Next month Georginio Wijnaldum will celebrate 10 years on the highest level as pro football player. But the Liverpool midfielder is only 26 years old! He might have another 10 years ahead of him, who knows. The AD interviewed him on Mersey-side.
The interview is executed at the Hilton Liverpool. The waiter comes checking on him again. Every couple of minutes. “Is everything alright sir?”. Wijnaldum has a wry smile. “Yes, I’m fine, thank you…” It’s probably Wijnaldum’s life motto.
It’s almost 10 years since we saw Wijnaldum make his debut. The 2006/2007 season. Feyenoord vs FC Groningen. Coach Erwin Koeman allowed the youngster (16 years and 149 days old) his debut. Now, he’s active in the top of the EPL (like his former Feyenoord coach, who’s assistant coach at Everton). He looks at a photo from his debut, in De Kuip. “Hey look, it’s Karim Saidi! And there is Lindgren…wow time flies!”
Making his debut for Feyenoord at 16
We’re 10 years further now. And between the first coach – Erwin Koeman – and current coach Klopp there were a number of other coaches of repute. Still, you feel Klopp is the best?
Wijnaldum: ,,Yes he is. He is so intense, so passionate. And he’s real. Authentic. He does make players and teams better. Not one or two. All of them. The way we play, with lots of movement, high press, creating space, the pace of the ball, you need to be top top fit! Our practice sessions are seriously tougher than the match. Literally, everything we do, we do at match-intensity.”
You worked under Louis van Gaal as well. But Klopp is better?
“Yes, but I didn’t work with Louis van Gaal at a club. It’s different. His practices were very good too. But I work with Klopp on a daily basis. They’re both real people, they both love their players. You can feel it. Van Gaal is simply amazing. When we started our WC campaign in 2014, he said: Gini, you might start in a controlling role in the team. Danny (Blind) says you are able to do it. I’m doubting it, but we will give it a go.”
Is that not a bit too honest?
“Why? I think it’s cool. He says what he thinks. And you could always debate him. I never saw him angry or pissed off. The WC in Brazil was special, unique. Before the match for the 3rd place against Brazil he called me out. He said “Shouldn’t you get on the score sheet now?”. And I did! I spoke about this with Leroy Fer. We grew up together. We’re very close. And we both scored at a World Cup. That is pretty special.”
With buddy Fer in Oranje U17
You say Klopp and Van Gaal are top coaches, and you immediately talk about their honesty?
“Well I have not worked with any coach that I couldn’t deal with, to be honest. And I am proud of the coaches I worked with: Erwin Koeman, Bert van Marwijk, Gertjan Verbeek, Leon Vlemmings, Mario Been, Dick Advocaat, Fred Rutten, Phillip Cocu, Louis van Gaal, Danny Blind, Steve McClaren, Rafa Benitez and Jürgen Klopp. Not bad eh? When Advocaat was coach at PSV, he once put Toivonen on my spot, the #10. I was pissed off then. I still am, hahaha. And I told him last summer at Oranje. But Advocaat followed his truth and was honest and open about it. I can accept that. Mario Been put me on the #10 role, that was special. Everyone in Holland said I didn’t have the vision, I was too individual but he saw it. And he took the risk with me and Leroy. Fred Rutten is like Klopp. The way he organises training sessions, patterns etc. But no one has the passion Klopp has. Wonderful.”
He’s German. Does this mean training really hard?
,,I think of all the players in Oranje, Vincent Janssen and I train the hardest of all. I spoke with Pochettino of Spurs before Liverpool came. It was a really good talk, lovely man.”
The Rotterdam-born midfielder chose Anfield over White Hart Lane in the summer, although strictly speaking there was no choice as Tottenham Hotspur did not meet Newcastle United’s £25m asking price, and has settled seamlessly into a team of increasing substance.
“I had great conversations with Pochettino and Klopp,” says the Dutch international. “But in the meeting with Jürgen we had a laugh and did not speak only about football. He was interested in my personal life and that was good for me. He was not only interested in Wijnaldum the footballer but Wijnaldum the person. When you’re not out on the football field you have to communicate as people and it is good if you know something about how the other person is. It makes things easier. So I didn’t really get an offer from Spurs, but I do speak with Vincent a lot. And he has had barely a day off at Spurs. I don’t think I had one day off from December 21 till end of January. I hardly give interviews, simply coz I don’t have time for it.”
So no comparison with Holland?
“No! In Holland we don’t really train. We simply maintain our condition. I didn’t realise this when I was in Holland. At PSV I sometimes complained but our physical coach Kiesouw said it always: you don’t train hard at all. If you go abroad, you’ll find out what training is.”
Could it be that some players will decide not to want to play for these types of coaches?
“Well, if you don’t want this, you should not want to be top. Then you need to play at a lower level. If you want to reach the ultimate, this is the way.”
Some people say: Liverpool and Tottenham will collapse in March/April. Injuries, fatigue. You guys didn’t start well in 2017 because you’re too tired?
“I don’t agree. I never felt this strong. Sometimes we have to run a kilometer in 3 minutes and 50 seconds. Then directly we need to go and play a match on a small pitch and immediately after that, another kilometer in the same time. And that goes on for the whole session. Trust me, you’re dead after that. But you need to be able to find a way to remain tight in the passing, to play the right ball, to pass with precision. Klopp tells us we can manage to control the last stage of the game.”
Things are looking up for you at Liverpool. How’s the National Team going now?
“I didn’t watch the Euros, I only watched the final. I wanted to spend time with my family and friends instead but, to be honest, I was done with football for a few weeks because everything had gone wrong. Personally it was a great year but when you don’t achieve things with your team, and especially if you get relegated (with Newcastle), it is hard. I was a little bit done with football but Moussa [Sissoko, of France] is a good friend of mine so I thought I should watch him in the final. The Euros was a really big disappointment but relegation with Newcastle was for me even bigger. Before I went to Newcastle I spoke with the manager and the people there and they had big plans to bring good players in and play for titles. I was really disappointed because I wanted to achieve something with Newcastle. Even if it was not a title I wanted to help the club get back to fifth-to-10th place to start with, and maybe get the club back into Europe again. Unfortunately it didn’t go that way. It went totally wrong. That was the biggest disappointment for me last season.”
Wijnaldum talks more Oranje: “I am quite confident we can build our national team up to a good level. We might not longer be the dominant force, or a title candidate, but with players like Robben, Strootman, Van Dijk, Blind and other, I’m sure we can make it hard for any opponent. We just need to have our key players fit. There is so much young talent coming through. And I know what Memphis is capable of. He’ll get back to good form, I’m sure!”
Four months into his Liverpool career and Wijnaldum has rediscovered the feeling he had during his final season at PSV Eindhoven when, as captain, he led Phillip Cocu’s team to their first league title since 2008. He will not say whether Liverpool can end a much longer wait for a league title this season. To do so would run contrary to everything Klopp demands of his players, indeed the entire club, in his quest for constant improvement, although the midfielder admits Liverpool have confidence they can win every game at present. “There is no chance of us getting carried away,” he says. “That comes from the manager. Even if we have played a good game he still wants to work on the things that didn’t go so well. Every time you have to give 100%. It’s the same every week and in every training session. Every exercise we do he asks us to do it at 100% and never less.”
Wijnaldum adds: “I feel like I did at PSV. The most important thing is to enjoy football because you don’t know how long your career is going to last, but it is difficult when things don’t go well. It was difficult to enjoy last season. You are losing games, everything is going bad, you don’t play well and in the end you get relegated. That was hard.
“This season I started to enjoy it as soon as I knew Liverpool really wanted to sign me, especially after the meeting with Jürgen. I came away from that with a really great feeling that I could train with a good manager, a really good team and make myself a better player. I’m probably enjoying it now more than I did before because I have seen the other side of football where I was losing a lot of games and got relegated with Newcastle and didn’t go to the Euros. These are better days.
Scoring on his debut, for Oranje
“Every training session we do is to improve you as a player. That’s different to what I’ve experienced before and I’m really happy with it. The manager gives you confidence. He’s not a manager who yells at you or gets angry with you whenever you make a mistake. He will only get mad if you don’t do the things you are good at so, for example, [Sadio] Mané is a good player who can dribble, [Philippe] Coutinho is a good player who can dribble and if they stop doing that there’s a chance he might get mad and upset because you are not using your quality. Against Southampton last week he wanted me to make a run. I did it but it was too late and he said something about it. But sometimes, if I lose the ball easily, I expect him to be angry and he’s not. You can hear his voice easily enough – he’s quite loud. He is really passionate and not only in the game. People might see him during a game and think that’s an act. It’s not an act. He’s like that in training. For me that’s a good thing because it keeps you sharp and, from his side, he is doing everything he can to make the team ready to win games. That’s a good thing.”
The Holland international has a more defensive role at Liverpool than at Newcastle, where he operated out wide or as a No10, but Klopp did not outline a specific role when they met in the summer. “He explained his way of playing and said that I would fit in. From that moment I was very excited,” says Wijnaldum who, for his part, neglected to mention inspiring Newcastle’s 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at St James’ Park in December. “At the time he still had to make me an offer so I thought it is probably best to say nothing about that game, although it was a good one for me.”
Wijnaldum admits that “in different circumstances” he would have “loved to have worked longer” with Benítez. “But I had my plans in my head and we both went our own way. He said he wanted to keep me to get promoted and that the right offer had to be made before I could leave. Once everything was done he said Liverpool was a wonderful club and that he hoped I’d enjoy it here.”
Big money move to PSV (to aid fledging Feyenoord) and with new look
A more formative influence currently resides across Stanley Park. Erwin Koeman, assistant to his brother, Ronald, at Everton, was the Feyenoord coach who gave Wijnaldum his debut in April 2007; the midfielder became the club’s youngest debutant, in a team featuring Pierre van Hooijdonk and Angelos Charisteas, Greece’s European Championship-winning striker, against a Groningen side featuring one Luis Suárez.
“The game was on the Sunday and he told me on the Wednesday that I would be playing,” he recalls of the elder Koeman. “That was a really special moment. I realised that not every trainer has the balls to let a 16-year-old play in the first team and things were not going so well for the team at that time so they didn’t want to take the risk with young players. I was 16 years and 148 days old. That is why I always respect him as a trainer, because he made a decision that other trainers would have been scared to make. He told me I could tell my grandma, who I was living with at the time, but asked me not to tell anyone in school. I was still at school and he wanted to keep it a secret. You know how it is with reporters. It was very difficult to concentrate on class.”
While Wijnaldum is effusive in his praise of past and present coaches, it is his grandmother Francina to whom he owes the greatest gratitude. As he explains: “I wanted to be a gymnast when I was young, I used to do backflips and all those things in the street and at home, but my grandma said it was dangerous and made me stop. Now my daughter is doing gymnastics and I’m a little bit jealous of her because she is doing all the things I wanted to do when I was young. I had to stop and concentrate on football but I’m happy about that now.”
First senior goal Wijnaldum