WHAT are the qualities that make somebody the ideal candidate to captain a football team?
Leadership is the first that springs to mind, but what’s the best way to demonstrate leadership on a football pitch? Is it being vocal, barking orders at teammates, letting them know where they went wrong if necessary and getting in the referee’s ear all game? Or is it to lead by example, having the ability to drag the team through games, standing out on the big occasions and just generally running the show?
Since the turn of the century Liverpool have had three captains — four if you include Robbie Fowler’s share of the armband in 2001. Sami Hyypia was the first of those. The stalwart at the centre of Gerard Houllier’s defence who lead the team vocally and by example. The Big Finn’s performances, alongside the underrated Stephane Henchoz, set the foundation that allowed The Reds to attack and led them to an impressive triple trophy haul.
Then there was captain fantastic Steven Gerrard. The Huyton-born midfielder possessed a lot of those leadership qualities listed above, and the club will be hoping he still does in his role as Under-18s manager. On the pitch, it is likely that Gerrard’s shoes will be left unfilled for the foreseeable future, such was his influence at the club.
And that is where the problem lies.
It’s important to caveat this by saying that, at 27 years of age, Gerrard was miles ahead of Jordan Henderson currently is in terms of ability and the latter will never reach the heights that the former did. Gerrard was head and shoulders above the majority of his teammates throughout his senior years at Anfield — with the exception of Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez, whose cause he actively aided with his role in those sides.
Henderson is by no means the best player in Jürgen Klopp’s side. It’s almost impossible for him to be all things to all men in the same way that his predecessor was. That no doubt hinders his cause as Liverpool captain.
There’s no back catalogue of standout moments to draw on, save for screamers against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season and against Manchester City at Anfield in 2015. It does him no favours that the mere mention of Gerrard brings so many moments flooding back. Henderson has failed to hit double figures for goals in each of his six (and a bit) seasons on Merseyside. Seven is his best return in 2014-15 — incidentally, the season his predecessor was being phased out.
So what qualities does he possess? How is it that he’s come to wear the armband?
Hyypia wasn’t the best player in the Liverpool sides he captained but he made his position work to his advantage by mastering the defence and, as mentioned before, allowing the attacking players to get on with their jobs at the other end of the field. He also seemed to get what the club was about and was loved by supporters. His unwavering commitment to the cause was central to his appeal.
Henderson has that too and on his best day he sets the pace for Liverpool’s attacks as a metronomic midfielder. Despite not being the best player on the pitch he can dictate the shift from defence to attack and ensure that the best players can play their game. In other words, he builds the foundation that allows the attacking players to get on with their jobs at the other end of the field — though Klopp’s system does demand that most players do a bit of both.
The problem is when he’s off form the game tends to pass him by, sometimes to the detriment of the team as a whole. He doesn’t seem to have the ability to drag the team through games which can sometimes mean that, even when he’s on his game, it may not show in the overall performance or in the result — as with Spartak Moscow on Tuesday. Then, he tees up chances, provides opportunities on a plate, but because he doesn’t take the game by the scruff of the neck like Gerrard would, he is questioned.
Henderson’s recent turnaround in form was needed after an indifferent start to the season.
But it’s never for the want of trying. Many of the supporters who are admirers of his will credit his work rate but those who aren’t in favour may use the difference in ability between him and Gerrard as a stick to beat him with. It’s hard to justify one without acknowledging the other, though he does deserve more credit for his attitude as Liverpool captain — that is an area in which he most definitely leads by example, if not consistently enough in his performance on the pitch.
Hyypia was appointed club captain just one season after signing from Willem II for £2.5million, and he displayed throughout his time that he “got” the club. Gerrard had the advantage of being born on Merseyside so “getting” the club and understanding supporter expectations was a part of his everyday life growing up. But the latter wasn’t always the vocal leader he grew to be. In fact, 10 years ago some supporters questioned whether he was captain material as he didn’t talk enough.
Henderson showed in his interview with The Anfield Wrap over the summer that he “gets” the club and understands supporter expectation. It may not be enough in its own right to make him the ideal captain but it’s an important quality for your captain to possess if you’re a supporter.
One area the 27-year-old could improve on consistently, which wouldn’t take any significant jump in terms of ability, is being more vocal on the pitch. Against Leicester City on Saturday evening he was at his best. Barking orders to teammates and getting in the ref’s ear all game. He even whispered something to Jamie Vardy before his unsuccessful penalty.
Contrast that to the Manchester City game where he was on the sideline drinking water as one of Liverpool’s most important players was being shown a red card — a moment which effectively put the result beyond doubt. Henderson could and should have been doing more to reason with the ref and perhaps his Leicester antics were a sign that he’s learnt from that particular incident.
This article displays part of the problem when assessing Henderson as captain. It’s impossible to do so without comparing him to those who wore the armband before. But his qualities must be judged on their own merits too.
Henderson will never be like Gerrard as captain of Liverpool. He’ll never even be like Hyypia.
But maybe we should let just him be Jordan Henderson and appreciate the qualities he does possess.
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