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Football News: Jordan Henderson - 'The Midfield Engine That Could'

Jordan Henderson - 'The Midfield Engine That Could'
Image from: thisisanfield.com

I'll set the precedent for this article from the start. In my opinion, Jordan Henderson is the most under rated player in the Premier League since Michael Carrick, and like Carrick he won't be truly appreciated until age catches up with him and Liverpool FC start to struggle. So if you're here expecting the standard beating of a club and country captain, you're not going to enjoy this! My apologies in advance.

Youth Career:

It all began for Henderson at Sunderland AFC. He was a local boy and from a very early age, the Black Cats knew he was special. He was by far and away the most technically gifted player in their academy, and his work ethic matched his abilities. He rose very quickly through the ranks because of this.

A little bit of lesser known trivia for the readers, is that Henderson once appeared on Soccer AM as a youth player, as part of their Skill Skool sketch, in May 2008. For anyone unaware of what that is, Soccer AM is a UK football show, and their Skill Skool presenter takes it in turns every week to visit a different academy and pit some of the most talented players against one another in a freestyle battle.

Henderson was impressive in this 'battle' but this really was just his first five minutes of fame. If you go looking for this video online keep in mind that it's just a bit of fun and has no bearing on his abilities as an eleven a side footballer! It was just his first moment in the spotlight, and he chose to use it to show us all his poor taste in underwear. "Wow" indeed, Jordan.

 


Later that same year, Henderson made his eagerly anticipated senior Sunderland debut. He was brought on as a substitute as Sunderland fell to a 5-0 mauling at the hands of Chelsea FC. Welcome to senior football, lad!

Coventry City (loan):

In the January of this breakthrough season, Henderson was sent out on loan to Coventry City where he quickly became a regular in the match day squad, making an impressive thirteen appearances before his season was cut short by a fractured metatarsal. This was Henderson's first major set back, as before then his loan move had been a big success. Henderson scored the first senior goal of his career whilst he was with Coventry against Norwich City, at just eighteen years of age.

Sunderland AFC:

As would become customary throughout his career, Henderson worked incredibly hard to battle back from his broken foot to become a key fixture in the Sunderland side the following season. He was in the match day squad for every single game that season except a four game run in February which he missed with a malleolar injury. In fact, the only other game where he didn't get on the pitch in all competitions was a league game vs Hull City where he was an unused substitute.

Henderson spent the majority of this first full season playing on the right side of a flat midfield four. His exceptional manipulation of the ball with his arching deliveries from wide areas saw him create six goals that season. He also scored two goals. Despite being in a position that was once referred to as the "ghost shift" by Steven Gerrard, Henderson did everything he could to get involved in the game, chasing up and down with incredible energy. His desire to still get stuck in saw him pick up four yellow cards that year though. In total, he made thirty-eight appearances in what I would describe as his breakthrough year.

The following season for Henderson was almost just a case of 'more of the same'. He continued to impress and stand out as one of the best young players in English football. At this point of his career, Gareth Southgate made Henderson the captain of the England U21's, such were his impressive leadership qualities from a very young age. Not only did Henderson lead by example straight away, but he is also a very vocal player on the pitch who won't hesitate to tear into a player ten years older than him if that is what it comes to.

The key difference for Henderson in this second season as a full time senior player, was that he started to get games in centre midfield, in a box to box role. He went on to score three goals that season, and assist a further five. Playing centrally gave Henderson everything he wanted as it put him right in the thick of the action. He was so impressive in this season that some very big clubs started to take note.

The summer window quickly arrived and Henderson found himself in a transfer tussle between Manchester United and Liverpool FC. Somehow, Kenny Dalglish managed to convince Jordan Henderson to reject the advances of Sir Alex Ferguson and choose to sign for Liverpool. It is completely unknown to me why Henderson made that choice because at the time, Manchester United were the second best team in Europe after FC Barcelona! In fact, if Henderson had chosen Manchester United, he'd probably have a Premier League medal, as Robin Van Persie fired the Manchester club to the league title that very next season. On an individual level, it was arguably a mistake from Henderson as he definitely could've won more in Manchester.

Liverpool FC:

Henderson's Liverpool career did not start brilliantly, despite scoring an absolutely cracking goal in just his third league game, against Bolton Wanderers. Unfortunately for the young recruit, his reported sixteen million pound transfer fee seemed to weigh heavily on his young shoulders. Additionally, he found minutes in his preferred central role hard to come by with Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva, Charlie Adam, Jonjo Shelvey, and Jay Spearing ahead of him.

However, Henderson was nowhere near as bad initially as is commonly believed. His start at the club was completely not helped by the fact that older and more expensive signings Stuart Downing and Andy Carroll were not pulling up trees, Steven Gerrard was constantly injured, and Luis Suarez at this stage was struggling to get to double figures in league goals. The team was faltering badly due to poor recruitment, a lack of star quality, and Henderson (despite his tender age) bore the brunt of the abuse for reasons which are beyond me. He was far from the worst player in the team.

As the season went on and the lack of quality in midfield became apparent, Henderson did start to get more minutes in central midfield but he still struggled as there was simply no quality to partner him thanks to the injuries to Lucas and Gerrard. In fact, he was commonly placed in midfield alongside Shelvey who puts in less effort than i will be putting in this Valentines day (Champions League is back to be fair to myself). Alas, Henderson was doing the running for two players and at such a young age, it was far too much pressure.

 

Henderson's first season was not all bad though. In fact, he helped Liverpool to two cup finals. He started the League cup final on the right side of midfield, as Liverpool coughed and spluttered past the mighty Cardiff City, and he also started the FA cup final against Chelsea in central midfield. Sadly, Liverpool had used their 'Win against Chelsea' token just a few weeks before the Final, when they dismantled Chelsea 4-1 in the league; a game in which Henderson started in midfield and did actually score in too. Chelsea exacted the ultimate revenge in the FA cup final though, to kill Henderson's chances of a debut campaign double.

In total, it ended up being an okay season for Henderson as he finished up with a couple of goals to his name, and four assists.

The following season saw Henderson relegated to what was essentially a midfield utility player under new manager Brendan Rodgers, but this time he had some midfield quality alongside him when he did get a rare chance there. Gerrard put his injury troubles behind him and it was a real boost for Henderson to have the pressure taken off of his shoulders. Even new signing Joe Allen started off very well initially, with Yaya Toure describing the 2-2 draw between Manchester City and Liverpool that season as one of his toughest games in the Premier League.

Unbelievably, Rodgers actually tried to include Henderson in a deal for Clint Dempsey! Fulham FC were reportedly willing to accept Henderson as a makeweight, but the deal ultimately fell through. Not only did Henderson refuse to leave Liverpool because he wanted to stay and fight for his place, but there was also a very unsavoury spat between the two clubs as Fulham accused Liverpool of tapping up. Messy.

So Henderson stayed in the North West, and now he was more determined than ever to prove everyone wrong. With Allen being something of a teachers pet, it was never going to be easy. Unfortunately for Allen, some completely uneducated Match Of the Day punditry from Alan Shearer turned the Liverpool fan base against him and the mounting pressure from the stands started to affect his game too. Henderson is made of tougher stuff though, and whilst adversity saw Allen retreat into his shell, it seemed to drive Henderson on to better things.

By the end of the season Henderson had once again forced himself into being a regular in Liverpool's midfield. To show the magnitude of his comeback, Henderson started just three league games in the first half of Rodgers' first season, but started fourteen league games in the second half of the same season. It was a comeback of 'Lucas' proportions. From makeweight, to key player.

Henderson would go on to score six goals and make five assists in all competitions, but all five of his league goals came in the second half of the season. Those goals included a pile driver against Norwich City, a goal born of pure determination against Arsenal FC as he chased down a lost cause, and a very smart brace in the demolition of Newcastle United. The comeback was complete and Henderson finally seemed to get some respect from the stands.

In the 2013/14 season, Henderson was now finally a central midfield regular, and this time it would be permanent. His best spell of that season came after Rodgers switched his 4-3-3 system to a 4-4-2 diamond. Henderson was the main component of the midfield system as he not only provided the support the attack needed down the right, but unlike Phillipe Coutinho on the left of the diamond, Henderson had the pace and power to get back to help out the now creaking jointed captain that was Gerrard, in a holding midfield role. Henderson's energy and power was holding the diamond together.

This new found system was very effective, with the incredible Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge notching over 50 goals between them, despite neither player taking penalties! The support cast behind them was far more vital to the unexpected title charge than anyone realised though.

In what would turn out to be the start of an incredible turn of events, Liverpool beat Manchester City 3-2 with just four league games to go, putting the title race completely in their own hands. The victory came at a cost though. In the dying minutes, Henderson made the biggest mistake of his career to date, when he made a slide tackle in midfield, and completely accidentally rolled his foot over the top of the ball. Unfortunately, this motion raised his studs and as per the rules of the game, Henderson was probably rightly red carded. He was not in control and the tackle was dangerous, regardless of whether he got the ball first.

For Liverpool, this is where everything unravelled. At the start of Henderson's resulting three game suspension, Liverpool were on a fifteen game unbeaten run, and incredibly the victory against Manchester City was the pinnacle of an ten game winning streak. The run was extended to eleven games with a more than dodgy 3-2 win over strugglers Norwich City, and the way in which Liverpool struggled against arguably the weakest team in the Premier League that season (who were later relegated unsurprisingly) was a warning sign that without Henderson, the midfield diamond simply did not work.

Henderson's energy was not all that was missed though. His leadership was equally as important. In fact, earlier in the season he had the bottle to bark orders at Gerrard of all people, telling him to put the ball in the corner instead of trying to score again in a game were Liverpool led Fulham 3-2. I had not seen a player shout at Gerrard since Jamie Carragher had retired. Henderson's game management helped to see out a vital victory.

It is what followed that Norwich game which really hit home just how vital Henderson had been. Without Henderson, Liverpool were dominated physically in midfield by Chelsea, at Anfield and they were continuously forced into passing it around at the back. That lack of midfield running resulted in no penetration from defence to attack. In the end, passing it around at the back with nowhere to go was costly. In a now famous moment, Steven Gerrard miss-controlled a pass and slipped as he tried to recover. In a chaotic few seconds, Chelsea striker Demba Ba raced onto the loose ball and scored. A draw would've been enough for Liverpool, but without Henderson they simply didn't have the energy to chase the game and went on to concede a late tap in to lose 2-0.

The title was now hanging by a thread, with Liverpool only able to finish level on points with Manchester City, and having a far inferior goal difference. Any faint glimmer of hope faded in the next game though. At 3-0 up against Crystal Palace, Liverpool were in control and pushing for more goals to try and close the gap in goal difference. Henderson's missing energy again came to the forefront though. As Liverpool's midfield tired, Palace took full advantage and completed an incredible turn around to end the game 3-3.

These three games without Henderson are a major factor as to why Liverpool do not have a Premier League title in my opinion. Without him, the team lacked energy, it lacked steel, and it lacked game management skills. Henderson did return to the side for the final game of the season and whilst the rest of the team looked utterly down trodden, he helped to drive them on to a 2-1 victory against Newcastle United. It was just too little, too late.

For Henderson, it was a brilliant individual campaign. He scored five goals, created another seven, and was arguably the best player after Suarez and Sturridge. Sterling and Coutinho weren't bad either by the way! Unfortunately Henderson's only mistake for the red card cost Liverpool dearly. It should have proved once and for all though, that Henderson was now a very important player. I'm sure Henderson would rather have a league winners medal than that recognition though.

In the season which followed, spirits were very low at Liverpool. Gerrard's legs had completely gone and he could no longer start every week, Sturridge literally fell to pieces like a sand castle, and Luis Suarez had forced his way out of the club by threatening legal action and then biting someone (again) on the biggest stage in world football, the world cup. For Henderson though, there was a significant marker of his huge rise. Rodgers named Henderson as his Vice-Captain for the season.

This season was also a first for Henderson in the Champions League. In what should have been a navigable group, Rodgers got his team selections and tactics horribly wrong though. Henderson did score his first ever Champions League goal in a 2-2 draw against Ludogorets Razgrad but it wasn't enough to save his side crashing out of the top competition, and into the Europa League.

Liverpool didn't have much luck there either though. Henderson captained Liverpool to victory in the home leg against Besiktas, but the victory was soured by a big ordeal surrounding the match winning penalty. Mario Balotelli refused to let Henderson take it, despite it being clear that Henderson was the dedicated spot kick taker for the game. Henderson very responsibly walked away to ensure it didn't become a total embarassment.

Henderson was injured for the away leg unfortunately, and Liverpool crashed out of European football, for a second time, in his absence.

As the season went on, Gerrard became more and more of a rotational player which saw Henderson spend most of the second half of the season as the captain. It was a very fruitful season for him individually as he scored seven goals, but more importantly created a huge fifteen goals. Statistically, he was now one of the most creative players in Europe and had directly assisted thirty-eight goals in his first five full seasons as a senior player, scoring nineteen goals in the process. His exploits in the final third were now fast becoming under rated. His neat flicks, whipped crosses and incisive through balls all contributed hugely towards him becoming a huge creative influence in midfield. After this season though, his role was going to change significantly.

Unfortunately, the season ended in disappointment on a team level, as Liverpool fell from being title contenders, to failing to make the Champions League in the space of twelve months. That Suarez bloke was some player, right?

The following season was turbulent to say the least. Firstly, Steven Gerrard finally parted ways with Liverpool as he crossed the Atlantic Ocean for a final pay day with LA Galaxy. This move saw Henderson promoted to the Captains role, full time.

It was supposed to be the year he proved to everyone that Henderson was the man to replace Gerrard. The season started terribly though as yet again, Rodgers had failed to adequately replace Luis Suarez. This time he'd swapped lamp post one (Mario Balotelli) for lamp post two (Christian Benteke). To nobodies surprise, Rodgers was sacked after just eight league games, with Henderson missing most of them with a heel injury and a broken metatarsal, seemingly innocuous at the time. The replacement manager was current incumbent, Jurgen Klopp.

When Klopp first arrived, Henderson was still injured. In fact it wasn't until Klopp's eighth league game in charge that Henderson made his first Premier League start under the new boss. Impressively, Henderson marked his return with a goal and an assist in a 2-2 draw against West Bromwich Albion.

 

Klopp made a very swift decision to move a few players around. Roberto Firmino was almost immediately converted to a striker because he could actually move unlike Benteke, Adam Lallana was moved into a box to box midfielder role as his penetration from wide areas was non existent, and that pushed Henderson back into what was essentially a deep lying playmaker role.

After regaining full fitness, Henderson started and captained the side in thirteen of the next fifteen league games before suffering knee ligament damage which effectively ended his season. Injuries were creeping in.

This resulted in Henderson making just 26 appearances in all competitions, scoring twice and creating three more goals. In terms of minutes played, it was the least involved Henderson had been since his first season at Sunderland/Coventry. His injuries (worryingly) all seemed to stem from Plantar fasciitis affecting his ability to train and run properly.

In a season marred by injury, Henderson still managed to play 120 minutes in the League Cup final as Liverpool took Manchester City all the way to penalties. Unfortunately, Liverpool had three of their first four spot kicks saved so Henderson didn't even get the chance to take one. Whether or not he was in lime to take the fifth is anyone's guess.

In their second cup final of the season, Liverpool faced Sevilla in the Europa League final. Henderson's leadership was sorely missed in that game though as the side threw away a 1-0 lead to lose 3-1 in normal time. Henderson watched on from the bench.

In the following season, Henderson made yet another stunning comeback. It wasn't even surprising by this stage of his career to be honest. Yet again he'd worked tirelessly to fight back, this time coming back just in time for the start of the 2016/17 season.

Klopp started the season with a midfield trio of Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum either side of the much more conservative Jordan Henderson. The season started fantastically. Liverpool stormed to the top of the table, but injury to Sadio Mane seemed to derail the season horribly as the club had the worst January I've seen in my lifetime, winning just once (in the second leg of the FA cup tie vs Plymouth Argyle).

Just as Mane returned to fitness temporarily, Liverpool were hit by an equally huge body blow. Henderson's plantar fasciitis reared it's ugly head again, and he missed the entire second half of the season. Liverpool totally capitulated without Mane and Henderson, going from top of the table in December, to scraping fourth place on the last day of the season. Yet again, Henderson's importance was evident as the midfield was persistently dominated. Fortunately for Liverpool, Emre Can stepped up with a stunning goal of the season bicycle kick vs Watford FC to save Liverpool's Champions League qualification hopes.

Henderson made just twenty-seven appearances, scoring once and creating five more goals. His offensive return wasn't that bad considering he played just half a season in a deeper midfield role. His one goal was also a stunning long range shot into the top corner in a 2-1 victory over Chelsea FC. It might have been enough for goal of the season if Can hadn't outdone him late on! Henderson's job in front of the defence had been carried out with aplomb up to that point though.

With the previous season really petering out into nothing, Henderson was no doubt desperate to complete a full season as captain without a long injury lay off in the current campaign. Again, he fought back to fitness in time to start the season. He really just doesn't give up.

Finally, it looks like Henderson's injury woes may be over. He did miss a month of football with a hamstring injury which was totally unrelated to his plantar fasciitis, but aside from that he has already made twenty-six appearances this season and looks ready to kick on in the final run in! Finally, Liverpool have their captain back, and at still only twenty-seven years old, he still has many years left to make up for lost time!

Player profile:

Jordan Henderson has evolved a lot over his career. From an energetic and exuberant right midfielder, to a passionate and hard as steel box to box midfielder who would stare down Diego Costa, before settling in as a composed holding midfielder who sets the tempo of the game with clever passing.

What has never changed, is Henderson's commitment to the cause, and his technique. The way he can get hold of a ball to spray 60 yard diagonal passes, whip in early crosses, or simply drill a crisp pass in to feet is fantastic. With injuries limiting his box to box capabilities, he has shown great adaptability to reinvent himself as a player under the tutelage of Jurgen Klopp.

In terms of passing range, there are very few players capable of matching Henderson in Europe. He is genuinely that good, and that is why he plays at the top of the game both domestically and internationally. What Henderson is also very good at is pressing opposition players into making mistakes. He charges players down in a controlled manner, spreading himself to look as big as possible, which often causes players to panic and either play a loose pass or simply stand still like a rabbit in headlights and get robbed of possession.

Henderson also has a decent shooting technique, but in one on one situations he does lack composure. In terms of dead ball delivery, Henderson is accurate and can get impressive bend on his deliveries, but his dead balls severely lack pace which makes them too easy to defend against. He needs to work on his composure in front of goal and his set pieces because they are glaring absences from his game, which is probably why Klopp has moved him deeper and taken him off of set piece duty for corners in particular.

Tackling, contrary to popular belief, is completely a different skill in certain scenarios. For example, when Henderson is on the front foot during a press, he tackles extremely well. He is also very good in recovery scenarios when he has to quickly get cross to wide players, or chase back after a player who has got in behind the midfield.

However, Henderson is very poor at tackling when someone runs at him. He doesn't look confident in a standing tackle situation, and he often just shepherds players into a less dangerous area of the pitch, instead of laying a solid one on them. In some ways this is good as it shows he recognised his weakness and has worked on a way not to expose it and concede lots of free kicks. In other ways it is bad though, as forcing the play into the wide areas is dangerous for Liverpool in particular considering they often commit their wing backs very high up the pitch, and Liverpool's keepers are all dodgy on crosses.

What Henderson is good at, and what makes him so crucial to Liverpool, is game management. If the game is getting away from them, Henderson will slow the tempo down by taking a few touches and just shifting the ball back to the defence. If the game is too slow and compact though, Henderson will play fast and short one touch passes to move the opposition around and open up spaces. Unfortunately, this tempo setting which European players get so much praise for, is used to crucify Henderson for playing "sideways".

To be quite honest, it just shows a lack of understanding of the game to call Henderson out on the direction of his passes. Whilst someone like Adam Lallana always looks to play forward, he takes far too many touches waiting for an opening that won't come. Henderson is intelligent enough to know that quickly switching the play to someone else who may have a better angle for a pass, is far more effective at breaking teams down.

This style of play was most effectively used by the Spanish national side in recent years. Some suggested it was boring to watch Spain pass it around the midfield and defence for three quarters of a football match, but the whole point of fast passing from side to side is that it moves the defensive lines around and sooner or later, if you shift play quickly enough, someone will get tired or have a lapse in concentration, and a gap will inevitably appear.

With Henderson having such obvious weaknesses with his finishing, set piece delivery and standing tackling (not to mention being injury prone) it is truly baffling that his passing is constantly attacked when it is actually one of his main strengths! At times in recent seasons he has completed more passes per ninety minutes in the opposition half than any other player in the Premier league. His quick passing and first touch are criminally under rated.

All in all, Henderson is actually a very effective holding midfield player. He is very intelligent, passes the ball superbly, works hard defensively, and doesn't often over commit himself. In a normal team, I personally would suggest he plays alongside a more destructive player in the Javier Mascherano mould, however with the way Klopp wants to play, all Henderson really needs alongside him are player who can match his energy and are intelligent enough to follow his lead when he is trying to either up the tempo or slow it down! Adam Lallana, Emre Can, James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all tend to get sucked into the game and just play it at whatever speed it happens to be being played at.

Critically though, Henderson needs to stay fit. Considering the amount of football he has missed, it is astonishing that he can come straight back in and boss the midfield battle against Tottenham Hotspur for an hour as he did just a few day ago. The problem was that his lack of match fitness caused him to tire after an hour, and with his substitution, Liverpool lost complete control of the game. That is what Henderson brings though; control. He is the only natural midfielder at Liverpool and the only other player in the whole squad who consistently makes the right game management decisions as often as Henderson, is Roberto Firmino!

Whatever way I look at it, I think Liverpool are a much stronger team with a fit Henderson on the pitch. There is an overwhelming amount of scenario based evidence to show this.

All things considered, i am still just a self professed fan of Henderson, and I completely accept some people will disagree with my opinions on him. I think he is fully deserving of the captains armband for both club and country, and if he can stay fit, I see no reason why he can't be a key player at Liverpool for another 5 years at least.

He is incredibly under rated, and unfortunately that will never change because whilst I think he just isn't glamourous enough for the modern fan, I've literally heard people make a genuine argument that Cristiano Ronaldo is not that good! I've no doubt there are people reading my passionate defence of Henderson right now shaking their heads in disbelief (yeah, you in the back... I see you). Football is a subjective game though so opinions will always be different and even the best in the world will always have detractors somewhere. Even the rules nowadays seem to change with opinions and interpretation, so nothing is straight forward in football anymore! What sets Henderson apart from many others is his ability to overcome doubts time and time again.

One thing is for sure, against all the odds, Henderson has made something of his Liverpool career when nobody thought he had it in him. He has told himself that he can do it time and time again, and Jordan Henderson for me is 'The Midfield Engine That Could'.

Written by Adam Jones February 07 2018 19:03:57