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'Talk about an underrated player!' - Are Liverpool already regretting letting Euros star Wijnaldum leave for PSG?

08:00 BST 25/06/2021
Gini Wijnaldum Jurgen Klopp Netherlands Liverpool GFX
Jurgen Klopp wanted to keep the midfielder at Anfield but the Reds were unable to reach an agreement with the 30-year-old over a new contract

Liverpool’s loss could well be Paris Saint-Germain’s gain.

But for now, it is Netherlands who are feeling the benefit of one of Europe’s most consistent performers.

Gini Wijnaldum’s brilliance was often understated at Anfield, but at Euro 2020 it has been front and centre, on display for all to see.

The Dutch captain has, so far, been one of the tournament’s star men, leading the way as Frank de Boer’s side qualified for the last 16 in style, with a perfect record and playing the kind of football which makes them strong favourites to beat Czech Republic in Budapest on Sunday.

Wijnaldum’s three goals – one against Ukraine and two against North Macedonia – take his tally to 25 for his country. More than Marco van Basten or Ruud Gullit, Johan Neeskens or Dirk Kuyt. In fact, in Netherlands history, only 13 men have managed more.

“Talk about an underrated player!” says Nigel de Jong, the former Dutch international midfielder. “I think Gini is up there.”

Jurgen Klopp would no doubt agree. The Liverpool boss knows he has a job on his hands to replace Wijnaldum, who will join Paris Saint-Germain as a free agent next month, after five glittering years on Merseyside, in which he made 237 appearances and won the Premier League and Champions League, among other things.

“There is nothing I won’t miss about him,” Klopp said after Wijnaldum’s Anfield exit was confirmed earlier this month. He was, the German added, “a manager’s dream” and “one of the smartest players I have ever had the privilege to coach.”

Klopp wanted to keep him at Liverpool, continuing to select him even as his contract wound down.

Nobody played more games for the Reds last season than Wijnaldum (51), and he wore the captain’s armband in his final game for the club, a win over Crystal Palace last month which ensured they will be playing Champions League football at Anfield next season.

Wijnaldum himself said in April he would be “devastated” to walk away from Liverpool. He and his family were settled in the north west, he was a popular and respected member of the dressing room, part of the club’s leadership group and pretty much guaranteed regular football in a team that is challenging for the game’s biggest prizes.

So why is he leaving? Why would he walk away, and why would Liverpool allow him to?

Wijnaldum says he will tell his side of the story after the Euros. His agent, Humphry Nijman, confirmed recently that Liverpool had offered a contract extension, and Anfield sources insist that there is no ill-feeling between player and club. 

Wijnaldum was given a hero’s send-off, both publicly and privately. He is, as Klopp put it, “a Liverpool legend; now and forever.”

The main issue, Goal understands, surrounded the terms of Liverpool’s offer. Wijnaldum turns 31 in November, and was looking for both the security of a long-term deal, as well as a significant pay-rise on the contract signed when he moved from Newcastle in 2016.

Liverpool’s offer was lower, more dependent on appearances and achievements and, crucially, was just a two-year deal, with the option of a third if certain triggers were met.

And so Wijnaldum and his representatives, naturally, began to look elsewhere. There was talk he would be allowed to leave last summer, when Bayern Munich and Barcelona both made enquiries and when Liverpool added another midfielder, Thiago Alcantara, to their ranks.

Klopp, though, pushed back against the idea. Given the injuries his side would subsequently suffer, it is a good job he did.

Talks between Liverpool and Wijnaldum finished without a resolution last autumn, and never formally restarted. Nijman said that Inter and Juventus made proposals, while Bayern and Barcelona remained keen. 

Most expected him to move to Barca, but sources have told Goal that the Spaniards' hierarchy were far less convinced than Ronald Koeman, the head coach. 

In the end, it was PSG who won the race. Wijnaldum is reportedly set to earn close to €10 million (£8.6m/$11.9m) a year in France.

He's worth it. Wijnaldum’s form, like Liverpool’s, suffered as autumn turned to winter, but he remained an integral part of the side which eventually recovered to finish third in the Premier League.

While others went down with calves and hamstrings and thighs and knees, the Dutchman stood firm, making 45 starts in all competitions.

It is that durability which will be hardest to replace. Wijnaldum averaged 49 appearances across his final four seasons at the club, his versatility, talent and intelligence enabling him to play just about
any role Klopp demanded of him.

Who could forget him leading the line as a centre-forward in Camp Nou, or lining up as part of a back three at Brighton? He wore No.5, but he could be a 6, an 8, a 9 or a 10 if needed. 

He didn’t score many goals – 22 in total – but they tended to be big ones. Three of them came in Champions League semi-finals, and he netted against Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea too, as well as in the Merseyside derby.

“His contribution,” Klopp said, “was off the scale.”

Liverpool, surely, will need to replace him this summer. They may have Jordan Henderson and Fabinho and Thiago, and they may have high hopes for Curtis Jones, who should play a bigger role next season, but they are losing a constant, one of the team’s central pillars.

Banking on Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, 35 league starts between them in the last two seasons, to fill the void feels like a gamble which simply shouldn’t be taken.

There are targets. Florian Neuhaus of Borussia Monchengladbach has been looked at, though sources say that was largely down to a release clause which has now expired, while Brighton’s Yves Bissouma and Aston Villa’s John McGinn both have admirers within the Reds’ recruitment team.

Renato Sanches, linked tentatively in recent weeks, has been watched, but more intriguing, perhaps, is Ryan Gravenberch, Wijnaldum’s international team-mate with the Netherlands. 

Liverpool are certainly fans, though in fairness that goes for just about every top club in Europe. The Ajax teenager looks a star in the making.

As for Wijnaldum, we can expect him to carry on doing what he does. If the Dutch are to go deep this summer – and the draw has been kind – then their captain will have a key role to play.

Maybe then, he will get the recognition he deserves.