The evolution of Gini Wijnaldum: How the young trickster became Liverpool’s golden thread

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EXCLUSIVE

Leroy Fer was full of high-fives and hugs to
celebrate Georginio Wijnaldum’s transfer to Liverpool
long before it actually materialised. As the summer of 2010
edged closer, the rumours in both England and Netherlands
escalated: the youngest debutant in Feyenoord’s history would
be transporting his talents to Anfield.

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As a team-mate, but moreover as a close friend to ‘Gini’ since
the age of 14, Fer couldn’t help but probe into the press
reports. 

“I remember that time well,” Wijnaldum recounts in an exclusive
to Goal. “There was a story nearly every
day and on one of them, Leroy asked me ‘hey, did you go to
Liverpool?’ He’d read in the paper that they bought me for €11
million and that I’d had my medical. 

“So I played along and say ‘yes, it’s all done.’ He was so, so
excited that I’d made this big move. He couldn’t stop talking
about it and congratulating me, so I had to tell him I was only
joking.”

HD Gini Wijnaldum Liverpool

The midfielder’s cheeks lift as his smile widens; it may have
taken six years, but it is no longer jest – he is a Liverpool
player. Recruited for £25m from Newcastle United last summer,
Wijnaldum is in-between training sessions at Melwood, and as he
leans back on his chair opposite a large window inviting rare
sunshine in, the animation painted across his face suggests it
was worth the wait. 

The Merseysiders had long followed the career of the
dreadlocked kid from Rotterdam’s Schiemond district, who’d
been given a big billing in the esteemed youth structures of
Sparta and Feyenoord, before joining PSV.

HD Dirk Kuyt Gini Wijnaldum

Dirk Kuyt, who spent six years at Liverpool, informed Wijnaldum
that his name kept floating around the club’s corridors. And a
recent conversation with a Liverpool legend illustrated to
the Netherlands international just how detailed their
dossier on him was.

“Dirk used to tell me often that they would talk about me at
Melwood, and I knew the scouts were watching me,” Wijnaldum
explains. “He’d always say that the club would be a great fit
for me and it was good to hear, but I had no intention to leave
Feyenoord at that time. 

“I was young and I had a good feeling there so I wanted to
continue. I was not busy thinking about moving to a different
team. I was not even busy thinking about moving from Holland! I
wanted to stay with my family and my friends. 

“A few weeks ago, I spoke to Kenny Dalglish and he told me that
he knows all my qualities because he’d watched me for a long
time. He was describing goals I scored for Feyenoord and how I
played in specific games – he remembered so much!”

GFX Gini Wijnaldum Liverpool quote

The 26-year-old believes his summer switch was a
predetermination, that everything in his career had directed
him to line up for Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp, another
long-time admirer of his. 

“There was really good feeling about the move, from my side and
the club’s,” he says.

“I was so happy that the discussions were positive, that we had
a shared understanding, and that finally it was the right time
for this transfer to happen.”

Under the German, Wijnaldum is displaying the all-round
attributes he was always certain he had, but too often never
got the opportunity to display. 

HD Jurgen Klopp Gini Wijnaldum

He is Liverpool’s golden thread; the player helping to knit
together the team’s offence and defence, one who operates with
the ultimate aim of helping ensure everyone around him is
functioning as effectively as possible. He scans, screens,
darts, dribbles, covers, creates. 

Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson have enthused about the work
Wijnaldum does, often unnoticed, publicly and privately on
several occasions. Klopp, meanwhile, has referenced his “good
combination of an aggressive, defensive midfielder plus a
creative, offensive midfield player.” 

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A short rewind would reveal that these kind of assessments on
the Dutchman’s game were sparse.

“I have to be honest, in my career I’ve really had to fight to
come in the middle again,” Wijnaldum says. “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.”

Liverpool celebrate

Now stationed on the left of Liverpool’s midfield, Wijnaldum
actually started out at the heart of Sparta’s rearguard.

“At seven, I played centre-back. When you’re so young, though,
it’s more to enjoy the training and to get a feel for the game.
It’s not heavy on tactics of a position. We were playing on a
half pitch, seven against seven or eight against eight, so they
say you’re a centre-back, but it’s not like the real
definition. 

“At Under-11/12, I was playing as a right-back. The manager
then was Cyril Helstone and he said to me ‘no, you’re not a
defender. You should be in midfield’. That was the big change
in my career because from that moment until I made my debut in
the first-team at Feyenoord, that was the position I played.

“Gertjan Verbeek came in and I was still in the middle, it
was my third season, but he wanted to play on the right side as
a winger. I performed well there so they didn’t want to move me
out, but in my mind, I always believed I was better in
midfield.

“I was just happy to be playing, though, because I was young.
When you’re still developing, getting games is so important. I
learnt a lot playing on the wing and now I understand what the
guys in those positions want from me.

HD Gini Wijnaldum

“But when I got older, I knew I wanted to be a
midfielder. I’ve had to have discussions with my agent,
managers, directors, chief executives to explain that I am a
midfielder, especially at Feyenoord. 

“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 No.10
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 No.10 than as
a winger.”

Out wide, Wijnaldum would need to make things happen on his own
but what what he craved most was being a connector and
conductor.

“If you’re a winger, you’re busy with yourself,” he says. “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. 

GFX Gini Wijnaldum Liverpool quote

“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 the main reason why managers wanted to play me as a
winger and not a midfielder is because I was dribbling a lot
and enjoying the attacking freedom, so maybe they felt it was a
risk to put a ‘tricky player’ in the middle. 

“If you have to take on defenders often, of course, there’s a
higher chance of you losing the ball. So they saw me as an
exciting, individual player rather than one who could think of
the whole team, but that is because when you’re out wide, you
have to make things happen on your own mostly instead of
helping others make things happen.”

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Even at Newcastle, Wijnaldum often got tarred with the ‘luxury’
label – a player who could score goals, but offered little
else. “A lot of people see me differently, a lot didn’t think I
could play the way I am now,” he says.

“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. 

“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.

GFX Gini Wijnaldum stats

“How I’m playing is exactly what was discussed with the
manager in the summer and a big part of it is just to be
in tune with what’s happening in the team.

“I’m playing on the left of midfield and we have [James] Milner
at left-back, who also has to get forward a lot. So I have to
notice and understand his movements and also that of the
players alongside me and just to the front and back. I have to
have a clear idea of what is going on around me and make the
best decision for the team.

“I’ve got the permission to break forward from the manager, but
as much as I like to, sometimes it’s not always possible given
the situations in the game. I have to say, I’ve grown better
and better as the season has gone on because with time, you
learn exactly the kind of space your team-mates will be in, the
passes they like, the runs they will make.

“In the beginning I knew most of the players from facing them
as the opposition, but I didn’t know how their qualities and
mine needed to mix. That comes from training and playing
together so the relationship on the pitch grows and I believe
we’re just going to get better at it.

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“He wants me to get into the box more, because he knows I’ve
got the quality to get goals and affect the attacking play, so
hopefully I get more chances in games to do that.”

Wijnaldum’s steel in protecting possession has been applauded
this season, with that element of his game adopted
from Schiemond’s football scene. “The place where I
come from, you have to be hard and tough to be someone,” he
reveals.

“When you play on the street, you have to fight for your chance
to get a game. You have to make your voice heard and make
people respect you otherwise they see you as a joke if you
don’t state your opinion on anything – a foul or
whatever. 

“I had several times where it was my turn to play and you’d get
another guy saying, ‘no it’s mine’. In that situation, you had
to stand your ground, to be assertive. I learnt that in
Rotterdam and still have that toughness in me today when I
play.”

Wijnaldum will be tasked with carrying over that authoritative
stance to Sunday’s midfield battle against Manchester City at
the Etihad. In the reverse fixture on New Year’s Eve, he proved
decisive as he met Lallana’s cross into the area with a
perfectly timed run and robust header across Claudio
Bravo. 

HD Gini Wijnaldum Liverpool goal v Man City

That eighth-minute effort was the only goal of the encounter
and with the former PSV ace also bagging an equaliser against
Chelsea as well as finishing off Arsenal in a 3-1 victory at
the start of this month, he’s been tagged as Liverpool’s
big-game player.

Add to the equation an assist against the Gunners, plus two
against Tottenham, and the label seems quite suitable.

“It’s easier in the bigger games when both teams are dedicated
to going for it, taking the initiative and trying to win,”
Wijnaldum reasons.

“That allows you more space to play and because we’ve been so
spot on collectively in these games, it makes it easier to then
shine as an individual. 

“I’ve got goals and assists against our biggest competitors
this season, but it’s as a result of the team. We’ve got many
big-game players and I think we’re a side that can bring our
very best in these type of challenges. 

“It makes you happy, but it also then makes you sad when you
lose a lot of points against the other teams. I believe that if
we can do so good against our rivals, then we definitely can do
it in the other matches as we showed at the start of the
season.”

HD Gini Wijnaldum Liverpool goal v Chelsea

Wijnaldum feels Liverpool’s struggles against sides that set up
in a primarily obstructive manner is more an issue of the mind
than ability or approach. “You can feel the difference in these
games compared to the big ones,” he reveals.

“You can feel it with the crowd, the expectation is more than
before, they are anxious because we haven’t performed against
the lower teams. So when there’s a missed chance or something,
then there’s this change in the stadium, the opponents feed on
it as well, it encourages them. 

“We’re only human, so of course you notice and feel it. It’s
normal for Liverpool fans to have high expectations, because
this is a big club – one of the best in the world, so we as a
team have to deal with this problem, because only we can change
it. 

“We have to be positive and know we have the quality to get the
results against anyone. If something is not working out in a
game, we have to stay faithful to our way and not get
frustrated. We proved we can do it in the first half of the
season, so it’s not like we’re not capable of it. 

“When it’s difficult, when teams drop and have no intention to
play only to stop you, you have to enjoy this challenge. Don’t
think ‘this is not what we want’, but rather enjoy that you
have to find ways to create opportunities. You have to
think ‘okay, they want to play this way, but we’re still
going to score goals, we’re still going to fight for the
points’. I think we have to look it at more that way, than ‘oh
no, here we go, not this game again.’ 

“Almost every team is going to do that against us, so we have
to accept that and make sure we beat it.” 

There is no need for that mental shift on Sunday, though, when
Pep Guardiola’s men will be expansive and pose a contrasting
test. 

Liverpool will be hoping their big-game Gini, the weaver that
makes things work, is unbottled again.

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