Jordan Henderson continued his impressive form this season with another top performance against Tottenham at the weekend. David Kennedy discusses the rise of the young Englishman.
On Sunday, June 12th 2011 the eyes of many Liverpool fans were turned to the Herning Stadium in Denmark. For the majority, it was a first opportunity to scrutinize new £20m signing Jordan Henderson as he took his place beside footballing luminary Michael Mancienne in England Under-21s’ midfield against Spain.
As first impressions go, it wasn’t great.
Although the game finished 1-1, the Spanish, who would eventually go on to win the tournament, were grandiose, dominating possession from start to finish and generally giving their English counterparts a lesson in football. Henderson was at the heart of Stuart Pearce’s side’s woes, rarely getting close to Thiago Alcantara, Javi Martinez or Ander Herrera in midfield. It led to immediate questions of Liverpool’s judgement, particularly after the £35m signing of Andy Carroll just six months earlier.
The uncertainty surrounding Henderson continued throughout his early days at Anfield. Despite opening his account after just three games with a fine finish against Bolton, the Wearsider often looked out of place on the right flank of Kenny Dalglish’s 4-4-2 system. It what looked to be an attempt to replicate Dalglish’s Liverpool from his first stint as manager in the late 80s, Henderson was very much stationed in the Ray Houghton role on the right – not really a winger, not really a central midfielder. As the season progressed, opinions amongst fans became more and more diverse. Those in favour pointed to the occasional clever passes, a sublime volleyed cross in a League Cup tie at Stoke for Luis Suárez’s opener and the ever-present willingness to work for the team, whereas those in opposition highlighted his tendency to go missing in games and a lack of any real outstanding attribute.
Towards the end of 2011-12 however, he began to show signs of life. A move inside to a more orthodox midfield position sparked an upturn in the former Sunderland man’s form despite his club’s fortunes going the opposite way. On the 7th April, Liverpool were held to a frustrating 1-1 draw at home to Aston Villa though Henderson’s performance was a beacon of light amidst the humdrum. Weeks later he would produce his finest showing in a red shirt to date, netting the second in a 4-1 win over Chelsea on the day he was named Liverpool’s Young Player of the Season.
Having featured in all but one of the Reds’ games that season, Dalglish’s sacking initially looked as though it was to the detriment of Henderson’s career, a feeling reinforced by Brendan Rodgers’ willingness to allow the midfielder to join Fulham as part of a deal to bring Clint Dempsey to Anfield. With Joe Allen joining from the new manager’s former club Swansea and Lucas and Steven Gerrard returning to full fitness, Henderson’s path to the first team suddenly looked crowded.
After amassing a mere 56 minutes of action in Liverpool’s first eight league games of 2012-13, Rodgers turned to Henderson with half an hour remaining the season’s first Merseyside derby for a solution with Andre Wisdom struggling at right wing-back against Everton. He then replaced Suso after just thirty minutes of a subsequent home game against Wigan at the apex of the midfield and was credited with providing the momentum for the 3-0 victory. Rodgers finally seemed to be seeing use (or uses, rather) for his number fourteen.
The revival continued: the only goal in Udinese as Liverpool secured their passage through to the Europa League knockout phase and an assist for Jonjo Shelvey’s winner at Upton Park against West Ham before being dropped for the 3-1 defeat at Stoke. Reinstated for wins at QPR and at home to Sunderland in a role seemingly designed entirely to maximise his considerable energy in pressing, it then seemed odd to see him on the bench for the visit to Old Trafford for the 2-1 loss against Man Utd. He made a scoring return to the side in the 5-0 win over Norwich and impressed in a 2-2 draw against Arsenal, making the first and bundling in the second.
The following Sunday, Liverpool travelled to Man City and came away with another 2-2 draw, this time with Henderson on the left flank, where he also lined up in the 3-1 Europa League win against Zenit. The manager was effectively using his midfielder to plug holes in the side wherever they may appear due to his stamina and versatility. After he was left out for the 3-1 reverse away to Southampton, Henderson started the remaining eight games of the season. Liverpool didn’t lose.
The trend was becoming obvious – of Liverpool’s nine league defeats, only two came when Henderson started, and the worst performances of the season (West Brom away, Aston Villa at home, Stoke away, Man Utd away and Southampton away) all came when he was out of the team. It was an interesting problem for Rodgers to have: in a 4-2-3-1, there simply wasn’t room for all of Suárez, Daniel Sturridge, Phillipe Coutinho, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson. But the side functioned best with the latter in place.
The gradual increase in performance has continued into 2013/14. Only in the 5-1 win at home to Norwich has Henderson not played the full 90 minutes as the position count rises further. After beginning the season on the right of a 4-2-3-1, he then became a right wing-back in a 3-4-1-2, a central midfielder in the same system, a midfield general in a 4-3-3 and is now utilising his engine as a shuttler in Rodgers’ diamond midfield. Outstanding performances against Tottenham and Cardiff in December without Steven Gerrard drew queries as to whether he benefits from his skipper’s absence, but his form since Gerrard’s return has continued to be strong, as demonstrated by his brace in the 4-3 win over Swansea last month.
The exciting thing for Liverpool fans now, almost three years on from that Under-21 game in Denmark is that Henderson is always adding new strings to his bow. With five goals and seven assists in all competitions this season after his free kick against Tottenham at the weekend, his influence on matches is ever-growing, along with the slightly unquantifiable benefits of boundless energy and an ability to slot in to any one of six positions in various formations.
This new Liverpool side have come from nowhere to be on the cusp of greatness and Henderson’s rise has correlated directly with that. He can be seen as a symbol of Rodgers’ ‘Tricky’ Reds for that reason and his improvement is a victory for a coach who has proved he can raise the standard of footballers and a player whose determination to succeed and passion for the game was never in doubt.
Next time you see Liverpool score a goal, look at Henderson. His vicarious celebrations have embodied the excitement and vibrancy around Anfield this term. Wherever the Reds finish this season, the influence of Jordan Henderson’s form should not be understated.
David Kennedy, Pundit Arena.