As Newcastle’s squad begins to take shape under Rafael Benitez, much speculation surrounds the future of Georginio Wijnaldum.
It is unsurprising that clubs such as Everton, Tottenham and Southampton have been linked with the 25-year old Dutch international; what is confusing is that a large proportion of Newcastle supporters believe the club should cash in on last season’s top scorer.
In an online poll of over 8,000 supporters conducted by the Chronicle, only 14% thought Newcastle should refuse to sell him, whatever the price. While the majority believe that he should only be sold at a profit, 67% of respondents say Newcastle should accept a price of £20m or below, with one-in-five thinking a bid lower than the £14.5m he signed for should be enough to see Wijnaldum leave.
As the biggest signing of the Mike Ashley era, it is somewhat understandable that Wijnaldum has taken his share of the blame for Newcastle’s relegation. People need an outlet, someone to vent their frustrations towards, and the way Wijnaldum’s performances dropped off between January and May make him an obvious target.
Despite being Newcastle’s top scorer, none of his 11 goals came away from home, leading to suggestions that the player lacks mental strength and that he simply doesn’t care. But is this reaction fair? More importantly, would selling Wijnaldum be in the best interests of the club? The answer to both questions is a resounding no.
In 22 seasons of Premiership football, only three Newcastle midfielders have reached double figures for league goals in a season: Ruel Fox, who scored 10 in 1994-95; Kevin Nolan, who scored 12 in 2010-11; and Wijnaldum, who scored 11 last season. It is ludicrous that so many Newcastle supporters dismiss this achievement because four of them came against Norwich and all of them were scored at St. James Park. Wijnaldum’s other goals came against six of the best teams in the division: Southampton, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur, against whom Wijnaldum scored twice.
‘Ah, but he went missing after January’, Wijnaldum’s critics say, and to an extent this is true. As Newcastle’s season progressed, the Dutchman’s influenced waned, to the point where Benitez felt it necessary to bench his top goalscorer.
However, we must remember that Wijnaldum was in his first season in the Premiership, a league renowned as being the most physical and intense in world football, far more so than the Eredivisie. Most experts agree it takes two to three years for players to fully adapt to the conditions, the lack of a winter break and the style of football in this country; it is unsurprising that Wijnaldum’s energy and performance levels dropped as the unforgiving nature of English football took its toll.
If Florian Thauvin hadn’t failed so spectacularly and Rolando Aarons had any level of fitness, Newcastle could have rotated Wijnaldum to relieve him of fatigue ahead of the relegation run-in. As it was, Wijnaldum featured in every Premiership match this past season; hardly the actions of a player who doesn’t care.
Jamaal Lascelles has become the darling of the crowd since attacking his team-mates following the defeat against Southampton, with many wanting him to be appointed captain. Yet Wijnaldum also spoke out following that loss, questioning why players were not trying their best, saying it is too easy for Newcastle’s opponents, that players give up when going behind, but his quotes were dismissed as ‘bizarre’.
This contradiction in reactions towards the players, viewed alongside each other, further support the notion that Wijnaldum has been scapegoated due to a combination of his transfer fee and inflated expectations that arose from his first few months on Tyneside.
“All I can say is I’m devastated that we are out of the Premier League. It’s hurt me a lot. First that feeling must go away and then I will see how I feel. It was devastating. Unfortunately my 11 goals did not help the club stay in the Premier League so I am upset about it. I don’t know how long it will take to get over.
“Of course I want to play at as high a level as possible, in the Premier League, with a beautiful club – but not everything always goes the way you want. I will see what happens.”
When asked about his future in the aftermath of relegation, Wijnaldum’s response was seen by some as a come-and-get-me plea. ‘Look at him highlight his goals’, people said. ‘He’s said he wants to play in the Premiership. It’s obvious he doesn’t care’. Modern football has made cynics of us all, but is it really so hard to believe that a player actually gives a damn? Compare his quotes to those of Andros Townsend post-relegation, who only talked about himself and his own game. Yet the same fans who were desperate to keep Townsend would be glad to see the back of Wijnaldum. It makes no sense.
With the exception of Townsend, owing to his release clause, Benitez doesn’t need to sell anyone this summer: “We can keep every player if we want and we can bring in players if we need them. I have the conviction that if I don’t want to sell anyone, I don’t have to”, Benitez confirmed upon becoming full-time manager. While Wijnaldum is one of the more saleable assets in the squad, cashing in would be a short-sighted move for various reasons:
- It would be impossible to replace Wijnaldum with a player of equal ability, potential, versatility, stature and goal threat while in the Championship, no matter how much the club banked from his sale.
- Wijnaldum is contracted until 2020, which means the peak time for his sale is in the summer of 2018. A year of dominating the Championship, followed by a successful year in the Premiership in 2017-18, would enable Newcastle to conceivably double their investment. Goalscoring midfielders fetch a premium price; improving on his 11-goal haul from last year would mean Newcastle could realistically charge £35-40m in two years, when Wijnaldum would still be only 27 years old. Should the Netherlands have a successful World Cup that year, that price could rise even further.
- Newcastle need a captain. In his only full season as PSV captain, he led his team to the Eredivisie title at the age of 23. Benitez is likely to retain Moussa Sissoko as captain but, should the French international leave, Wijnaldum is a logical replacement.
- The ‘Steven Gerrard’ factor. While at Liverpool, Benitez turned Gerrard from a box-to-box midfielder into, first, a right-winger, then into a devastating attacking midfielder. Under Benitez, Gerrard reached double figures for league goals 3 times in 6 seasons; without Benitez, Gerrard achieved this landmark only once in eleven years, despite being Liverpool’s free-kick and penalty taker. Gerrard also won the majority of his individual awards under the tutelage of Benitez.
Wijnaldum has, unfairly, borne the brunt of the fan’s frustrations at relegation. He isn’t a Coloccini, who went missing for four months, or a Janmaat, who twice has taken himself out of relegation run-ins with red cards.
Wijnaldum is a player who literally ran himself into the ground for Newcastle, who played in every match, even when he had little left to give.
Rafael Benitez is at Newcastle for one reason: to win trophies. To do that, he needs players he can build his team around, like he had Gerrard at Liverpool. In Wijnaldum, he has one such player, one with unlimited potential in a variety of roles. Benitez will turn Wijnaldum into the best player he could possibly be.
It makes no sense for Wijnaldum to leave Newcastle now; not for him, not for Benitez, not for financial reasons and certainly not for footballing reasons.
You can follow the author on Twitter @LawesDisorder.