‘There are players who, when you first see them play, make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Jordan was one of them.
‘I was doing a bit of scouting the first time I saw Jordan play, and you just knew straight away he had something.
‘As soon as we saw him play it was clear he had that special talent. He has the right attitude, too. He has been back to present prizes for us and he never changes.’
Alan Millward, of the South Tyneside Football Trust.
It has been a strange season for Jordan Henderson – there has been a bit of an ebb and a flow with regards to his performances. You could argue that the inconsistency shown in patches can simply be put down to a higher level of expectation and immaturity of development.
After an unspectacular début at Liverpool he turned in a performance bubbling with energy and drive against Arsenal which was followed up by his first Liverpool goal against Bolton. After that the team had a disappointing result against Stoke where the game passed Henderson by. Arguably when you play Stoke the game often passes by the midfield. It is your responsibility to get the ball down and start playing through them which we failed to do with an end result. And that really epitomises Henderson’s contributions this season. One minute looking like he will start to repay the faith in his potential, the next looking like he is struggling to make the step up.
As always the truth probably lies somewhere between. What we need to decide is where he is best utilised for the club and how we can play to his strengths. He has played too many games this season, that much is clear. Unless you are a prodigy you really wouldn’t be expecting to walk into the Liverpool first XI at the age of 21 and play pretty much a full league season – with a portion of it clearly out of position.
I think we can say that the experiment to play Jordan Henderson on the right certainly didn’t work at Liverpool in this first season. It may have bore some fruit at Sunderland but the requirements are vastly different here. His crossing statistics back this up by placing him almost bottom of the pile with only 16% accuracy. However you can look beyond the accuracy stat to see his actual number of attempted crosses is somewhat low (given his position and minutes played).
Suarez and Carroll as strikers are obviously below him and Johnson produced less crosses partly due to missing 16 league games. Dirk Kuyt produced less crosses due to only playing 20 games himself. Yet look at how high he (Kuyt) appears in the crossing accuracy chart. This vindicates those fans who claimed we should have persisted with Kuyt on the wing (especially after the way he finished the 10/11 season with Maxi).
This illustrates that Jordan Henderson is not a short-term or long-term option on the right of midfield at Liverpool.
Jordan Henderson strengths?
So where do Henderson’s strengths lie? Well believe it or not, he became our most consistent tackler with 84% of all tackles deemed as successful. The full breakdown of the top 5 is shown below. Lucas still being fourth does not make great reading after being absent for so much of the season. Spearing has only started 15 games himself. It’s clear the midfield lacks bite, given Henderson’s statistics (buoyed by more consistent midfield appearances recently), it’s also clear that he offers a bit of steel needed for that centre position.
The obvious comparisons here are going to be drawn with the much maligned Charlie Adam. Playing poorly but having end product does slacken the chains of mounting pressure but from an actual end product point of view what do you measure – what do you lose in order to gain?
After his goal against Chelsea, Jordan drew level with Adam on goals. Now, one argument nullifies another. Adam has been injured and Henderson has been out of position. Both players returning 2 league goals. Adams assists look much more impressive though, but again put them under scrutiny as follows:
And we can see that most of Adam’s assists are actually from set plays. Something Henderson has not really been involved in as much. Adam was for a few months in Gerrard’s absence the sole set piece taker for everything, which gave him a chance to add a few more chalk marks in the assist column. Now don’t get me wrong there is still skill in providing a set piece that is accurate and is of sufficient quality but in open play he has one more assist than Henderson. What do we lose? What do we gain?
Jordan Henderson Pass Direction
In the meantime the ugly arguments have reared their head about sideways and backwards passing as well. So here’s a graphic displaying his passing stats. His passes forward are almost double that of backward and he has a clear tendency to look right for an outlet (again, almost double). When playing on the right he doesn’t have that outlet (there was a period of about 5-8 games where the understanding of Henderson and Johnson did work, especially on the overlap though and did give him an easy ball to prod forward into Glens path).
He’s pretty consistent with his goal threat from outside the box and inside the box. Blocked and off target increases from outside the box and would be expected to rise with the added difficulty.
Click to enlarge any of the pie charts above…
If we examine Henderson’s influence and passing trends we can see that his passes tend to be flat angled. Now this was not just a problem for Henderson last season but the Liverpool midfield in general. It highlights a particular problem or stigma that has been attached to Liverpool for some time now which is lack of penetration – largely due to the slow buildup play which in turn allows the opposition to get back into position. Now there’s nothing wrong with this approach , it’s a perfectly valid and coherent style of play but does rely heavily on the right personnel. While Liverpool can boast a couple of ‘battering rams’ in Gerrard, Adam and Agger for example, we have lacked that inventive player when a subtler approach is required. Someone to make the link between probing and cutting.
This particular problem can be more clearly illustrated in the below image from the Gomel game. Gerrard was making a run towards the right touch-line, now his team-mate should be a few yards higher up the pitch allowing a more cutting incisive pass to be played through the opposition in a very fluid motion. Instead his options are a tightly marked team-mate straight, a team-mate ready to be pressed as soon as a lateral pass is made and a line of players obstructed and unsighted along the diagonal.
Now consider the same picture if the player on his left was three yards further up the pitch, the man in the middle was a couple of yards further up, it opens up the play massively. Gerrard can now choose to make the pass or carry on his run by coming inside where he offers more of a threat. As it was he had to check suddenly and then the move petered out.
This represents the biggest challenge for Liverpool this season – making the aggressive transition from defence to attack from a different foundation. No more will it be the often seen quick counter attack from deep but it will be a more measured quick switch of play or tempo change in the last third after a spell of progressive possession from midfield.
Overall, Jordan had a mixed season but one you would expect. There has been little continuity to his development or the players around him. His strengths and attributes are certainly suited to a central midfield role and like a lot of players he suffered from the chop and changing of the second part of Liverpool’s season. However, this recent run of good form (at the end of last season) came on the back of 6/7 games being played in the same position (arguably his favoured).
So in conclusion; where does this leave Henderson for this season? Rodgers does seem to be an advocate of the tucked in winger and has already put Downing in there who grabbed a goal. We also have Joe Cole back from loan who had his best spells at Lille in the centre to right midfield positions. We are also pursuing Allen from Swansea for the midfield. Lucas should be an ever-present when fit. Then we also have to take into account players like Adam and Gerrard. Henderson is not the only one who will have to show his maximum potential to forge a place in Rodgers new look Liverpool. In my mind, there is no doubt that Jordan has the quality but he does need to develop his authority and stamp it, not only on the opposition, but also his own team mates. If he manages to accomplish this, whilst playing Rodgers’ system, there is no doubt he will become the influential midfielder that Liverpool need.
Images courtesy of FourFourTwo StatsZone and the author’s website: http://statactics.com