Good lord, Liverpool will miss Georginio Wijnaldum. It was time for them to part but neither should expect to replicate that brilliance.
Perhaps the most misleading piece of transfer tomfoolery possible right now is that simple but impossible description: ‘Wijnaldum replacement’. It suggests something that is real, implies an implausible existence. For the best part of 18 months, Liverpool have been linked with a thing that cannot be.
There is a reason Netherlands have ended up with an Owen Wijndal in their Euros squad: you can mimic or imitate but never quite recreate that for which the only blueprint was destroyed long ago. This curious Dutch side possesses the continent’s most tactically intelligent and versatile player within its ranks and a generous group means even Frank de Boer cannot lose with those pocket aces.
In his defence, the manager seemed to learn some difficult lessons from the group-opening victory over Ukraine that was closer than it had any right to be. Netherlands were far more composed against Austria. Memphis Depay was central and thus more influential. Their pressing had a greater focus and intent. The three centre-halves were proactive and dictated the tempo. The opposition was pretty dreadful and unimaginative but De Boer and his players were responsible for plenty of that.
Key to it all was Wijnaldum, as ever more advanced for his country than he tended to be over the past five years with his previous club. Outside of Champions League semi-finals against Barcelona, Liverpool tended to deploy the 30-year-old in a more reserved position to incredible effect. Jurgen Klopp once called him “the perfect midfielder” and when he transitions so easily between responsibilities it is difficult to disagree.
“It is both directions,” Klopp said in 2019, “small spaces, big spaces, it is hard challenges, fine football, pretty much all of that.” Each facet was on show against Austria as Wijnaldum was almost impossible to dispossess, completed two tackles himself and misplaced only a couple of passes all game.
It hurts to watch Gini Wijnaldum knowing we will never see him in a Liverpool shirt again
— Caoimhe O'Neill (@CaoimheSport) June 17, 2021
At one stage early in the second half he enacted his trademark move: receiving a short and actually pretty poor pass from Denzel Dumfries, he rescued the situation by using his body to roll Martin Hinteregger out of the way before immediately completing the one-two with the outside of his right boot. In one instant he turned a potential counter-attack for Austria into yet more pressure for Netherlands. It is a unique and timeless party trick.
Frenkie De Jong was exceptional a little further back, his progressive runs proving problematic for the opposition. Depay and Dumfries deserved their goals. But Wijnaldum offered further proof that it is patently pointless trying to press him.
Not that his performance was faultless: he was finally tackled when leading a one-man counter-attack in second-half stoppage-time as Hinteregger showed there is an exception to every rule. Austria were 2-0 down and thoroughly beaten at that point but still.
His performances so far this summer might accentuate any regret Liverpool already have over the unsuccessful negotiations to extend Wijnaldum’s contract. After five years the time was right for both to part and move on to better things. But the player will not match the levels of success he enjoyed at Anfield, much like the club will be unable to replace him like for like.