If you don’t understand Jordan Henderson then you don’t understand this Liverpool
Why will Liverpool retain the Premier League next season? Look at Jordan Henderson and you will find the answer.
Appreciation has come late for the 30-year-old. For much of his career at Anfield he has been undervalued. Brendan Rodgers tried to send him to Fulham as a makeweight in a deal to sign Clint Dempsey. Fenway Sports Group (FSG) would have shipped him out on a number of occasions and failed to understand his strengths.
Even now, as captain of a team that has won the Champions League and the title in successive seasons, Henderson has been the focus of derision after he received the Football of the Year award last week. There have been comparisons with Scott Parker, who was handed the accolade in 2011. Parker was a jaw-dropping choice, particularly in a campaign where his team, West Ham United, were relegated. The only thing that is surprising about Henderson’s selection is the level of misunderstanding about his role and impact. In wider terms, it represents a failure to grasp Jurgen Klopp’s tactics.
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Viewed through the prism of what has come to be perceived as a typical Premier League-winning midfield, Henderson does not measure up to the standard. He is not an attacking midfielder, like Kevin De Bruyne, nor a scuffling defensive ball-winner like Wilfred Ndidi or N’Golo Kante.
Liverpool do not play that way. The central three guard space when the opposition have the ball, allowing the trio of forwards to press rival ball-carriers. They create balance for the side by filling in when the wing-backs steam forward to ensure the defence is not exposed. Henderson is the master hole-plugger in the side and the team does not function as well without him.
When the champions get possession, the midfield’s job is to move the ball quickly wide or to the front men. None of these jobs are flashy but they are vital to the way Liverpool function. Goals, assists and crosses are luxuries for Klopp’s middle men. They can be bypassed going forward as long as they are ready to put the brakes on any counter-attacks.
For more than half a decade FSG were desperate to find a replacement for Steven Gerrard. Henderson always suffered by comparison with his predecessor as captain. Now there is no longer an imperative to find an up-and-down, box-to-box player to fill the vacuum left by the Kop legend.
Gerrard, as brilliant as he was, would not work in Klopp’s team, at least not from the midfield. He would have to slot into the front three or range up the wing from right back – a role he could perform with aplomb, as he did when Liverpool were hanging on against Milan in the latter stages of the Champions League final in Istanbul 15 years ago. The Scouser’s game was all about explosiveness, dynamism and match-turning moments. Klopp’s team needs discipline and a willingness to run for team-mates in the middle of the park. Without Henderson, Liverpool would be significantly less stable at the back and would not fire with such efficiency going forward.
To describe the man from Sunderland as an essential cog in a relentless machine seems like damning him with faint praise. Especially as his contribution is frequently that of a component buried deep in the engine. Much of his good work goes unnoticed, particularly to observers who spend their time following the ball. Teammates and coaches take a more rounded view of proceedings and are generous in their praise for Henderson. They recognise his effort and influence.
It is possible to make a coherent argument that a number of other players had a better case to be named Footballer of the Year. Trent Alexander-Arnold has had an eye-catching season, Sadio Mane’s campaign was spellbinding and Virgil van Dijk was magisterial. Elsewhere, no one could have complained had De Bruyne topped the poll. The Belgian may well help Manchester City win the Champions League before the season ends. Henderson has a different skillset to the other contenders for individual honours and was as effective as any of them, despite his role lacking glamour and star quality.
Until another manager works out how to stop Liverpool’s front three and wing back system, Henderson will remain crucial to Klopp’s team and will continue to thrive. Conventional thinking suggests that dominating the midfield is the route to winning games but Klopp has largely abandoned that department as an offensive unit. Grading Henderson and his fellow midfielders by attacking statistics is missing the point of how they operate.
The furore surrounding Henderson shows that many people have not yet recognised why Liverpool are so good. Klopp’s midfield subverts stereotypical ideas of how a team should work. The captain’s role is unusual and cannot be judged on orthodox standards.
Henderson has maintained high levels of consistency in a side that has dominated the division. Those who do not recognise how good he has been cannot begin to understand why Liverpool are exceptional. That bodes well for next season because if Henderson flourishes in the upcoming campaign it will mean that Klopp’s side are still streets ahead of the competition.
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