The Netherlands have long been looking for the right partner for Frenkie de Jong, and Gini Wijndalum may just be the perfect man for the job.
When Ronald Koeman was in charge, he settled on a midfield three of De Jong and Marten de Roon playing behind Wijnaldum, and it often worked well, being the setup in wins over France, Germany and England.
With De Roon providing defensive stability, De Jong had creative freedom and ran the show, while Wijnaldum got on the scoresheet a number of times.
However, problems arose when playing against teams who sat back such as Northern Ireland. With the opposition parked behind the ball, the side needed two holding midfielders who could unlock the defence and create chances. Frenkie fit the bill, but De Roon didn’t.
Since taking over, Frank de Boer has encountered similar problems. He started the Atalanta man in the 0-0 draw against Bosnia and in the 4-2 defeat to Turkey. In both games, the midfield lacked creativity with him on.
Koeman and De Boer have tried to address this problem by playing Donny van de Beek and Davy Klaassen alongside De Jong respectively, but neither player has impressed there.
Being such an attacking player, Van de Beek doesn’t provide the stability that De Roon does, forcing De Jong to do more defensively and thus limiting the attacking impact the Barcelona man has.
As for Klaassen, his poor defensive positioning and lack of pace were exposed in the game against Poland, and he’s not the most creative player with the ball at his feet.
What the Dutch side needs is someone who is as good defensively as De Roon but more of a threat on the ball. Enter, Georginio Wijnaldum.
After moving him further back for the last 20 minutes against Turkey, De Boer started the Liverpool man alongside De Jong rather than in his usual number 10 position for the games against Latvia and Gibraltar, and all in all, the signs were positive.
Wijnaldum often plays in a deep midfield role for his club, and that was clear to see. His positioning, both on and off the ball, was excellent. While he didn’t have to do much defensive work given the opposition, that allowed De Jong to get further forward, as their respective heat maps from the Latvia game show.
The importance of this can’t be overstated. One thing this team sorely lacks is an advanced playmaker such as Wesley Sneijder or Rafael van der Vaart. On a side note, how unfair is it that we had two world-class options that we had to choose between for such a long time and now don’t have any?
Anyway, with someone beside him capable of doing the dirty work and protecting the team from being hit on the counter-attack, De Jong can somewhat compensate for this by making an impact in the final third himself.
In all fairness, De Roon provided this, but crucially, Wijnaldum is much more of a threat in possession than the 30-year-old.
In the 62 minutes that he was on the field against Turkey, De Roon registered no key passes, dribbles or shots and didn’t create any chances.
Wijnaldum meanwhile made four key passes, completed two dribbles, got 10 shots away and scored one goal in his two games in the same position. He was admittedly up against much weaker opposition, but there’s little doubt that he’s better going forward than his compatriot.
Playing him further back benefits the team in other ways too, as it allows Van de Beek and Klaassen – whichever one De Boer chooses – to play in their best position.
As said, neither are great as a defensive midfielder, but with their off-the-ball movement and finishing, are much better playing behind the striker.
Granted, Klaassen did forget his shooting boots for the last two matches, but the fact that he was getting in the right positions is encouraging, and he’s proved many times that he can find the back of the net. When on form, he can be a real goalscoring threat.
As for Van de Beek, he has scored in three of the last six games he has played in for his country and is undoubtedly immensely talented, whether he’s getting playing time for Manchester United or not.
Perhaps Wijnaldum is still a better number 10 than both of them, but looking at our midfield options, I’d say he’s more needed further back for the time being.
Ajax star ✅ Dutch international 🔜
🦁 How highly do you rate Ryan Gravenberch? pic.twitter.com/OxQwbAcBTL
— UEFA EURO 2020 (@EURO2020) March 22, 2021
The obvious and most interesting alternative setup would be keeping Gini in attacking midfield and putting Ryan Gravenberch alongside De Jong in midfield.
The Ajax youngster was really impressive when he came on against Gibraltar, making some excellent passes and looking comfortable and composed on the ball. In the near future, he should definitely be in the starting XI.
However, playing him and De Jong behind Wijnaldum as soon as this summer would most likely leave us too exposed defensively, especially against bigger sides.
Another option is Teun Koopmeiners playing with the Barcelona and Liverpool stars, and that would maybe be my first choice, but unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to be in De Boer’s plans at the moment, shown by the fact that he was selected for the U21 squad rather than the senior squad for the recent matches.
With him out of the picture, the contenders for the place alongside De Jong are Wijnaldum, De Roon, Gravenberch, Van de Beek and Klaassen, and our captain is our best bet.
His intelligence, stamina, strength and speed make him a solid and dependable defensive midfielder off the ball, while he also offers a lot on it. The same can’t be said for any of the other names above.
Putting him alongside De Jong won’t solve all of our problems and immediately turn us into world-beaters, but it’s a good platform to build upon.