Jordan Henderson: How the Liverpool captain is still proving people wrong

Words by Paul Wilkes Illustration by Philippe Fenner
July 2, 2018

It’s August 2012 and Liverpool are trying to finance a deal for Fulham’s Clint Dempsey. The 29-year-old has just scored 23 goals in the previous campaign and Brendan Rodgers is keen to add the American forward to his new squad, but there’s a financial dilemma.Fenway Sports Group have spent heavily in the 18 months since they purchased the club and Rodgers has already invested £25 million on his former players Fabio Borini and Joe Allen. Money is now tight and in order to find the £6 million required to take Dempsey from Craven Cottage, funds need to be raised.

Rodgers calls Jordan Henderson to his office and informs the 22-year-old that he could be included in an offer to Fulham should he wish. The youngster is in shock and is quickly reduced to tears once he has left the room. It’s just 12 months since he made the dream transfer to Merseyside for an initial fee of £16 million. Henderson decides to stay and fight for his place, even though there’s no guarantee he will feature, and Dempsey joins Tottenham Hotspur.

The now Liverpool captain has made a career out of showing his doubters the error of their ways. At Sunderland, he was even booed by a section of supporters after a dip in form at one stage, despite the fact he was still just 20.

“When I came to Sunderland, Jordan was a young lad,” says former teammate and Aston Villa defender Ahmed Elmohamady. “He is a great player, you could see this in training. His shooting and passing were fantastic.

“In the year that we played together, I was right-midfield and he was a holding midfielder, so I played next to him. It was great move for him to go to Liverpool and become captain and with England.”

Henderson went on-loan to Coventry City in 2009, with Chris Coleman as his boss. His time at the Ricoh Arena was unfortunately cut short after he broke his foot following 13 appearances.

Sir Alex Ferguson felt, perhaps correctly, that Henderson’s running style could cause him injuries in the long-term. He made only 53 appearances in the two seasons between 2015 and 2017 but managed 41 last term as the Reds reached the Champions League final. As with any player that moves to Liverpool, there is always going to be an increased level of scrutiny and pressure. However, it has always felt as if Henderson has been more harshly judged than others, especially with the national side.

He joined Liverpool just eight days before his 21st birthday and with the club in a turbulent period in its history. In the last few years, the fans had witnessed two of the best midfielders in the world, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, leave for Spain and had arguably their greatest ever player in the position in Steven Gerrard.

Henderson doesn’t have the tenacity in the tackle of Mascherano at his best or the passing range and vision of Alonso, although the latter is an area that has certainly improved vastly since Jurgen Klopp arrived at Anfield. He isn’t the Roy of the Rovers type that Gerrard often was, scoring fewer goals and rarely slaloming or surging past defenders.

“He is a top leader and that’s what they have needed since Stevie left,” says his former Liverpool teammate Jack Robinson. “He is also English as well, which is an attribute to the club.

“That’s what they have been looking for him to takeover. They are obviously different players, but he has done well.”

Henderson’s strengths are more cerebral. He’s disciplined, tactical aware, mentally resilient and a natural leader and those are often difficult qualities to quantify. His tangible attributes are more apparent though, with his work-rate, energy and ability to control the rhythm from deep making him him a natural candidate to sit at the base of Klopp’s midfield.

Watch: Tactics – Klopp’s counter-pressing

The German wants someone who understands when the right moment is to pass the ball forward quickly to set off a fast-paced counter attack and when to just keep possession with simple passes to his centre-backs. In the transitional phase between attack and defence, Henderson’s positional sense for this type of system and mobility make him highly suited in the way that a defensive shielder, a Nemanja Matic-type, would not be.

“He is a leader on the pitch,” continues Robinson. “Liverpool need a bit of stability there and he brings that to the team. “He has been injured (at times) with his heel, but he is one of them that can play week-in and week-out giving 100%. You need that in the midfield.”

Gareth Southgate’s decision to stylistically evolve towards the principles of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino has not only made the best use of his available resources, but has also ensured that Henderson fits into the side. This has seen a vast improvement in his game at international level. Henderson has been one of England’s best players in Russia so far, whilst his attitude as a senior professional within the team is obvious. His selflessness enables his more creative teammates to show their maximum, although his own qualities ensure they have the right balance.

Watch: Gareth Southgate’s 3-5-2

There are certainly more technically proficient midfielders at the World Cup, but Henderson’s influence shouldn’t be misconstrued. For all the talent at their disposal, Argentina and Germany’s vulnerability at preventing rapid breaks would have been exposed less frequently had they possessed a Henderson at the base of their midfield.

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