Yay! The poisonous chalice is empty! Now all we need to do is live through that ratchet World Cup and we can start anew. VI Pro is doing us all a huge favour publishing very good and insightful stuff on Dutch football. I will borrow their insights for you in the coming weeks.
This article was published by VI Pro and explains exactly what I tried to say many times but haven’t been able to express as well as the man quoted in this article. The original article zoomed in on Gini Wijnaldum. But the context applies to the whole national team.
And the man to shed light eloquently on our woes, is not Louis van Gaal. It’s not Johan Cruyff, or Wim van Hanegem or Frank de Boer. It’s a guy most of you won’t have heard of: Pepijn Lijnders. In case some of you wonder how to pronounce his name: in English you would spell it like this: Pepine Lineders.
Who the hell is Pepijn Lijnders? Read about it here
The introduction anecdote is about Wijnaldum and Liverpool FC.
The Reds have been practicing a different system in the run up to the West Ham game. The 4-3-3 will be replaced by a tweaked 4-4-2 to stop the ongoing defensive issues. Wijnaldum got injured in the CL match, so Henderson and Can are supposed to play the holding roles in midfield. But Henderson gets injured on the day of the match. Milner, multifunctional, is picked as his replacement, but does he have the legs still, for this role?
Liverpool’s medical team comes with surprising news though. Wijnaldum is fit to play! Jorgen Klopp doesn’t hesitate. He picks Gini for the Henderson role. Wijnaldum did travel to London with the squad but didn’t take his football boots as he wasn’t supposed to play at al… And without having had a minute of training in the new system, Wijnaldum plays the West Ham game, the full 90 minutes, as if he never played in another system his whole life. He is very neat in possession, with Can, he shield and guards the backline and coached and talks to his team mates. Wijnaldum is seen as a key player in Klopp’s Liverpool.
And how different is all of this at Oranje? Wijnaldum seems lost. Like a University student trying to find his way at Primary School. But he can’t make sense of this once so familiar environment….
It’s time to listen to the man who works with him daily. Liverpool assistant coach Pepijn Lijnders.: “Gini is terrific in running and moving. But he needs to have clarity where to move to.”
So, we have four different NT managers and Gini played with seventeen (17!!) different team mates in midfield in different systems and in different roles since that summer in 2014.
With Daley Blind, Gini is the only constant factor in the ratatouille that is the Dutch NT. In this context alone, it’s not strange that Wijnaldum can’t flourish. If the farmer would plough his soil everyday, seeds won’t get the chance to grow.
These are the players Gini played with since the WC2014: Nigel de Jong, Wesley Sneijder, Daley Blind, Leroy Fer, Jordy Clasie, Davy Klaassen, Jonathan de Guzman, Davy Propper, Ibrahim Afellay, Riechedly Bazoer, Marco van Ginkel, Kevin Strootman, Tonny Vilhena, Jorrit Hendrix, Stijn Schaars, Bart Ramselaar, Marten de Roon.
Pepijn Lijnders mentions this lack of consistency as the first reason why there is now flow. “You can’t judge and compare players without the context. Everyone yaps about “lack of quality” but I disagree strongly. What lacks, is stability and leadership. Players need two things: clarity and confidence. And these two elements were lacking.”
He goes on: “The lack of consistency is or was dramatic. in the coaching staff and in the squad. Continuity and a clear match plan to play the opponent in the key moments in the game are highly important factors. Maybe the most important aspect. This is how you go from eleven good players to a very good team!”
And the worst part is: it doesn’t seem all this swirling and swaying hasn’t ended yet. Dick Advocaat hopefully moves on after these friendlies. And the new coach will have to find a way to create a winning team for the Euros 2020. Which means the shuffling about hasn’t ended yet. Lijnders: “Everytime you point one finger to one player, four fingers point to the collective. Problems are never the result of one player, but the result of a failing collective. A simple example: it makes a huge difference if a player needs to defend a space of 10, 20 or 30 meters on the pitch. The bigger that space, the bigger the chance he’ll make an individual mistake. But it all starts with the positioning of the whole team.”
Individually, Wijnaldum is not a great defender. Not at Liverpool, not at Oranje. He doesn’t have the positional smarts of Matic (Man United) to excel in interceptions. Nor does he have the duelling strength of Kante. Put Wijnaldum in a big space in a badly organised Oranje and he looks more and more like the 17 year old Number 10 of Feyenoord: hard working, dynamic, but also wild and without control. That is the Wijnaldum we see in Oranje: a lost footballer in a team without a plan.
But, Wijnaldum has all the tools and ammo that make his so perfect for top football. He has tremendous legs and is extremely disciplined. Ask Wijnaldum, like Van Gaal did in the WC2014, to track his direct opponent for 90 minutes and he will. As if his life depends on it. Wijnaldum hasn’t played for seven months due to injury at that stage, but Van Gaal picks him to make his 5-3-2 work. Since then, the only game in which he excelled was the friendly in June 2016 when his role is to press forward in the Number 10 role. When there is a structure and he has a specified task, Wijnaldum can impress. And this will definitely apply to Strootman, Klaassen, Clasie and many other players who tend to disappoint in the orange jersey.
Lijnders summarizes: “Gini is a wonderful runner. But you need to make it clear to him where and when to run. Everything starts and stops with the distances between the players and the right shape of the team. Clarity amongst the players. So they know what they have to do, and what they can rely upon from their mates. If we practice this time and time again, quality pops up. The individual development will move up. The joy and confidence returns. We never lose a single minute at training to work on this. Our strength, as Liverpool, is this aspect in combination with energy and pace. But you can say this about Napoli, Man City, Bayern, Chelsea…any modern football team. A top team without energy and pace is like driving a Ferrari without fuel in the tank.”
Wijnaldum was on the radar of many big clubs already when he was 14 years old. His family didn’t allow him a big move, where his mates succumbed for the financial carrot. He stayed at Feyenoord until the Rotterdam club needed to sell him to survive financially. Fer and Wijnaldum’s fees saved the club but Gini remained in the Eredivisie. And when he finally did move to Newcastle, Jorgen Klopp and Maurizio Pochettino immediately recognised his skillset for the top level. Both did all they could to persuade the midfielder to move to their club. Both coaches love aggressive pressing play and both needed a catalyst in midfield. Spurs decides to stop the bidding war with Liverpool and Klopp was the victor.
At Liverpool, Wijnaldum is given a speed course defending. Jorgen Klopp: “At Liverpool, no one is responsible for one opponent. Everyone is responsible for everyone.” In other words: all positions need to be taken, all the time. It doesn’t matter by whom. Wijnaldum: “Klopp is very clear about his ideas. And I picked it up quickly. It’s actually great fun to play in a team like this. And when the ball is on the other side of the pitch, I don’t even watch my direct opponent, because I know we pressure the ball so well, that we’ll have it back in no time.”
And all this happens at Liverpool in a playing area on the pitch which is never more than 25 meters. In the Klopp model, Wijnaldum isn’t so much the man who wins the ball back, but the man who ignites the fires. Lijnders: “Exactly. The team wins the ball, preferably as high up the pitch as possible. So Gini doesn’t play man to man, he is responsible for the covering of passing lines and he takes the initiative to push up and forward.”
Pepijn Lijnders and Jurgen Klopp
A good example, against West Ham. Fernandes wants to dribble forward with the ball and it’s Wijnaldum stepping up around the middle line to put pressure on the West Ham player. He has two options, go for the short pass or play a long ball. If he picks the short pass option, two or three Liverpool players will be ready to corner the West Ham player. He decides to play a long pass, hastily, which sails over everyone into the safe hands of Mignolet. The stats won’t show the work and contribution of Wijnaldum, but no one at Liverpool needs statistics to understand Wijnaldum’s value in the team.
But the minute he strolls into Hotel Huis ter Duin to join the Oranje squad, the value of the midfielder diminishes as Oranje lacks all these patterns. In the Premier League, he’s responsible for a zone and passing lines. In Oranje, he is responsible for a direct opponent. Lijnders thinks this is not necessarily a problem. “He is a top pro and an intelligent player. The only change for him, is to change his focus.”
Wijnaldum himself: “Klopp alway says: it’s not the best players that win the title. It’s not the best team that wins it, but the team with the best plan.”
And there is the problem. A plan, that is exactly what Oranje has been lacking since the World Cup 2014. Since Wijnaldum made the move to Liverpool, he only scored one goal for Oranje: against Liverpool. Pretty poor for a player whose strength is to penetrate the box at the right time. This strong suit of the midfielder is well hidden in Oranje.
Whenever Wijnaldum changes from red to orange, he shoots less, he is less often in the opponent’s box, he passess less and creates less opportunities. Lijnders: “That is such a waste. Gini is a quick passer. Always ready to press and ready to switch the play. But, when he has less options, like any player, he becomes predictable and loses his strength. He is such an amazing pass & move player, has eye for the forward pass and is very solid in possession. Jurgen Klopp has a lot of faith in him.”
Lijnders and Wijnaldum
Strootman, Memphis, Robben, they’re all the victim of the poor positioning game of the Dutch national team. The bad positioning results usually in square balls instead of depth. Robben is forced to dribble against multiple opponents. And the more the defenders play square, the easier it is for the opponent, even the weaker ones, to keep their shape.
Lijnders sees that Wijnaldum is at his best when he can trust his intuition in the turn-around situations at Liverpool. “We have a very tight organisation with Liverpool, with lots of movement around the ball. Add the talent of our players and we can give colour to the game in specific moments. This is where you need practice practice practice. To create the circumstances in which our talent can blossom. And that is exactly what Oranje needs. Speed is the result of movement. By having options. Through spaces being opened up. Timing. By picking the right spot to move into, there are more options for a player on the ball to pick the pass. Unpredictability is the result of movement. There is no easy way to do this. It takes practice practice practice. That is the only way.”
A very hopeful analysis and conclusion. When Oranje can start to build a new team with a solid plan, we will be able to see the Wijnaldum of Liverpool, the Memphis of Lyon, the Quincy of Spartak and the Dost of Sporting…