will just have to do.
But all of that is firmly behind us now. In just weeks’ time, the Catalan giant will rise once more, reborn from the ashes of its fallen self to conquer the world anew. But things in football are never really that easy, are they? Everyone knows you can’t win all the time.
Even the greatest of teams such as Pep Guardiola’s very own Barcelona had their rise, peak and subsequent downfall. And there are not many clubs out there who have faced the harsh reality of building new dynasties from scratch as much as Barcelona have.
So if history is any indication at all, change takes time and the upcoming presidential tenure at the club will be no different. But let’s get one thing clear right away – this is not meant to bash any of the three candidates nor promote them either. All three of Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Antoni Freixa have their own visions of the direction in which to take their beloved club.
However, to think everything will suddenly and immediately change upon their appointment would be foolish. No, in March, we’re not getting the rebirth; we’re only getting the very beginning of one. With a new president sitting in that chair and appointing a new board, Barcelona will once again lay the groundwork for future success.
The immediate appointment of the new upper hierarchy might boost the morale, of course. And that in itself could then translate to a boost on the pitch as well. But a new president can only do as much in such a short amount of time. The real battles are always fought on the pitches and there, Barcelona are still looking like a broken team.
This too, of course, can be fixed over time. With the appropriate staff behind the scenes, a much better scouting department, physios, psychologists and a step-by-step tactical and squad overhaul, we can start hoping for result. But those are all long-term goals that require patience both from us the fans and the team itself.
Unfortunately, years of failure in the market, chasing ghosts of our pasts and blind picks, have resulted in a financially distorted club. Where once was wealth and prosperity now we only have crumbs of former glory. Yes, Barcelona are still a powerful outfit that can and should be aiming to attract only the very best.
But we also have to remember that each of the three candidates is seemingly putting a lot of emphasis on going back to the roots. ‘The roots‘ here mean La Masia, the academy and the youth. But just as is the case with any sporting project, especially the ones founded on the strength coming from within, this takes time to develop. Rome wasn’t built overnight. Nor was La Masia or Barcelona’s legacy, for that matter.
The Azulgranas really do have incredible talent in their youth ranks and this is definitely a pool of players that should be utilised in the future. We shouldn’t, however, expect to find the new Golden Generation right around the corner.
We have been fooled into thinking the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi are the standard and the rule. Unfortunately, as much as we like to keep telling ourselves otherwise, they are very much the exception to the rule; the standout and likely a one-in-a-million crop of players that flourished under a brilliant manager.
So many things had to be in the right place for them to make it, and somehow, the stars had aligned back then to ensure their development into footballing giants. It would be foolish to expect the same thing to happen again, or rather, to happen that quickly.
But with the right foundations, the right personnel, trust and hope, why shouldn’t we believe in it happening once more? After all, we have the secret recipe for success but are too afraid to use it. Why? Well, the times have changed since Barcelona last ruled the world.
Back in 2009, success was not guaranteed nor was is so expected and the fans were nowhere near as spoilt as they are now. Back then, the coach actually had the time to build a squad, groom them and mould them in his image. That’s what Pep did and miraculously enough, it didn’t take him years, not even months, to start making something truly incredible.
And in so many ways, 2021 mirrors that exact same situation. Before Pep’s time, Frank Rijkaard had been struggling for a while and his team, despite having some big names, was in a need of an overhaul. In that regard, Barcelona were entering their transitional period, the same one they are experiencing now.
Rijkaard bowed out from the stage having finished third in La Liga and having exited both Copa del Rey and the Champions League in the semi-finals. It was a valiant effort for a broken team but ultimately, he finished his tenure with a trophyless season. But in so many ways, that 2007/08 campaign was a start of a new story; one that promoted trust in the youth, power from within and confidence in the beginning of a rise to glory.
So what can we learn from that? We must accept that change is sometimes necessary but that it can cost a lot. In football, results and trophies matter, that’s in the nature of the sport. But sometimes you have to take a step back before you jump two steps forward. 2020 wasn’t easy and 2021 is looking equally as exhausting and challenging. But it’s also necessary.
Already, in a season that may seem full of pain, anger and disappointment, we’ve seen glimpses of what’s to come. Players like Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ronald Araújo rising to the occasion to guide us to a better future. That future may also be without Lionel Messi, the one player who embodies this club the most.
But we should also remember Pep had to lose, or rather let go of Ronaldinho to kickstart his great overhaul. Both players were and still are icons of the club but a new era requires new heroes and new leaders. So even if Messi leaves this coming summer, the world won’t suddenly stop, nor should Barcelona’s strive for greatness.
In March, a new president will get elected and the foundation for a better future will finally be set. It will take time and it won’t suddenly solve all of our problems.
But it will give us a push that we oh so need. Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner.
Don’t give up hope in the moment of our greatest triumph.