Michael Cox: Why Wijnaldum is crucial to Newcastle’s system – and hopes
Newcastle’s 2-0 victory over Liverpool on Sunday afternoon was one of the scrappiest Premier League games you’ll see all season. With Steve McClaren determined for his players to match the work-rate of Liverpool in the centre of the pitch, there was plenty of commitment, but very little quality. A fierce wind didn’t help, with almost all areas of attacking play affected – attempted penetrative passes were poor, crosses were overhit, players seemed to dribble into traffic rather than into space.
But, ultimately, this helped Newcastle. An open, technical game would have favoured the better side, but the scruffy, frantic nature of the contest suited the underdogs. There wasn’t a single shot on target before the 85th minute – which McClaren probably would have accepted before the game.
While Newcastle successfully blunted Liverpool, they weren’t capable of putting together good passing moves of their own. Siem de Jong continues to look sluggish in his No.10 role, Papiss Cisse wasted a good chance, and Moussa Sissoko continually misplaced passes from his right-midfield slot.
The one player who offered quality was Georginio Wijnaldum. The Dutchman was constantly a threat with his driving midfield runs from the left, and he was responsible for both goals: Martin Skrtel deflected his shot past Simon Mignolet, and then he secured the points with a delicate chip in stoppage time.
In Newcastle’s rough 4-2-3-1 system, McClaren doesn’t deploy conventional wingers. Instead, both Wijnaldum and Sissoko are naturally central midfielders who have been moved out to the flanks, which creates a tightly-packed, compact midfield quartet. It’s 4-2-3-1 at times, but more like 4-2-2-2 on other occasions, with the wide players moving inside and De Jong supporting Cisse.
Without the ball, Wijnaldum and Sissoko tucked inside and helped Vurnon Anita and Jack Colback crowd out Liverpool in the centre, and all four are due great credit for their defensive performance. The interesting feature of Wijnaldum’s game, however, is that he doesn’t even attempt to play as a winger.
He instead continues to play his usual role as a technical box-to-box midfielder from a slightly wider role, as shown by the positions of his passes received and passes played. His movement is very diagonal, surging through the centre of the pitch and often into inside-right positions.
The crucial area of Wijnaldum’s game, though, was his ability to dribble past opponents in deep, narrow positions. With Liverpool typically attempting to press high up the pitch, this was crucial in bypassing the pressure and taking the ball into the opposition half. In this respect, the difference between Wijnaldum and Sissoko is significant – the Dutchman’s dribbles were in central positions inside his own half, whereas the Frenchman was trying, and failing, to play like a conventional winger.
Sissoko had a poor game – he could hardly do anything right in the first half. He improved after the break and continually looked up when moving forward in possession, and found Wijnaldum breaking quickly, often going behind the defence. Sissoko found him five times – four of them produced a Wijnaldum shot.
“We have had a few difficult weeks and we had to recover after last week because the performance was not so good,” Wijnaldum said after the victory. “We trained hard together and tried to keep the confidence and it worked. We fought to win the game and we were lucky that we won. We worked hard, especially in the first half, we worked hard together.” While this is a fairly typical post-match statement from a footballer, Newcastle’s work-rate was impressive throughout, and crucial in their performance. Wijnaldum is one of the few Newcastle players who guarantees both technical quality and commitment – Ayoze Perez, a second-half substitute, is probably the only other. If Newcastle are to beat the drop, Wijnaldum needs to find more performances like this – and hopefully inspire his team-mates to step up, too.