There is an indisputable aura around Liverpool Football Club, a wave so strong that dwindling contracts pose no disruption. The dynasty is being built amidst a clutch of players approaching the end of their deals, but there is no panic amongst the hierarchy of a club defined by a structure of continuity.
It’s generally accepted that Adam Lallana will leave this summer, much like Daniel Sturridge and Alberto Moreno did the previous season, with Dejan Lovren another possible departure. Nothing encapsulates Liverpool’s progression more than the minimal fuss surrounding two relative stalwarts potentially leaving the club.
Not quite fitting into that category is Gini Wijnaldum, whose contract situation has been highlighted by the recent extension signed by James Milner. With such a duration comes speculation of a summer sale, or a 2021 Bosman transfer should no extension be agreed.
Murmurings have been quelled by Kaveh Solhekol of Sky Sports News revealing that contract talks are planned, and that player wants to stay. There is no reactivity here — the club and player are aware of the situation, and both will enter talks as key contributors to Liverpool’s official status as the world’s best team.
Without the distraction of discussing whether Wijnaldum wants to stay at the club, greater scrutiny falls to the merits of keeping him there. A £23m signing in the summer of 2016, he has represented excellent business in the context of where transfer fees were beginning to go — and in where they have gone since.
Wijnaldum stands alongside Sadio Mané and Joël Matip as part of a trio signed that summer who have been instrumental in the club’s ascendancy. He came 26th in the Ballon d’Or nominations after a stellar 2018/19 season in which Liverpool won their sixth European Cup title. He was decisive in that campaign, scoring two decisive goals as an angry substitute in that comeback against Barcelona.
Wijnaldum has made a combined 93 appearances across the three full Premier League seasons he has been at Liverpool, never falling below 27 outings in a single campaign. He has featured in all but one of Liverpool’s league games this term, setting him on course to eclipse his previous league high of 33. His earlier propensity to “go missing”, particularly in away games, has been largely eradicated.
The Dutchman is evidently trusted by the best manager in the world, resisting the “Brexit midfield” jibes to start two consecutive Champions League finals. He embodies the versatility that Klopp demands, demonstrated by the entirely different role he plays for the Netherlands. So, with such ample credit in the bank, why is there even a sniff of a possibility that he may leave?
The answer lies in the only two factors which conspire against the Dutchman — age and competition. Wijnaldum will be 30 (four months off 31) at the time his current deal concludes, which may impact the length of any terms offered. This reality is complicated by the fact that although Wijnaldum will be 30, his elite athleticism means that he will still operate at a high level. The degree of downward slope post-30 is often determined by how the player lives. He will want to play, and rightly so.
But there is fierce competition in that area of the pitch, epitomised by Fabinho barely being missed despite a lengthy injury layoff. That’s not to denigrate the value of the Brazilian, it’s merely a testament to the position of strength Liverpool are in.
Jordan Henderson has filled in exceptionally — he and Fabinho are the two most important midfielders at the club. Despite Henderson being older than Wijnaldum, it is clear that Klopp’s first-choice midfield moving forward features the captain.
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Liverpool’s typical 4-3-3 formation only leaves space for one more midfielder, and when fit there are four to choose from. Milner represents the ultimate utility man, whose value lies in the fact that Liverpool are not under pressure to recruit backup full-backs. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta are both dynamic choices clearly earmarked to play in a midfield containing the “Dyson”.
Crucially, both are locked into long-term deals indicative of the type Wijnaldum signed upon his arrival, aged 25. At 26 and 24 years old respectively, they have a stronger alignment to the clear club strategy in terms of squad age.
With Henderson, Fabinho and one other the preferred midfield moving forward, Wijnaldum is vulnerable. If the club hierarchy decide six could become five without compromising the club’s ambitions, they may elect to let the Dutchman go. None of the above legislates for the emerging Scouse midfielder who will expect to form part of the midfield equation in the not too distant future.
The debate is weighted evenly, though a quirk lies in the fact that Wijnaldum isn’t responsible for any of the points in the ‘let Gini leave’ column. He cannot control his age, nor the strength of his competition. Should he leave it won’t be an indictment on his quality, and he is most likely going to be offered the chance to stay based on precisely that.
Any parting of ways will be circumstantial, determined by the prospect of playing opportunities dwindling with age. Should Wijnaldum be accepting of that possibility and ready to resist it, he is likely to remain at Anfield beyond 2021. Whatever the outcome, both club and player will handle it with the aplomb typical of their time together.