Georginio Wijnaldum caused key overloads on the left flank to help Premier League leaders Liverpool beat Manchester United 2-0 on Sunday.
To all of the pundits lavishing praise on Liverpool’s Premier League champions elect, don’t forget to reserve a few plaudits for Georginio Wijnaldum.
He’s the unsung hero on a powerful team 16 points clear at the top after Sunday’s 2-0 win over Manchester United. Wijnaldum doesn’t net the goals Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah can, nor does he create chances as often as Roberto Firmino, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
The Dutchman doesn’t make the crunching tackles a fully fit Fabinho can deliver. Nor does Wijnaldum bark orders and organize the team’s shape as well as fellow midfielder Jordan Henderson.
What Wijnaldum does offer the Reds is a complete skill-set. He’s comfortable anywhere in midfield, tough enough for the holding role, energetic enough to go box-to-box and with an eye for goal, poses a major threat playing further forward.
Wijnaldum is solid in every phase of the game. It’s the result of both his physical attributes and the strategic awareness accrued during his time with Eredivisie giants PSV Eindhoven:
A midfielder this versatile offers Liverpool chief Jurgen Klopp an enviable amount of tactical flexibility. Klopp used Wijnaldum in a fascinating way to counteract United’s defensive structure at Anfield.
The Red Devils arrived on Merseyside determined to keep Liverpool’s two best weapons under wraps. It meant limiting the influence of goal-providing right-back Alexander-Arnold, as well as the pace of scoring machine Mohamed Salah ahead of him.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s answer to the problem was to set United up in a back five with a two-pronged barrier on the left. Left-back Luke Shaw moved into the middle to join center-backs Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof, while Brandon Williams played ahead of Shaw as a left wing-back.
Doubling up on left-backs was a way for United to have extra pace to deal with Salah, as well as an additional body to check the runs of Alexander-Arnold.
Liverpool’s response was rooted in common sense. Rather than direct their play toward the emphasis of United’s defensive shape, the hosts mined their own left flank for constant joy.
Liverpool are loaded on the left thanks to full-back Robertson, who is only marginally less effective than Alexander-Arnold. There’s also the presence of wide forward Sadio Mane, arguably the equal of Salah in talent and influence.
Mane and Robertson were the obvious threats, but it was Wijnaldum who intelligently exploited a natural gap in United’s formation. With United overplaying toward Salah and Alexander-Arnold, there was extra space on Liverpool’s left.
Lindelof played close to Maguire, while right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka tucked in to help United compress the back line and shift over toward Salah.
It meant Liverpool could create a numbers advantage every time Mane and Robertson doubled up. Wijnaldum regularly gave the leaders a man over by making runs from in to out on the left side.
He often ran off United central midfielder Fred, who failed to track Wijnaldum’s clever movement, particularly during the first half. Wijnaldum living in the inside left meant Liverpool had a 3-on-2 advantage on that side.
His movement stretched United’s back three out of shape. Lindelof was dragged out of the middle to mark him, leaving room centrally for Mane to run into while Wan-Bissaka remained occupied with Robertson.
A lot of his fine work was off the ball, but no player was influencing the pattern of play more than Wijnaldum:
A prime example came in the 27th minute when Jordan Henderson played a pass to Wijnaldum, who was inside left. Lindelof had let him get the wrong side, because he was focused on Mane, with Wan-Bissaka in two minds about whether to mark the latter or Robertson.
The ball eventually found its way to Mane, who was fouled by Wan-Bissaka to earn a free kick in a dangerous position. Liverpool’s set-piece came to nothing on this occasion, but Wijnaldum soon provided a more potent threat.
He ran beyond Robertson in the 36th minute, allowing the left-back to come short for the ball. Robertson laid it off to Virgil Van Dijk, who played an exquisite long pass into the path of Wijnaldum, who had now been transformed from central midfielder to attacking left-back.
He was dispossessed by a recovering Fred, but the clearance only went as far as Robertson, who had now advanced into his more natural position. The Scot worked the ball to Firmino, who flicked it to Oxlade-Chamberlain.
He threaded the ball through for Wijnaldum, who had become the Mane in this attack. Wijnaldum’s classily slid finish was ruled out by a marginal offside call, but his movement in and around the left channel had baffled United once again.
The same pattern repeated itself during the home side’s swarming start to the second half. Wijnaldum’s running power through the channel wore out Wan-Bissaka, while his technique produced superb combinations with Robertson and chances for Mane:
Wijnaldum hugging the wing meant Mane could move centrally more often and take some attention away from Salah. It wasn’t the only benefit from Wijnaldum’s positioning.
Playing high up the pitch and as wide as he did also helped supplement Liverpool defensively. Wijnaldum maintained width, giving Robertson license to tuck in and help Van Dijk and Joe Gomez deal with the pace of winger Daniel James.
By relying on Wijnaldum’s impressive engine and his keen tactical sense, Liverpool created a match-winning overload the right side of United’s defense couldn’t handle.