IN the aftermath of the shambles that unfolded at the Etihad on Saturday, the positive vibe around Liverpool after a highly encouraging start to the season ground to a halt, replaced by swathes of criticism and inquests into the culprits behind the 5-0 drubbing.
Much of the flak has, predictably, been aimed at the defence for the way they fell to pieces following Sadio Mane’s red card. In truth, the entire team lost their heads after that point, but the narrative around Liverpool’s defensive issues is so well established now that it was always going to be pounced upon.
By extension, Jürgen Klopp has received plenty of stick for the fact Liverpool are already lining up with Ragnar Klavan just four league games into the season. Was Virgil van Dijk really the only available centre back who could have significantly improved on what Liverpool already have? It’s a debate which will undoubtedly rumble on for the foreseeable future, as tedious as it is.
Yet one individual, in particular, has been the target of some scathing reviews following his performance against Manchester City in which he made zero tackles throughout the entire game. Jordan Henderson, once again, is the subject of much discussion around his captaincy credentials and his suitability as the holding midfielder in this Liverpool side.
The question around a lack of leadership is a whole other debate and it was clear to see a worrying lack of fight and organisation of any sort throughout the second half. The more pertinent issue right now is around Henderson’s role as the “number six” in Liverpool’s midfield setup and whether his attributes are best suited to that position.
It’s worth noting that Liverpool’s midfield as a whole were all over the place on Saturday, Henderson aside. Gini Wijnaldum was virtually an empty shirt (as he too often is away from home), while Emre Can put in comfortably his worst performance of the season — not helped by having to drop back into defence for the second half.
The concerns around Henderson, though, have followed him virtually throughout his entire time at the club. He played in a wide midfield role in his earliest days after joining, before transitioning into an all-action box-to-box midfielder under Brendan Rodgers. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, under Klopp, he has dropped back into the holding midfield role and has been an automatic starter there whenever available.
His job, in this position, is more complex than it might seem at first. Much of his passing is very simple in terms of shifting the ball quickly from side to side, often dropping in between the centre backs to distribute from deep. In terms of setting the tempo, he does it better than anyone else in the squad. Henderson’s passing range and ability to switch play with long diagonals is another key skill of his, helping drag opposition sides out of shape.
Given he has that in his locker, it’s perhaps something we could do with more of, given Henderson’s tendency to sometimes take the easy option when a more adventurous pass is on. It’s all about making the right decision in the context of the game, which is why Henderson will often go back to the centre backs or the ‘keeper when Liverpool have the lead late on in games, in order to kill time and run the clock down. The crowd will moan, but he knows in that scenario it’s the right thing to do.
You’ll rarely see Henderson drive forward on the ball and he is liable at times to be caught in possession when pressed high and targeted by an opposition player, which is why he’s most effective when he has more time on the ball. Unlike Can, who has the ability to dribble 30 or 40 yards with the ball and take out three or four players, Henderson’s game is far more conservative and controlled.
Perhaps his biggest limitation in the number six role is his positional play out of possession, which we saw numerous times on Saturday. Screening the defence and cutting out opposition attacks by intercepting and making tackles is part of the job, but often Liverpool’s backline is left so exposed by the midfield and can be easily exploited by a simple pass.
This happened for City’s first goal on Saturday, as Henderson firstly made a poor header with a complete lack of conviction or direction. Wijnaldum then lost his battle in the air and the ball dropped to Kevin De Bruyne who was able to slide a pass through between Joel Matip and Klavan for Sergio Aguero to easily round Simon Mignolet and roll it into an empty net. Both full backs were also pushed high up at that point, and the lack of cover once possession was turned over meant one very simple, straight pass was all that was required to create a clear opening.
For Gabriel Jesus’ second goal — City’s third of the game — Henderson was again at fault, not once, but twice. His decision to lump an aimless ball forward to Roberto Firmino lacked nous, as the ball was easily intercepted by John Stones who quickly found Fernandinho. In trying to atone for giving possession away, Henderson charged forward out of position, but was too late and left a gaping hole for Fernandinho to play in Aguero who set Jesus up for another simple tap in.
The risky style of football Liverpool play means they are constantly on a tightrope and have very little margin for error. Most of the time, Henderson is effectively playing in midfield by himself as Wijnaldum and Can push upfield to support the attack, leaving him to cover an enormous amount of ground. Against lesser opposition who sit back and defend for 90 minutes, it’s less of a problem, but higher quality opponents can exploit the empty stage ruthlessly, as City showed.
Much like the centre-back debate, it’s both a consequence of the overall system and the individual personnel not quite being up to scratch on certain aspects of their game. In the same way van Dijk would not automatically solve all Liverpool’s defensive issues, you could put the best defensive midfielder in the world in Henderson’s role and they’d still have similar problems.
That said, the lack of positional discipline shown by Henderson on Saturday was also evident on the opening day against Watford where he failed to track the runner into the box for the opening goal. It would be fair to say the defensive side of the game doesn’t come naturally to him, as he’s not been a “defensive” midfielder for the majority of his career.
He’s far more than a “destroyer” in the mould of Nemanja Matic or Victor Wanyama, and this is where I have some sympathy for him. He has to offer that defensive protection virtually by himself, with no defensive midfield part to bail him out, while also launching attacks from deep and covering a huge amount of grass.
Sky Sports showed a series of stats before Saturday’s game, showing Henderson as having the most passes (215), the most passes into the final third (48), the most ball recoveries (27) and the second most tackles and interceptions (13) of any Liverpool player so far this season. You’d probably expect that, playing in his position, but it certainly shows he’s doing something right.
It’s also worth remembering how well Henderson played against Hoffenheim and Arsenal at Anfield, and that he also started last season slowly before clicking into gear and becoming one of Liverpool’s best performers prior to his injury. It’s perfectly possible, therefore, that the City game was just a very, very bad day at the office and not worthy of making any meaningful judgements on individual players, given the mitigating circumstances.
I’m personally of the view that Henderson’s best football for Liverpool came in 2015-16 as a rampaging box-to-box midfielder, able to use his energy and creativity further up the pitch to great effect without being shackled by defensive responsibilities. He racked up seven goals and 14 assists that season — extremely good numbers for a central midfielder.
Yet, in the current squad, I don’t think there’s any other player who can currently play that number six role better than he can. Some would argue Can might be better suited, but he also lacks that positional discipline and gives you so much going forward, while he struggles to move the ball as quickly as Henderson from deep, often taking several touches when Henderson takes one or two.
Ultimately, Klopp is never going to play with an orthodox “defensive midfielder” given Liverpool’s attacking, counter-pressing style of play and the need for quick transitions. There are undoubtedly limitations around Henderson playing in that position, but he’s the best we’ve got in the current squad, and, usually, offers plenty in that deeper role.
It’s easy to draw drastic conclusions from such a freakish game of football and while Henderson may not be the long-term answer as a holding midfielder, we should not forget how well he performed there for a significant portion of last season when Liverpool were playing their best football.
In certain games, it may be that the system needs some slight tweaking so that the gaps in the midfield are made tighter, while Henderson must also take some responsibility for being more positionally aware of what’s going on around him. He’s an intelligent footballer and one who has shown a tendency to bounce back strongly from criticism in the past. We’ll need to see that again against Sevilla on Wednesday night.