THE internet can be a ruthless place, Twitter especially. It’s the Western saloon of the Wild West, attracting all manner of people from across the board, shooting from the hip and asking questions later. It takes no prisoners, it leaves no survivors.
Certainly not after a Liverpool game, and not one as demoralising and gutless as the defeat at Burnley. It was awash with the hallmarks that pre-season was meant to wipe out — a slow start, ponderous possession play and a lack of imagination.
That it came a week after the thrilling, if not entirely flawless, victory at Arsenal seemed to heighten tensions among Reds fans. Two games that summed up the Jürgen Klopp reign so far — one step forward and two steps back. A brutal lack of consistency, with brilliance coming in flashes and stodginess aplenty.
Jordan Henderson was the biggest casualty of the customary Twitter fume. A montage of his ‘best bits’ at Turf Moor went viral. It had the lot — under-hit passes, over-hit passes, mis-controls, you name it.
It was comfortably his worst performance since taking the captaincy from Steven Gerrard, and probably his worst since that inauspicious first season under Kenny Dalglish. His display seemed to sum up that of his side, though by no means was he the worst offender.
It was a 90-minute performance that reflected what has happened to his Liverpool career in the past 12 months. Gone it seems is the fleet-footed ball of energy who harried and harassed to supreme effect in 2013-14, who started every league game in a 13-month spell and became indispensable to the way Brendan Rodgers instructed that thrilling Liverpool side to play.
It had all been set up for Henderson to make that natural step up in his career, having been handed the vice captaincy at the age of 24 and then replacing Gerrard 12 months later. At the same age his predecessor lifted the Champions League in 2005 and his game was improving year on year.
He lacked the technical capacity and ability to shape a game to his will that so defined Gerrard at that age, but Henderson was the unequivocal choice to take the armband. He rarely picked up injuries and looked on course to becoming a 10-goal a season midfielder — a target which had been the norm before the age of Gerrard and Frank Lampard redefined what people came to expect from that position.
In four seasons at the club he had appeared 37, 30, 35 and 37 times in the league. Armed with the captaincy and at the age of 25 that next step felt assured, almost inevitable. Yet five minutes into the second-half of the second game of the season the skipper is replaced by Emre Can and trudges down the tunnel towards the physio room.
He would never play under Rodgers again, and did not return to the pitch for another three months. Initially sidelined by a heel injury that required surgery, he broke a bone in his right foot upon his return to training. When it rains, it floods.
Mystery surrounded the heel injury and still does to this day. Reports surfaced that it stemmed from an incurable condition called plantar fasciitis, a pain that can only be healed by rest until it flares up again.
After years of staying injury-free, Henderson was now forced to play with a permanent niggle. His performances declined dramatically and he visibly struggled to get around the pitch in the same manner. That crucial role he had made his own in 2013-14 was impossible to replicate.
He could not run, turn around or shuttle from side-to-side. Those third man runs off the ball, hitting the edge of the area, all but disappeared. When he did so, twice against Manchester United in the Europa League, he fluffed his lines.
He was playing within himself, and largely within the central area of the pitch instead of box-to-box. Another injury, this time to his knee, curtailed his season and he missed Liverpool’s memorable Anfield performances that lifted them to the Europa League final, where he was an unused substitute. Even with the Reds losing the midfield battleground, Klopp did not turn to his captain to stem the tide.
Henderson arrived at the start of this season at a crossroads, and is so far struggling to re-assert himself, a point underlined by the surprise of many at his inclusion in the England squad.
His performance at Tottenham Hotspur represented an improvement but it still seems fair to ask: will he ever be the same player again? A dramatic question, perhaps, but from afar it looks as if something within the Liverpool captain has changed. It’s not just the injuries.
It is as if there has been a mentality shift within Henderson. Perhaps it predates the heel injury. But the midfielder willing to drive forward, put in a shift and cover every blade of grass has not been evident in almost 18 months. Since that week in March 2015, when he followed a beautiful top-corner curler past Joe Hart with a thumping drive from the edge of the box against Burnley, he has struggled to make that impact at the top-end of the pitch.
Maturing into his mid-twenties and taking the armband seems to have changed the midfielder Henderson thinks he is. He has dropped deeper, involving himself more in play from the base of midfield. Long, hopeful diagonals have become as frequent as incisive 10-yard balls forward.
Has he reached the age and stature that he believes his future role lies in central midfield, where he controls and dictates tempo? As players get older there is a natural desire to take on more senior roles in the side.
The engine room of midfield is a fascination for young English midfielders. Steven Gerrard was obsessed with central midfield, frequently telling anyone who would listen that that was his favoured position when all the evidence suggested it was far from his best. James Milner only moved to Liverpool because he was assured a starting role there by the manager.
English footballers tend to be impulsive rather than disciplined, a result of the way they are coached and the psyche of the culture in which they are developed. To conquer central midfield is the pinnacle, to be recognised as the best player on the pitch in the most important position.
There is an obsession with the recognition that comes with that responsibility, but the application to master the skills for that position seem to be lacking among the vast majority of English footballers. The best English player coming through in that position is Tottenham’s Eric Dier, whose footballing education came in Portugal.
Henderson’s style and capabilities do not suit that holding role, he is wasted in that withdrawn role which negates his greatest qualities. He needs to return to the role of being that midfield enabler, biting into tackles, pressing the ball and moving it around forwards at speed.
Standing around the centre circle, endless passes sideways and the odd Hollywood attempt are not his game. If injury means he can not fulfil his old role then a discussion needs to be had. Liverpool need Jordan Henderson to be himself, not some half-baked tribute act.