IT’S always a slog, the international break. Those barren two-week intervals depriving us of watching the Reds put their latest opponents to the sword. This one has been particularly grim. Following the apocalyptic outcome of the US general election, I find myself yearning for the Premier League to return more than ever.
I need that tonic; that 90 minutes of escapism from the real world. Phil Coutinho showing us all why he’s the best player in the land. Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino ripping defences to shreds. Adam Lallana looking every bit the modern day incarnation of a turbocharged, English Johan Cruyff. A slight hyperbole, perhaps.
I’m well on board the title bandwagon now. This is the most complete and explosive Liverpool side I can remember and Jürgen Klopp reckons they haven’t even hit top gear yet. What a prospect that is. Who will live with us?
There’s one man who doesn’t always get the credit he deserves in all this, though. His role, however, is arguably just as important, if not more so, than any other member of this flourishing Liverpool side. Step forward skipper. The transformation of Jordan Henderson into an all-conquering, dynamic “number six” this season has been remarkable to watch.
I’ve always been a massive fan of Henderson. He’s a player who has received a great deal of criticism throughout his career. At times, that extends to rather nasty kinds of personal abuse. There’s an established narrative that he’s a bit crap at footie and it’s seen as trendy to give him stick.
To see Liverpool “fans” turn on him last season and during the summer, deciding that he’s not good enough to wear the armband or even play a part in the club’s long-term future, was extremely disappointing to see. Henderson’s season was ruined by a chronic heel injury which impaired his ability to run and play anywhere near his full capacity. Prior to that, he played a pivotal role in our title challenge under Brendan Rodgers and continued his development as a crucial player in the following season, racking up seven goals and 14 assists in an underperforming Liverpool side.
Time and time again, Henderson’s abilities have been questioned. Every single time, he’s kept his head down and come up with the answers to silence his critics. This season, he’s done it again. Naturally, it would seem his attributes don’t necessarily fit a more disciplined midfield role. He struggled there in the past and always looked at his best when given license to use his energy as a box-to-box midfielder.
Klopp knows far more about football than any of us, though. Funny that. He identified Henderson’s intelligence and saw he had the qualities to play the number six role. It looked slightly uncomfortable at points towards the beginning of this season as he was still learning the position.
Then came the spectacular 30-yard belter against Chelsea. That felt like Henderson’s watershed moment as Liverpool captain. It showed in his celebration. “Fucking come on,” he shouted as he slid across the turf. Ever since, he’s found a new level and is performing at a consistently excellent level. That moment gave him the confidence to go and show why he deserves to wear that armband.
The way Henderson conducts himself on the field is superb. He’ll bark at his team mates and tell them where to be. He’ll shout encouragement and ensure that everyone keeps their focus on the task at hand. Leadership is about more than that, though. The way he passes with authority, fizzing the ball at his teammates, trusting they’ll control it. Snapping into tackles, breaking up play.
Henderson is the heartbeat of this Liverpool side. He might not be the most graceful footballer to watch. You won’t see him skipping past opponents with an outrageous piece of skill, like Coutinho, Firmino or Mane. His steady and reliable presence provides the foundation for the attackers to flourish. It’s notable that since his return to the side, Klopp has fielded Emre Can as a more advanced midfielder and retained Henderson in his withdrawn role. It’s a show of faith from the manager in Henderson’s ability to dominate games and dictate the tempo.
The numbers prove his influence as well:
- Henderson has completed the most passes of any player in the Premier League this season (773) with 88% accuracy.
- He ranks 3rd in the league for tackles won (31).
- He has covered the most ground of any Premier League player this season (131km)
It’s not all brawn and no brains, however. Henderson’s goal against Chelsea remains his only strike of the season so far, but it was crucial in securing the victory. His assist for Firmino against Swansea was an outstanding piece of skill to set up the equaliser in a tricky contest which Liverpool went on to win. His defence-splitting pass for Firmino at Selhurst Park displayed terrific vision and execution, helping wrap up the three points.
There’s a reason why managers like Klopp trust Henderson to play such a key role in the side. There’s also a reason why he was entrusted with the captain’s armband for the national side. Steven Gerrard also gave him a glowing endorsement as his successor to be Liverpool captain.
Now, injury-free, Henderson is proving why he’s exactly the right figure to lead this Liverpool side in their quest for glory.