In his final season at Chelsea, captain John Terry made only nine league appearances as Antonio Conte eased him out of the firing line on the way to winning a Premier League title. While his on-pitch role had reduced, Terry was still valued by the manager and his teammates for his leadership off it and he put his frustration behind him to help coax performances out of a talented group of players. In the process, he became the first player to captain a team to the title on five occasions and it was a nice way to bring a long and distinguished career at the club to an end.
Some Liverpool fans, this writer included, had hoped that Jordan Henderson would play a similar role this season as he entered the final two years of his contract. His leadership skills were obvious, and he had slipped comfortably into Steven Gerrard’s shoes as captain before fulfilling the same brief for England as well. However, Fabinho and Naby Keita had arrived in the summer and the general consensus was that they were definite step-ups in quality. Not that Jordan was having any of it. His request to report early for training after the conclusion of the World Cup was denied by Jurgen Klopp, who insisted that he took a holiday instead.
If people thought that this was the cue for a season on the fringes of the side, it wasn’t forthcoming. In September, he was handed an improved contract tying him to the club until 2023, splitting opinion among the fanbase and observers, as has always been the case with Henderson. It was clear that the people who mattered rated him notwithstanding the constant jibes about how he only passed sideways and backwards. Klopp had looked beyond the obvious limitations of the player and surmised that what Henderson offered in the here and now far outweighed what he didn’t. As a fan, it was a case of accepting that the evolution of the side could not be hastened and against that backdrop, Jordan still had plenty to offer.
He looks out of his depth at times, most recently against PSG at Parc Des Princes, where Neymar and Marco Verratti ran circles around him, but he keeps getting named on the team sheet come every big game. Fabinho has increasingly looked every bit the player he was built up to be, but in this moment, Klopp believes that Henderson offers more control and discipline off the ball in certain games. Liverpool’s midfield conundrum this season doesn’t owe itself to the deep-lying midfield position, however, where Fabinho and Henderson have both performed capably. The length of time it is taking to integrate Naby Keita into the more advanced role alongside Gini Wijnaldum and the continued absence of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain has meant that Klopp has had to look at attacking options elsewhere.
Last season, the full-backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold had eight direct league goal involvements between them (2 goals, 6 assists). In this campaign, they are at seventeen already (1 goal, 16 assists). They are the only defenders in the top ten players for assists and only Jose Holebas at Watford joins them in the top twenty. Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson have rightly gotten plaudits for the Reds’ improved defence this season, but they have been convincing in part because very little comes their way with a ‘safety first’ Henderson and co. cutting out the supply. Manchester City watchers who purr at the transitions on display at the Etihad cannot expect the same from Liverpool where the full-backs have provided the width and attacking outlets beyond the front three this season. If the accusation is that Henderson slows down the tempo at which the team plays, it does seem to be mostly by design.
Fabinho will make the number six position his own as the midfield evolves but for how Liverpool have set up this season, Henderson has more than done his job. His tireless running and energy coupled with an ability to be at the right place at the right time to stop attacks or pick up loose balls go unnoticed when one is looking for ‘Hollywood’ or first touch passes, but he fulfils the brief given to him.
There will be days when a fan wishes that it were someone else playing instead of him, but the true value of Jordan Henderson usually presents itself when he isn’t in the side. Steven Gerrard’s slip made the headlines, but it was Jordan’s absence through suspension that decided the title race against Chelsea in 2014. On Friday night, his introduction in place of Wijnaldum turned the tide against Southampton and a terrific header set up Salah’s goal before a barnstorming run and finish put the gloss on proceedings. It was a reminder of what he could offer when freed up and this is the same player who had fifteen goals and assists in the 2014-15 league season, more than any other Liverpool player that year.
He accepted a more withdrawn role for the benefit of the team in 2016 and has rewarded both his managers ever since. A tweet from Opta provided many with a head-scratcher moment after England’s 2-0 win over Sweden in the quarter-finals of the World Cup last summer. Henderson had not ended up in the losing side for thirty straight games in the England shirt, more than any other player in her history. Not bad for a player who supposedly does not add anything to a side.
If he does stay at Liverpool until 2023, Henderson would have spent twelve years at the club and made close to 500 appearances, making him a certified legend. By then, he may even agree to play the bit-part role John Terry did at Chelsea in 2017. Or he could be on his next contract. Jordan Henderson has a way of proving people wrong.