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Wijnaldum vs. Fabinho: Who Starts at Left Back?

With the signing of Giliano Wijnaldum, the possibilities are now on the table.

Dutch Eredivisie - 'Go Ahead Eagles v Nac Breda'

The Union announced the signing of Giliano Wijandum on Thursday. Yes, thats Giliano - not Georginio Wijnaldum. While his quality is certainly a step below that of his brother’s who is currently a regular for Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, this appears to be a good signing by all accounts. It fills a position of need with Fabinho on the wrong side of 30 while adding athleticism, versatility and competition to the roster.

The immediate reaction was priceless. The majority of people chiming in about the signing appeared to experience a brief moment of shock while under the impression that the Union had plucked a midfielder straight from Anfield.

By now, everyone knows the club has signed his lesser-known brother. Moving on from the initial shock, there are some obvious connections to the Union. At the forefront is his connection to Earnie Stewart. Wijnaldum started and played all 90 minutes when Stewart-led AZ beat out PSV Eindhoven for the KNVB Cup in 2012-13. After joining AZ’s academy from Sparta Rotterdam, he made his first team debut in 2011 during Stewart’s time there and was a member of the senior team for three years. Stewart also confirmed via conference call that Wijnaldum was a teammate of Roland Alberg during his time in the Eredivisie.

Wijnaldum’s bloodline, for what it’s worth, is spectacular. While Georginio is the highest profile in the family, their half brother, Rajiv van la Parra, also plays for Huddersfield Town of the Championship in England.

The reactions to the signing were mixed. Die-hard Fabinho supporters quickly jumped to the Brazilian’s defense, some expressed genuine excitement about Wijnaldum’s potential, and others fell on the pessimistic side of the scale.

As always, take the Twitterverse with a grain of salt. With that said, the left back position immediately became a toss-up when the news broke. “We brought Giliano in to compete for a starting position.” Stewart told the media. “He didn’t just come here to sit on the bench and warm the bench.”

Now that we have a true left back competition on our hands, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and dive right into some possible scenarios for the upcoming 2017 season.

Fabinho Keeps his Spot

Over the years, Fabinho has caught a lot of flack for his play at left back for the Union. There is nobody denying his quality going forward and his ability to whip in service with that left foot to C.J. Sapong, Chris Pontius, and others. The criticism has come from the other side of the ball.

Fabinho has been exposed on countless occasions during his four years with Philly, resulting in opportunities and goals for opposing teams. Truth be told, however, his play defensively has been improving steadily.

2016 was his best year by a long shot. In 29 starts, Fabinho managed six assists to go along with his improved play on the defensive end. Time and time again, Fabinho could be found bombing forward, getting in behind the opposing right back, and providing quality crosses into the penalty area. In 2016, though, there were far less times where that resulted in a counter attack going the other way, ultimately coming to fruition in the channel left vacant by his foray forward.

Could the Union use an upgrade at left back? Surely. Could the Union do a whole lot worse at left back? Also true.

Wijnaldum is still just 24 years old so with Fabinho holding down the starting left back spot, time to adjust to the league’s physicality, the added traveling, and the differences from the European leagues that he’s accustom to wouldn’t be the worst thing for him. Not to mention, maybe he can even learn a thing or two from watching the seasoned Brazilian.

Wijnaldum Starts Opening Day

This is another real possibility. Wijnaldum, despite being 24, played the entire 90 minutes of a Dutch Cup final. Even crazier than that, it was four years ago. Given that experience, it’s hard to second-guess that he has played at a higher level than Fabinho, not to mention he’s seven years younger.

Potential is a word tossed around a lot. Just because players are under the age of 25 does not mean they have potential. Wijnaldum, however, appears to have it. Given his experience, and the little of him you can find on YouTube, the dynamacism, the strength, and the propensity to get forward are all very apparent. Curtin stressed the importance of fullbacks getting into advanced positions to play a role in the attack, and while Fabinho fits that criteria as well, Wijnaldum has the ability to do it for many more years.

Defensively, it appears that he has not only the capability of tracking runners by using his pace to make some insane recovery runs, but the strength to knock opposing attackers off the ball. If Wijnaldum is more disciplined defensively than Fabinho to go along with his attacking prowess, it’s easy to see him getting the nod in the season opener in Vancouver.

Curtin has a reputation of being loyal to his players, almost to a fault, but keep in mind that Keegan Rosenberry played every minute just a season after Raymon Gaddis featured at right back almost exclusively.

Wijnaldum and Fabinho Start?

It’s expected that Josh Yaro will be asked to fill a bigger role in year two of his career and will likely be the opening day center back next to Richie Marquez. If that plan fails dramatically, the idea of Wijnaldum and Fabinho both along the back line may entice Curtin and his staff.

During the conference call, Stewart mentioned that while the Union’s newest addition is traditionally a left back, he can tuck inside and fill a central role as well. His opportunities to use his skill set would be much more limited as a center back, but securing those two spots is of utmost importance.

Attacking fullbacks, while the norm in the modern game, are still a luxury more than a necessity. Two solid center backs anchoring the back line are a must. Name the last time that a team won any title with a leaky central defense. Good luck.

If Yaro struggles, and Curtin doesn’t view Ken Tribbett as the answer, don’t be surprised to see a Wijnaldum-Marquez pairing early on as the Union look to build upon their 2016 performance.

A Pontius/Fabinho Platoon

The signing of Wijnaldum poses more than a few questions but some are more intriguing than other. Where does Fabinho play if Wijnaldum is on the field? is high up on my list. The obvious answer is Fabinho could provide fresh legs by coming in to fill the left back role later in games, but is that the only way to utilize his talents?

Another option is pushing Fabinho higher up the field as a substitute on the wing that can also give Curtin a spot start when needed. He may not be the goal scoring threat that Pontius is, but what could be devastating for opposing coaches is how to deal with a Wijnaldum-Fabinho left flank.

Who is more dangerous? Do you pay attention to Fabinho simply because he starts in a more advanced role, or do you worry about the possibility of Wijnaldum having more freedom to bomb forward given Fabinho’s ability to cover for him defensively?

As a coach, those are questions that you have to answer. As a defender, that’s a nightmare.

Predictions

Now that the possibilities are on the table, my gut feeling is that Wijnaldum starts opening day with Fabinho filling in at left back and wing when needed. After a great 2016, people are willing to dismiss Pontius’s long history of injuries. Getting Fabinho time to grow into that role will only benefit the Union when Pontius needs a rest or the injury bug comes back to bite him. Fingers crossed.

Wijnaldum appears to have more to offer on the defensive side of the ball, and while he is an attacking fullback similar to Fabinho, seems to be better in 1v1 situations with the ball at his feet. His athleticism and age certainly give him an advantage with Curtin looking to finalize his back four of the future with Rosenberry, Marquez, and Yaro holding down the other three spots for now.

All in all, this appears to be a good signing, and Fabinho can perhaps add a new wrinkle to the attack coming off the bench so I am waging my bets on Wijnaldum as the starting left back for the 2017 season.