Liverpool were gearing up for a game that would determine their destiny when Jurgen Klopp told Gini Wijnaldum to read his programme notes. When the Dutchman did, he discovered the first of Sunday’s glowing tributes.
“An LFC legend now and forever,” the Liverpool manager wrote. “This wonderful, joyful, selfless person… an architect of our success. We have built this Liverpool on his legs, lungs, brain and huge beautiful heart.” When Wijnaldum’s final match had concluded with victory over Crystal Palace, with his teammates applauding when he was substituted, Klopp told any managers considering signing the midfielder to call him for a character reference.
It is rare that a popular player at his peak leaves an elite club where he is adored, with no hint of acrimony and yet still heading off to pastures new. “I would have loved to remain a Liverpool player for many more years but unfortunately things happened,” said Wijnaldum, adding to the mystery.
Liverpool have given a series of contract extensions – and pay rises – to the players who made them champions of Europe and then England. He was the unexpected anomaly, the agreeable man with whom no deal was agreed.
At a club where midfielders almost arrived on an annual basis, he was the constant. For five years, Klopp’s default move was to write Wijnaldum’s name on the teamsheet and then wonder who would join him in the centre of the pitch. He became not just Liverpool’s man for all seasons, but for all parts of the season.
In 2017, Wijnaldum reflected on his first season of Kloppball and reflected: “My body was broken.” Actually, his body withstood the rigours of heavy-metal football better than those of any other midfielders. He only missed 12 league games in five seasons at Anfield. He was always available, a guarantee of fitness and form. “Ninety percent of the time, he played really, really well,” his manager said.
He played in a specific way that suited Klopp. His idiosyncratic tactics mean his midfielders’ duties differ from the demands elsewhere. They were charged in part with covering for overlapping full-backs; with not providing the assist as much as the pre-assist for the raiding defenders.
In a team who kept much of the game compact, they had to be positionally perfect while many of their passes were supposed to be short. Wijnaldum spent every season near the top of the pass completion charts. It was a sign of both talent and temperament that he was even better at keeping the ball in defining matches; he was calm in possession under pressure.
An unreal performance from Mr Gini Wijnaldum vs @WestHam 😎👌 pic.twitter.com/aYxaHqHM4GApril 29, 2020
He reined himself in for a bespoke role. As Klopp said, before he arrived at Anfield he was seen as more of a winger or a No. 10. He has not lost his attacking instincts – in 2019, he scored eight times in nine games for Holland and could finish Euro 2020 with more goals for the Netherlands than Marco van Basten got – but he has subsumed them to a greater cause.
Wijnaldum averages just under a goal every three games for his country and just better than a goal every three in the six seasons before joining Liverpool; there he reached new heights while getting a mere 22 in 236 games. He has had the intelligence to excel in a more restrained role, spending ever longer outside the box. He saved some of his goals for the bigger occasions.
In particular, for perhaps Anfield’s greatest in recent years. He scored one brace for Liverpool: in two minutes, against Barcelona, after coming on as a substitute. It was a rare game he did not start, and he pronounced himself “angry” to be benched. His trademark smile was soon on show after his introduction.
Wijnaldum, the man who came from relegated Newcastle and became a Champions League winner and part of the team who went on the best run in the history of English football, was a typical Klopp success story. But the success stemmed in part from a man who knitted the team together, who won more while scoring less.
And now his Liverpool career is over. There is no good explanation yet but at least, as Klopp stressed, they can savour the memories of the good times.
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