The key to Liverpool‘s success has been the way the stand-out performances have been shared around the squad. Against Manchester United, it was Gini Wijnaldum’s turn to rise to the top.
It’s unlikely the Dutch midfielder is pegged as the danger-man in opponents’ preparations too often, but that’s the thing about Liverpool: they’re all danger men. And this was certainly not the first time Wijnaldum has put in a dominant performance for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Considering Wijnaldum was newly relegated when the Reds picked him up from Newcastle in 2016, it’s quite the turnaround.
Against Manchester United, the former Feyenoord and PSV man completed a higher percentage of his passes than any other member of Liverpool’s front six.
His three successful dribbles were more than every team-mate aside from Roberto Firmino, and it felt like he was covering every single blade of grass at every single minute of the 2-0 victory.
However, one moment stood out above all the others – at least for Harry Maguire.
When you’re a defender as prominent and, yes, expensive as Maguire, ‘not getting embarrassed’ will probably be high on your list of priorities.
Sure, you’ll aim to be proactive in stopping the opposition, as is your nature, but there’s a bit to be said for those quiet moments where your mere presence is enough to put off those whose goal it is to humble you.
Sometimes the days when nothing happens speak just as much to your quality as those when you’re seriously called into action – just ask Virgil van Dijk. But when you’re effectively out of shot just a second after being beaten, something has gone horribly wrong.
That’s not to diminish Wijnaldum’s role in all of this. Given barely a second to react to the approaching Maguire, he nails his response.
It’s like taking an instinctive dip into an alley when you’re being chased by cop cars from one direction and a monster truck from the other: you can anticipate someone instinctively getting it right in the movies, but no actual human has those instincts.
To avoid being clattered by Maguire should be enough, but instead he opts for outright humiliation. Not only does he pull the England defender’s pants down, he then proceeds to hurl them into a swirling breeze to the point that they’re lost forever. Maguire is left standing around, his legs freezing in the chill Liverpool air, trying to figure out where it all went wrong for him.
If that had been the only nutmeg of Wijnaldum’s afternoon, we’d have still considered if a pretty good day at the office. However, as you probably know by now, that’s not the case.
Fred was the other Manchester United player on the receiving end of some Gini genius, watching the ball through his legs with bland, knowing acceptance.
He could have put up more of a fight, sure, but what’s the point when the outcome is effectively preordained. Why not laugh along with the bully as he dead-arms you rather than give away your frustration and open yourself up to more punishment?
Wijnaldum was spending the afternoon handing out embarrassments like a teacher distributing cookies to a class of pre-school children, coating them in an icing of inevitability. United’s Brazilian wasn’t in a position to do anything about the treatment besides calmly continuing his run in the knowledge that it was just his turn.
As Liverpool continue to run away with the league title, we may see more of these moments, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the balance tipped: at what moment did it cease to be a case of Wijnaldum and his team-mates playing the Reds into contention themselves and begin to take the form of the players gaining strength from the fear they’ve instilled in those coming up against them.
With Fabinho and Naby Keita missing games through injury, Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson have had heaps of responsibility in terms of first putting in process the title run and then sustaining it. And while the pair might not have the name clout of some of their colleagues, they’ve made sure the only weak links in the picture are those daring to stand in their way.
As the long-awaited title gets closer to becoming a mathematical certainty, our attention turns to the fabled Scouser with a lamp and one wish left. However, you can’t make sure your first two wishes come true without a reliable Gini.
By Tom Victor