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?
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.
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.