JORDAN HENDERSON JUST CAN’T WIN OVER THE MAJORITY IT SEEMS. To some, he can’t pass, can’t dribble and doesn’t have a fixed position. He has underwhelmed for England, doesn’t really offer much in defence and was captain of the national under-21 side that was comprehensively dismantled at the European Championships in 2013. How could he ever be worth £20 million?
The armchair fan lives to fight another day. With Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson in his sights and a disdain for modern football, his argument rages on. Except this is no theoretical debate; this is the raging debate between most Liverpool fans and their counterparts that don’t watch the Anfield club on a regular basis.
It seems to be a running theme among opposition fans that the young midfielder isn’t worthy of a place in Liverpool and England’s team. It’s yet another example of English football’s insanity and some fans’ desire to write off young talent before it has had a chance to fully mature.
It’s pointless going into the argument of why countless England fans seem to want to shoot down the nation’s best young players – that’s another article in itself – but let’s focus on why Hendo is in fact one of the Premier League’s most effective midfielders and most underrated team men.
To understand the numerous facets to the Sunderland-born midfielder’s game, it’s perhaps wise to look into his past. Henderson was captain of every Sunderland side – whose academy he joined aged 11 – from under-14 up. It offers a telling insight into the maturity of a player who was so widely misunderstood when he made his breakthrough at the Black Cats.
At academy level he was an all-action central midfielder, capable of bursting into the box and one of the younger proponents of a dying art: the box-to-box midfielder. As Yaya Toure and Aaron Ramsey revitalize a position that had declined for a period time in English football, Jordan Henderson is brilliantly regressing back to his natural role at Anfield.
Rewind back to Sunderland and it was with a tremendous fanfare that the midfielder, who was operating behind a lone striker or off the right flank, was called up by England manager Fabio Capello. He was the new light in attacking midfield, and for many fans that hadn’t seen him play the praise among the tabloids, chat forums and social media was enough.
Therefore it was a surprise when they did. The Özil-esque, technically perfect attacking midfielder was nowhere to be seen. Instead a shy workman with simple ideas and a laidback mentality was on show. For many, it was the moment Jordan Henderson was written off.
Like many on their England debut, he had a quiet game. The hype surrounding his inclusion was disproportionate to his performances in the North East and while Sunderland were playing good football at times under Steve Bruce, he wasn’t even their main man. He was the club’s Young Player of the Season for two years running (2009 and 2010), but what does that really mean?
The boo-boys and the choir that supported them truly stepped out from behind the sofa when Henderson made his long-awaited move away from the Stadium of Light.
Anfield was his next destination, in June 2011, as he sought to further his career at the Merseyside giants. It’s strange to think that Henderson signed for Liverpool over four years ago – it certainly doesn’t feel that long. Perhaps it’s testament to how he’s settled into the ethos of the club and the work he’s put in to become a vital cog in the Brendan Rodgers era.
The reported fee was £20 million as Liverpool fought off competition from Manchester United and Tottenham to secure pen-to-paper. Unfortunately for Henderson, the fee, and Damien Comolli’s British revolution at Anfield, was to weigh heavy early on.
He came in at the same time as Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll and Charlie Adam – players who have since left the club after failing to deliver on a consistent basis.
Without knowing much about the midfielder’s strengths, fans expected a number of things that he couldn’t deliver. Much like Lucas before him, some sections of the home support grew tired with the outlay on Henderson and the all-too simplistic performances. It was these very fans that have been turned as the 25-year-old continues to swim against the tide in wider scope of English football.
It takes time to settle at Anfield, much like any big club. Jordan Henderson is an example above all else.
In the case of Lucas Leiva, it was more an issue of football’s pace in England that forced him to struggle in his first 18 months. There was little question about his ability once he picked up the speed of the game in England and settled into the holding role.
For Henderson, pace was never an issue. It was merely adjusting to the quality of talent around him. Luis Suárez’s runs couldn’t be compared to Kenwyne Jones’. Playing with Steven Gerrard was a world-away from sitting alongside Lee Cattermole. And working on Philippe Coutinho’s wavelength took some learning, unlike Stephane Sessegnon’s.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a slight on the aforementioned players; they all offer a variety of skills, particularly Cattermole, but comparisons between them and Liverpool’s top players are redundant. As a result Henderson began his learning process again. It’s a process that was conducted under difficult circumstances. Let’s not forget he was in an underachieving Liverpool team that showed little signs of progression, and a leaky back line.
Operating on the right also stunted his early progress. The traditional view is that Anfield has long missed a byline winger. Even Dirk Kuyt – for me one of football’s most underrated players – was much maligned for his inability to beat the man and play with directness and pace.
Isn’t it funny then that Henderson, now with some of the most impressive stats in the Premier League and captain of the club at just 25, still operates off the right side, albeit tucked-in slightly more than previously.
The Brendan Rodgers system has changed everything for England man and highlights the difficulty, and conversely the ease, some players have in adapting to specific formations. It’s often not the manager or the player’s fault that they can’t perform; it’s just not a compatible match.
Fortunately for Henderson, his role on the inside right of the midfield has helped him play his natural game. Along the way he’s highlighted the indispensible quality that his energy has given the team, while also forging a career at Anfield that looks like it will continue for a numbers of years. His stats last season back that up.
As a midfielder he’ll be looked at for his passing and distribution above all else, so what better place to start? In spite of completing 1.8 key passes per game and 3.1 long balls, his pass success rate stands at an excellent 84%. Factor in the crowded midfields in the Premier League and his often-advanced position in the attack, and the numbers take on a higher significance. Nine assists are nothing to be scoffed at either.
Furthermore, he’s averaging 1.4 shots per game, a solid return for a midfielder who covers as much ground as he does. With the added responsibility as captain, he’ll need to add goals to his game as the close proximity of teams at the top of the league can be widened by a few telling goals from unlikely sources. Henderson can provide them.
Perhaps his most telling contribution, aside from his distribution, comes in the defensive phase. He averages a outstanding 2.5 tackles per game. That’s more than Michael Carrick (1.4), Ramires (1.2), James McCarthy (2.3), Yaya Touré (1), Nabil Bentaleb (2.3), Cesc Fabregas (2.4) and Aaron Ramsey (2).
In the case of Touré, Fabregas and Ramsey, we’re talking about midfielders who are seasoned internationals and widely considered to be the best box-to-box midfielders in English football. His offensive stats stand up against most of the aforementioned too; only Yaya Touré is ahead, although he’s streets ahead of most players let alone Henderson.
Further to his tackles per game, he averages 1.7 clearances and one interception. Stats, it goes without saying, aren’t everything, and the intangible factors like ground covered and areas pressed are hard to acquire information on. Suffice to say, he’s always pushing forward in Rodgers high-pressing game yet providing ample cover to the central midfielders and right-sided full-back.
Attitude is a huge part of ‘The Liverpool Way’. Dirk Kuyt was often revered by those who attend Anfield far more than those who don’t. It was his attitude, hunger and unwavering desire to leave the pitch having contributed something that endeared him to the Kop. He wasn’t flashy, silky or even typically Dutch but he was more than just a footballer.
It’s this sense of belonging and wanting to impact on a game that is the greatest improvement in Jordan Henderson’s game, above even the stats. The shy, quiet lad from the North East has been replaced with a decisive, mature England international who finally believes in his considerable ability.
Liverpool now boast a player who is quickly beginning to repay the initial outlay. Next up for Liverpool’s number 14 is a fight for his place as a regular in the heart of England’s midfielder at Euro 2016. He will need to take his Anfield form to Wembley on a consistent basis, scoring goals and laying on a few to be considered worthy of a regular place in midfield – especially with the likes of Ross Barkley and Fabian Delph in the mix.
He’s arguably the most improved midfielder in the English game, alongside the aforementioned Delph, and his stats back that up. Some have more assists, others more goals, but few can lay claim to a greater all-round impact. Barring one strong season, he has also been riddled with mediocre performances around him, particularly in defence.
Only time will tell whether he can kick on again and contribute goals in a Liverpool team struggling at both ends of the pitch. Until then, Henderson’s journey is only just beginning in a season that promises much for his employers – and even more in the white of England. The key now is consistency at the highest level and remaining fit. If he manages that, England may well boast one of the game’s most effective midfielders in the heart of their central three come the Euros.
By Omar Saleem. Follow @omar_saleem