Gini Wijnaldum has a lot to smile about. Playing a crucial role in Liverpool’s thrilling resurgence under Jurgen Klopp, the Netherlands midfielder has firmly established himself as a Kop favourite since his arrival from Newcastle in 2016. A title winner with PSV Eindhoven in his homeland, he’s desperate to replicate that success at Anfield. He’s on a mission to help write a new chapter in Liverpool’s rich history…
This is your third season at Liverpool. How do you reflect on your time at Anfield so far?
I’ve certainly grown as a player during my time here. The expectations are so high at such a big club and that drives you on to become better. Before I signed for Liverpool I was playing for Newcastle as a No 10 – basically, I was always attacking, I didn’t have to do much defensive work, I didn’t play as the No 6 or the No 8. Learning to play different roles has made me a more all-round midfielder. With the calibre of players here and the technical staff, this is a great environment to learn. Walking out at Anfield is an unbelievable experience and I feel very fortunate. I try to enjoy every minute of it. We’ve come a long way as a club and I’ve been happy to contribute to that.
How important do you think that versatility is in modern football?
It makes it easier for you to play more often and it makes it easier for the manager if he has players who can be used in different positions. I think I’ve shown I have the defensive discipline to play deep as the No 6 and start the build ups with my passing. I can also play higher up the pitch and make a difference in the opposition area. Being able to do both has helped me to play so many games.
Your journey to Anfield started at Sparta Rotterdam. How did you get spotted by your hometown club?
I was six years old when I got taken along to a talent day in Rotterdam. My school said I was good and put my name forward. I was lucky that they picked me. I came up through the youth at Sparta Rotterdam for seven years. I liked football but I loved gymnastics at that time. I used to do backflips but my grandma said it was too dangerous! She was scared I might hurt myself and made me stop. For a lot of little kids it’s football, football, football but I didn’t go to stadiums to see games or stay in the house to watch them. It was only when I moved to Feyenoord at the age of 14 that I thought maybe I could be a professional.
You lived with your grandma Francina in Rotterdam from the age of five. She played a big part in your development…
She was always by my side supporting me. She didn’t take me to football to make it my job in the future but more to keep me off the streets and not to do silly things – to make sure I made something of my life. She always said that firstly you have to go to school and after school you can play soccer. The most important thing she ever told me was to do my best, so when I look back later in my career I do not have regrets. She also said to be yourself and never change.
Your big breakthrough came at PSV Eindhoven where you inspired them to the title and were crowned Dutch Footballer of the Year. But was a move to the Premier League always the dream?
Yes, it was. I admired a number of other competitions when I was playing in Holland – the Bundesliga is a wonderful competition and
La Liga too. But I think the Premier League is the most attractive competition in the world. I’ve always thought that. It’s so competitive. There are so many teams who can beat each other, so many teams who can compete for the title. It’s so difficult to win games. When I was in Holland, a lot of times when you played against the lower teams you won comfortably. In the Premier League you have to fight for every point.
Newcastle United swooped for £14.5million in 2015. How do you look back on your time there – you top scored with 11 goals but the season ended with relegation to the Championship?
They are a club that is in my heart. They gave me the opportunity to play in the Premier League. The fee was a lot of money at the time. A lot of clubs didn’t want to take the risk that they took. I only worked with Rafa Benitez for a short time but he’s a great manager and he showed it from the first moment he came. He’s a good person, always trying to help players out. It was a big disappointment that we got relegated but I will always appreciate what Newcastle did for me.
When Jurgen Klopp signed you for £25million in the summer of 2016 you were a man in demand. You also held talks with Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino…
I had a really good conversation with Pochettino but we didn’t come to an agreement. Not just me – Newcastle also didn’t come to an agreement with Tottenham. When I spoke with Jurgen he made me feel really good. He gave me a lot of confidence because he said he liked my way of playing football. Three days after our meeting they had reached a deal and I didn’t think twice. This is one of the biggest clubs in the world. I wanted to make the transfer and I’m happy that I did.
You made some crucial contributions during your debut season, not least the stunning strike against Middlesbrough on the final day, securing the club’s return to the Champions League…
The situation made the goal even more beautiful. Everyone was nervous because we had to win, so to score then was a relief for everyone. The fans welcomed me from the start here. I think they appreciate that I give 100% every game and do my best always for Liverpool. If they can see that you are willing to do everything to win for the team, they will love you.
How has working with Jurgen Klopp improved you as a player?
He is always busy making the team better and also trying to make you better as an individual. He has great attention to detail. He shows you situations in a game where he feels you could have done better. During training he makes it very clear what he wants to see. He asks a lot from players. He asks for a lot of concentration, he asks for a lot of hard work. It’s not always easy, sometimes you aren’t 100% concentrated and you might think ‘I can do things a bit easier today’. But with him you always have to be 100% concentrated and give everything you have.
Klopp appears to have a close bond with his players…
I can’t speak for every player but I have a good relationship with him. He has helped me a lot. He can be hard because he’s always on your case and saying what he thinks. But he’s honest and I like that. It’s always in the right way, always for the right reasons. It’s not to make you feel bad or anything like that. He’s really hard but on the other side he keeps your confidence high. He says that mistakes are just part of football. I remember against Leicester City I made a mistake and it led to a goal. He wasn’t angry about the mistake, he was more angry about my reaction afterwards. He thought I was too busy thinking about it rather than just putting it behind me.
Is he like any other manager you’ve worked with?
He’s actually quite similar to Louis van Gaal. He also asks a lot from players. It’s not always easy when a manager is that dominant and sees everything. But they only have one reason for it - to make you better. When you keep that in mind, you can deal with it. If you think ‘he always wants to say something about me’ then it can be hard. I always have the mindset that both those managers wanted to help me.
How do you reflect on last season’s remarkable run to the Champions League final?
It was amazing to be part of. What I loved the most about the Champions League was the games at home. The atmosphere was different than usual. Anfield comes alive on big European nights. It was wonderful. We beat some very good teams. Everyone in Europe knows who we are right now. It was just unfortunate how things went in the final against Real Madrid. Things didn’t go our way but we learned a lot from the experiences of last season.
Last season Liverpool received plenty of attacking plaudits but stood accused of being vulnerable at times defensively. Now you seem to be able to grind out results…
Yes and that’s so important. If you want to compete for the Premier League title you need to win ugly sometimes. Some games don’t go the way you want them to go but you still have to find a way to win. In the previous years I’ve been here, it always seemed that when we didn’t play well we dropped points. It seemed difficult for us to win games when not at our best. We might score one but wouldn’t be able to keep a clean sheet. Grinding out wins is an important step for us compared to the seasons before.
At the age of 27, you’re reaching your peak. What else do you want to achieve in your career?
I hope to stay here for a long time and help to make the history of this club even bigger. We’ve qualified for the Champions League two seasons in a row and reached a major final but we want more. Everyone talks about winning something and we have to make sure we take that next step. I hope we can do it. We have the confidence that we can do it. You want to be able to look back and feel you were part of Liverpool’s great history – win something here and they will always remember you. I want to be remembered as a Liverpool player who was part of something special.