Do Liverpool Lack Leadership? A Look At The Captaincy Of Jordan Henderson

Mike Nevin Ident

LAST week’s triumph over Spurs was a mighty relief; finally an end to a barren run in the league and for once, no tiresome post-match inquisition surrounding Liverpool’s inadequacies.

Previously, results at Sunderland and Hull and at home to Swansea brought the inevitable inquest and the familiar, perhaps all too simplistic, conclusions that Liverpool struggle against limited teams who are content to sit deep and defend.

A creditable away draw against Manchester United was rightly passed over, but a point at home, in an even contest against Chelsea, stimulated as much critique as the disappointing points return from three harrowing matches against relegation fodder.

Chelsea’s visit to Anfield reinforced the belief – gleaned from all matches against our rivals in the upper echelons of the league table – Liverpool can compete with the best. Ironically though, the idea resurfaced that the Reds are too soft, that they need a crash course in the dark arts of the game; roughly translated to the notion we lack football nous and battle-hardened leaders on the pitch.

Much of this stemmed from dismay at Chelsea’s goal, from a quickly taken free-kick by David Luiz. Simon Mignolet, as per usual, shouldered much of the blame but questions were also begged of the Reds’ naivety in allowing Luiz the opportunity while the wall was still lining up. When the referee blew his whistle, with Liverpool clearly still organising, and allowed the goal to stand, there was little or no protest.

Later in the game, when Mark Clattenburg awarded Chelsea a debatable penalty at The Kop end, being harangued by a swarm of Liverpool players would hardly have been his first consideration before blithely pointing to the spot.

There’s no doubt in my mind all our players – not to mention an increasingly acquiescent crowd — should be putting more pressure on referees. But does this team really still lack leaders and an attendant winning mentality?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, January 31, 2017: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson argues with referee Mark Clattenburg after Chelsea are awarded a penalty during the FA Premier League match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It is all too easy to hark back to the past and bemoan the lack of an inspirational captain. Jordan Henderson – at this stage of his Liverpool career — is no Ron Yeats, Emlyn Hughes, Graeme Souness or Steven Gerrard.

In many ways however, Henderson is the definition of the modern footballer and in his unstinting efforts on the pitch very much the leader of a Liverpool team under Jürgen Klopp with work ethic at its core.

While few doubt Henderson’s commitment — illustrated not just through his tireless running but his willingness to play through the pain barrier — the perception of him as a potentially great captain is often diluted by those who went before him, as well as a preened appearance and relative limitations in terms of natural ability.

Klopp and Henderson appear to share a close bond, often the last pair to embrace and leave the field together after a key victory. Not many supporters doubt the manager’s motivational powers but plenty still doubt the consistent leadership qualities of his chosen leader on the pitch.

When Henderson is at his best, running the game from deep in the new position identified for him by Klopp, the Reds tend to tick. When Liverpool dominate, suffocating opponents with their intensity, Henderson coaxes and cajoles with the best of them.

Against Spurs, he was the perfect fulcrum, an obvious central figure in the Reds’ throbbing midfield and tellingly, constantly in the referee’s ear. His chest puffed out; sometimes a walk bordering on a strut, he looked like he belonged.

Perhaps Henderson’s greatest challenge now is to infuse the same level of conviction into his demeanour and leadership when hindered by injury or struggling for his own playing rhythm.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, January 31, 2017: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson in action against Chelsea during the FA Premier League match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

On the outside, the skipper radiates quiet confidence and determination but is yet to develop the statesmanlike poise and self-assurance of a player who really believes his own hype.

Henderson – assuming the mantle from the ultra-serious Gerrard — seems acutely aware of the significance and burden of the Liverpool captaincy. Following a Liverpool legend in the role isn’t easy but he needs to back himself. On Klopp’s part, his job is to instil absolute faith in his man; to recognise the impact communicating his total confidence could have on Henderson feeling worthy of the position.

In the week prior to Spurs, the captain saw fit to call a team meeting to rally the troops and instigate a frank exchange of views. It seemed to do the trick, and even if some might argue it was a week or two too late, Henderson’s private intervention and the reaction it brought might remind him of a respect not fully appreciated he enjoys with his peers.

Great Liverpool captains down the years have come in many guises. Gerrard led by sterling example rather than through force of personality; Hughes was a byword of passion and enthusiasm. Back in the 1960s, Bill Shankly, obsessed with Yeats’ sheer size and physical presence, invited all-comers to “walk round him” as though the embodiment of Liverpool’s growing might.

Souness was perhaps the greatest and most natural captain of all; blessed with supreme talent, a devilish will to win, a famed ruthless streak but also an underrated aptitude for compassion towards his own when required and a quiet diplomacy with referees. Witness his almost gladiatorial swagger in Rome in May 1984 as evidence there’s more to captaincy than merely tossing the coin.

Souness, Gerrard, Hughes and Yeats all had the benefit of playing under great managers; all masters of psychology, aware of the required synergy and chemistry between boss and skipper. They were lucky enough to be surrounded by peerless players too, inveterate winners to a man imbued with leadership qualities and strong character traits of their own.

Henderson is still developing as a Liverpool captain in the same way many of his teammates are growing as Liverpool players and Klopp is still learning the ropes as a Liverpool manager. The trophies, titles and medals are missing for the moment and understandably therefore, the winning mentality is still a work in progress.

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  1. Gerrard and Souness could grab a game by the goolies and change its direction, as necessary, but Henderson simply isn’t good enough to do that so there is a problem with leadership in the team. When you are struggling you look towards the captain to do that special something to get you out of bother. With Henderson he just can’t rise above the dross . . .

  2. There is no doubting Henderson’s commitment and determination but to say “Henderson is at his best, running the game from deep” is a bit of an exaggeration! Yes he did very well against Spurs but I have yet to see him ‘run’ a game in the same way as the peerless Souness did, (almost every week) or Gerrard or Barnes or even Cally when he moved into the centre. When is able to run a game then he will become a proper leader and captain, until then he’s just another midfielder who, at his best, adds energy at his worst slows play and creates nothing.

  3. Come on lads, the two comments above? Henderson makes us tick, if you look at the great performances we’ve put in this season. In each of those games he’s been fantastic. He doesn’t appear to be doing all that much, but he gets about breaking the oppositions play up and getting us going, he might not leg it 30 yards and smack one in the top bin or crunch into someone and leave them in a heap. His role in the team isn’t to leg it and smack one in and the game today probably doesn’t allow for someone to crunch another lad and get away with it because we he needs to go in on someone, he will. He more often than not starts our good moves, he’s the reason we equalised against Chelsea. Him. That ball. Of course he’s never going to be a Souness or Gerrard. We’ll never see the likes of them again most probably. He adds far more than energy, he’s vastly underrated by many. We’ve been spoilt with captains in years gone by. Looks across the league and you’ll struggle to find a stereotypical ‘captain’ in my opinion. On the whole I tend to agree with Mike there, top article.

    • Fair enough Tony, perhaps I am guilty of underestimating Henderson’s influence and to compare any player to the superb Souness is unfair. However I am sure that a top holding midfielder is a must if we want to dominate opponents, particularity the better teams.

      • The thing is though, I just don’t think there is many top ‘holding midfielders’ about. I don’t think they’re as prevalent in this cycle of football. Maybe in 5/6 years. But nowadays it’s get as many lads who are good with the ball on the pitch in as many different positions are possible. Hence the move into the 6 for Hendo and Milner to left back.

  4. I just don’t understand why there isn’t more love for Henderson. I think he’s bloody ace. Needs to score more, but generally so do all of our midfielders.

    • Chunky Monkey

      Totally agree … people forget how key was in the title challenge a few years ago and when he was missing for the last few games we lost it.

      The game is completely different now so pointless comparing with Souness or Hughes.

  5. We simply must stop comparing him to former captains, especially his predecessor which if someone has forgotten is regarded as arguably the best player in the history of the club. Different teams in different times in different circumstances might call for a different captain.
    Saying that the players are looking to their captain when things aren’t going, when we’re flat, when we need a moment of brilliance is somewhat not true, they’re looking the best player on the pitch and in Gerrard case he was the best player on the pitch. He also happen to be our captain.
    When we had Suarez many looked at him to grab the game by the neck, not Gerrard. You know why? Because Suarez was our best player by some distance.

    The perception around the captaincy from us fans surely must change. It doesn’t really matter what we think, the only thing that does matter is that he’s got the backing from his manager and his team mates. He might not do all the wow things Gerrard did but he’s a quality player, important to the team, reliable as you get, a true professional who sets a standard to the rest of his mates. He’s the perfect 7 out 10 player. You count on him in every game. All of that is captain material stuff.

  6. Some of the comments, seriously. This is an article about his leadership and captaincy. He plays as the deepest lying midfielder so no, goals are not the measure of him right now. How many non-pen’s did Stevie score when he played there?
    When we play well he’s crucial to everything we do. Was true in 13/14 and is true today. I think there are moments when we aren’t playing well where perhaps he could do more. That will likely come with time and experience but I believe he’s a perfect modern day captain for us.

  7. Instead of comparing Hendo to the captains of yore, perhaps it would be more useful to compare him to the other 19 captains in the league. Having a look over them at transfermarkt, I can’t see any that really stand out.

    The declining Terry, Rooney, Mertesacker, and Kompany have had very little influence on their teams this season, while other rivals feature likes of Lloris.

    Can anyone think of another captain in the league that they’d prefer over Henderson? I can’t.

    • Robin Crimes

      Spot on Walter. Different times now. I’ve said before, men aren’t men in this day and age. They’re somewhere in between and Henderson is a good captain and a good leader. He’s not the reason for our recent woes. For me it’s a defence issue. 2 at Sunderland and 2 at home to Swansea should be enough to get you the points. V Hull we may have scraped a 1-0 had we not gifted them a goal and though Mignolet was to blame I don’t think he was supported by the central defenders. We need a presence there. Personally, I fuckin hate Liverpool fans. They do my head in.

  8. I’ve said it before and will say it again.
    There is more than one way to be a leader of men.
    Hendo is not flash, bombastic, he may not even be charismatic but there is real steel there. The sort of quiet determination and innate competence that he may not even be aware can stiffen spines and ease self doubts. I’ve got someone watching my back.
    Does anyone really doubt that Klopp is ruthless when necessary?
    Would he tolerate a wilting nancy boy to lead his men?
    Whose idea was it to move Henderson to where he is playing now?
    How many matches has he played there?
    Would he still be in either role if he wasn’t performing as required by JK?
    I think not.
    Comparison to Gerrard ( who is on record as saying he rates Hendo ) is inaccurate and unfair. Was Stevie G a better captain than Souness? Or merely in a different team, and having a different skill set.
    I’m old enough to have seen Souness play in the flesh like Mike. He was the epitome of iron fist in a velvet glove. Capable of inspiring his own team mates and terrifying the opposition, influencing matches through sheer force of will.
    There won’t be another Gerrard or Souey. They were unique.
    I believe that Henderson is a Captain he just has a different style. Some may not see it. But our manager does.
    When he removes he I will hold up my hand and say the naysayers were right.
    Until then he’s the Captain. And when he wins , we all win.
    Up the Reds.

  9. It’s worth remembering Rodgers made Henderson captain, Klopp retained him as captain, and the England setup made him U21 captain and senior captain. It’s fair to say a variety of proper ‘football’ people have identified the qualities within Henderson for captaincy, he’s clearly not a flash in the pan.

    As has been said, the position Henderson plays does not allow him to be as expressive as Gerrard in his pomp, he is required to be more disciplined. How often did Gerrard ‘grab games by the scruff of the neck’ when he played in that deep position? It’s simply not a position where you can do that.

    Also, Henderson can often be seen doing what he feels he can get away with in the modern game. He’s frequently seen in the referee’s ear, to the point he has occasionally been given a card, and he’s not afraid to put in a last-ditch tackle even if it means going in the book. He vocally encourages and disciplines his teammates so, all in all, I’m not quite sure, given the restrictive nature of the Premier League, what else he can do to prove his credentials as captain. Had Souness been playing today under similar circumstances you’d have seen a different captain, I promise you.

  10. Staggered that anyone would question our captain – who grows in stature by the day. Even Souness would have struggled with the events of the past two months.

    Klopp had a misjudgement on the depth of the squad needed for this campaign and he’ll learn. An alignment of insane Dec / jan fixture list, Africa Nations Cup, injuries – impacted the team far more severely than expected. He is going to have to look at the way Benitez would rotate the squad for the rigours of the premiership and adapt accordingly.

  11. He is doing a good job, simple as that. Not as good as his 13/14 form but is being asked to play a different role.

  12. I wouldn’t be surprised if Klopp gives the captaincy to someone else at some point. Perhaps a new signing. I think Matip could be a potential captain in time. Henderson is ok but there might be a better leader down the line.

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