football

Georginio Wijnaldum: PSG’s new signing leaves a sense of regret for Liverpool and Barcelona



In the summer of 2016, Mauricio Pochettino sat down with an attacking midfielder he was convinced could help convert Tottenham from almost-men into title winners and a trophy magnet.

The discussions were hugely positive, the “universal energy” the Argentine subscribes to was quite strong between the pair, and Spurs were confident of landing the Netherlands international whose football education meant he could operate in at least five positions for them.

There was one major hurdle: Jurgen Klopp also had designs on recruiting Georginio Wijnaldum and Liverpool’s wage budget was not as restrictive as that of their counterparts. The financial difference between both proposals was a major sales’ point, but not solely in terms of the player boasting a better bank balance.

When Wijnaldum met Klopp at his Formby home, the manager gave him a detailed breakdown of his demands and the club’s strategy to lift domestic and European honours, which included investing in the spine of the squad. Wijnaldum was a small part of a wider overhaul that would lead to Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson and Fabinho arriving at Anfield.

While Tottenham also spoke of league glory and morphing into a serious contender on the continent, the Dutchman felt too much of their blueprint rested on Pochettino’s brilliance and getting the best out of what was already in north London. There was no vision of how the group could be enhanced or a plot for long-term evolution.

Wijnaldum opted for Liverpool in a £25m deal, becoming a crucial cog in transforming them into champions of England, Europe, and the world, while repurposing himself as a disciplined No 8.

Then, they let him go. End of contract, happy goodbye-and-thank-you-very-much handshakes. A move framed as baffling in the football world, not least by Pochettino who profits and finally gets to work with Wijnaldum as Paris Saint-Germain manager.

The Netherlands captain scored twice against North Macedonia on Monday night to surpass the legendary Marco van Basten’s international goal tally.

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For his country, he functions as the primary midfield support for their attack – an extension for it – in direct contrast to the stitching and screening role he performed for Liverpool. It doesn’t really matter what position or requirement is asked of Wijnaldum, whose football intelligence allows him to adapt and excel in what the team needs from him.

That is not shocking given he started out as a centre-half in Sparta’s youth structures, before moving to right-back. It was Cyril Helstone who believed a teenage Wijnaldum was wasted in defence and switched the “creative, tactical brain” to the middle of the park. It was where the player felt he belonged, but his strong dribbling attributes, speed and stamina convinced Gertjan Verbeek at Feyenoord that he would be most destructive as a winger.

“I have to be honest, in my career I’ve really had to fight to come in the middle again,” Wijnaldum would explain to this writer. “A lot of managers told me ‘you are way more comfortable as a winger than as a midfielder’ but I always kept my trust and confidence in what I knew about my qualities. Because I was fast, technical and could dribble well, it was always the easy thing to label me just a winger and have me stick to that.”

“In my last season, I played on the right wing and a little bit on the left, but after the winter break, Mario Been was the trainer at that time, and he put me in the No10 position. It went very well and I was lucky, because he was also a midfielder and helped me develop with lots of special advice about what is needed for the role. He guided me through it and before the winter break I had four goals, and afterwards I got 10 with his assistance. That was a sign for the people at Feyenoord, but also others that I was better as a No10 than as a winger.”

The dynamic force seen at Newcastle was courtesy of Mario Been, who entrusted Wijnaldum to be Feyenoord’s playmaker after the winter break during his final season at the club. The goalscorer and creator supreme, who was luminary in that capacity for Newcastle, was like an entirely different player for Liverpool.

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“A lot didn’t think I could play the way I am at Anfield.” Wijnaldum noted. “They thought I was just an attack-minded player, the dribbler or the goalscorer without the discipline to defend and check on the movements of my team-mates. If you’re a winger, you’re busy with yourself. You have to make an action: dribble, or cross, or cut in. When you’re in midfield, you are the link in the team between the defence and the attack – the connection point for everything.

“You have to play thinking about not just what you have to do, but how it will effect those in front, behind and to the side of you. It’s a big responsibility, but it’s what I really enjoy and it suits my qualities more. I think I’ve surprised many people because I’m showing I can still make the runs and get goals, but I’m regaining balls, keeping the rhythm in the passing, covering for those around me and getting assists – they’re seeing the complete version of me.”

Wijnaldum’s excellence in shape-shifting and his experience of being a winner regardless of where he is stationed explained why there was such a scramble to secure him as a free agent this summer. Barcelona are still furious at losing out on him quite late in the process to PSG, sending financial doping barbs the way of the French giants. Inter, Bayern Munich and Juventus had all made concrete enquiries to the Dutchman’s camp.

Given what he accomplished at Anfield, mixed with the fact he is essentially a few players rolled into one, his insane durability and the pedigreed teams that were desperate to snap him up, why did Liverpool not put up more of a fight to keep Wijnaldum?

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The truth is there wasn’t much desire from the recruitment staff, who had long decided it was one of the easiest positions in the team to upgrade and evolve. Their industry-leading choices make it difficult to argue with their wisdom, but the heavy reliance on Wijnaldum through Liverpool’s strongest moments and biggest setbacks does leave some head-scratching.

The school of thought that it makes little sense to commit to a lucrative contract for a 30-year-old seems flimsy when Wijnaldum’s physical condition is taken into consideration and the fact that the club could have extended his deal back in the summer of 2019 post winning a sixth European Cup.

There has been a focus on the headline-spinning salary PSG offered Wijnaldum, but The Independent has been told reports they doubled Barcelona’s proposal is “completely false” and a way to “save them embarrassment” for not being able to close an agreement that was basically done due to their own “mess”.

The midfielder, who is due to reveal why negotiations never advanced with Liverpool, had not demanded to be in the Merseysiders’ highest earning bracket, but among their most valued reflected in his pay packet. The club could bank on him, game after game, season after season and so he rightly expected to be rewarded for that.

What’s done cannot be undone and there is a sense that Liverpool could have lingering regrets given the injury issues and lack of reliable depth in their midfield. The Fabinho-Henderson-Thiago trio is formidable, but not guaranteed for an entire campaign and there is very little to complement it if there is honesty about Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s recent realities.

Wijnaldum, meanwhile, can enjoy the security of a three-year contract with PSG on terms that reflect his status in world football in the last major deal of his career. No one will argue that he hasn’t earned that.



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