Liverpool made light work of Bournemouth on Saturday to regain top spot in the Premier League, and again, a midfield masterclass from Georginio Wijnaldum stood out among a litany of strong performances.
Much has been made of the massive fees tabled to lure Alisson and Virgil van Dijk to Anfield, but both have justified their respective signings by providing a substantial boost to a previously porous defense – though it’s arguable that the piece that holds it together has been in the squad all along.
Every Premier League winner has had one, and for Jurgen Klopp’s table-toppers, it’s Wijnaldum. The unassuming lynchpin that connects the backline to the Reds’ lethal attack, Wijnaldum fits the profile of an unsung hero beloved by fans, but he’s largely unrecognized outside of the Liverpool bubble.
Against Bournemouth, Wijnaldum was at his best. His deft dink that eluded Artur Boruc’s fingertips doubled Liverpool’s lead and all but cemented the result, but for the ebullient Dutchman, it was a performance typified by more than the crafty 34th-minute finish. Wijnaldum completed 91 percent of passes and chipped in with a successful aerial duel and tackle. Without the 28-year-old, there would be no unbeaten run this season and, perhaps, no title challenge. For a Liverpool side that’s witnessed Fabinho’s protracted acclimation to life in England, Naby Keita’s lingering search for form, and injury to Jordan Henderson, Wijnaldum’s continued excellence in the middle of the park has provided Klopp with the club’s most consistent midfield standout.
In the spirit of Liverpool’s self-effacing midfield adhesive, here’s a look at five other recent unsung heroes on league-winning sides:
Park Ji-Sung (Manchester United 2008-09)
Tireless Manchester United midfielder and South Korean international Park spent seven seasons with the club, winning the league four times. The 2008-09 term may have been Park’s best. He had 40 appearances in all competitions as United bested Liverpool for the title and won the League Cup but suffered defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final. The 100-time capped Taegeuk Warrior had a knack for rising to the occasion, including a man of the match performance at Stamford Bridge and a goal in the Champions League semis versus Arsenal to propel Sir Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils into the final. Park was the poster boy for work rate over technical quality.
Javier Hernandez (Manchester United 2012-13)
Mexican international Hernandez enjoyed six seasons at United before a loan to Real Madrid, and while the forward’s Red Devils spell was hardly the stuff of legend, his displays during Sir Alex’s last campaign in charge had an instrumental impact. Chicharito scored 10 league goals to go with six helpers, but it was more about the context than numbers. Match winners versus Chelsea, Newcastle, and Aston Villa helped guide United to a record 20th top-flight title – and their last – as the current West Ham striker registered the final tally of the celebrated Scottish gaffer’s coaching career in a frenetic 5-5 draw at West Bromwich Albion.
Edin Dzeko (Manchester City 2013-14)
Lost in Manchester City’s narrow title-winning margin and Yaya Toure’s stunning 20-goal campaign was the consistent performance of Bosnian striker Dzeko. The towering target started 23 matches after languishing in Carlos Tevez’s shadow the previous year, and Dzeko repaid Manuel Pellegrini’s faith with 16 league goals. His brace in the Manchester derby included an opener after just 43 seconds, the quickest goal scored at Old Trafford in Premier League history. Dzeko would bag another brace against bogey side Everton before one more two-goal outing against Aston Villa in the penultimate match of the year as City vaulted Liverpool for the top spot.
Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea 2014-15)
Jose Mourinho’s Blues battered the competition on the way to a dozen-point title-winning gap on City, and for all the exploits of Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, Branislav Ivanovic was a largely overlooked influence synonymous with Chelsea’s bullish ethos. The Serbian international started all 38 league matches, added a robust edge to the back-four, and contributed in attack with four goals and five assists. The no-nonsense defender was one of six Blues named to the PFA Team of the Year, prompting the west London lot to award the concrete-calved full-back with the vice-captaincy at the start of the following season.
Victor Moses (Chelsea 2016-17)
Current Fenerbahce loanee Moses has enjoyed an erratic spell in association football, and his role in Chelsea’s 2016-17 title-winning side might be the peak. After impressing new manager Antonio Conte in the preseason, the Nigerian was slotted into the starting XI at right wing-back following the Italian tactician’s early-season shift to a 3-4-3. The returns were as immediate as they were unlikely, with Moses earning man of the match honors versus Hull City in his first start before replicating the distinction with a match-winner against Spurs in November. He’d go on to appear in all but four of Chelsea’s league matches, scoring on three occasions.