Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson has gone almost full circle since arriving at Anfield in the summer of 2011: from symbol of the future to a derided not-good-enough player and now to almost an undroppable component of a table-topping team.
Alright, so Liverpool are a single goal scored or conceded away from actually being the table-toppers, but the point is made.
Aside from club captain Steven Gerrard and first-choice goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, Henderson is the only Reds player to have featured in every minute of this Premier League season, and he has done so featuring in at least three positions already this season.
Ability, athleticism and mentality aside, his versatility is what has quickly made the former Sunderland man indispensable in the starting XI; regardless of the rest of the team, Henderson has to be in there somewhere.
Deployed to the right of the attacking line, as a wing-back or, most recently, in his favoured central midfield role, Henderson has been an important factor in helping bridge the defence and attack of the Reds. The middle has, so far, been the least impressive aspect of the team's games this season. Henderson hasn't been in the thick of it too often, up until the Crystal Palace match, but has helped nonetheless both defensively and in the final third.
In terms of the attack, Henderson has been one of Liverpool's main creative outlets this term. Not normally associated with the vision and execution of final passes like Philippe Coutinho, Henderson instead finds himself space around the edge of the box to make final passes to his teammates, plays lay-offs and wins the ball back high up the pitch when possible.
Gerrard (10 to Henderson's nine), a regular set-piece taker, is the only player to have created more chances than Henderson in league play so far this term for Liverpool.
In terms of passing, Henderson sits in fourth behind two central defenders—Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho—plus holding midfielder Lucas Leiva with his completion rate of 86 percent.
He is one of only two non-defenders in the squad to have won an average of one aerial duel per game, has made the second-highest number of tackles this season, has the best number of clearances out of any non-central defender in the squad, boasts a 93 percent success rate on long passes and has even cracked off more shots than everybody in the squad except the three most attacking players—Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Coutinho—and Gerrard, who again ups his tally through set pieces.
So, clearly, the stats shine on him on a good way compared to the rest of his teammates, highlighting not only his all-round game but his consistency also.
There are a few less-impressive numbers that others can point to. His crossing has been sub-par, with just two accurate deliveries from 21, and he hasn't yet registered a goal or an assist this term.
Numbers alone don't tell the whole story of Jordan Henderson, though.
Liverpool's midfield has been the weakest element of the side this season, and there have been plenty of calls for Henderson to be reinstated to this position on a regular basis. Lucas' suspension against Palace on Saturday gave the opportunity for that to happen, and the suspicion has to be that the Brazilian will struggle to walk back into the side after the No. 14's performance.
Henderson's capacity to cover the entire field makes him not only an impressive player in his own right, but at times has made him undroppable because he covers for others' lack of ability to do the same.
Take the game against Southampton, which Liverpool lost 1-0.
Henderson did not have a central starting role, but the lack of energy and movement in midfield meant he roamed the pitch trying to wrest back control of the game for his team, while also trying to fill his own position.
Against Palace, starting from a deep midfield position, he was instrumental in helping the Reds dominate for spells and protected the width of the defence extremely well, making four clearances, seven tackles (five won), two interceptions and one headed duel along the way. All that while misplacing just six passes all game.
In truth, given the current 3-4-1-2 system that Liverpool are using, Henderson would likely be best utilised as the second central midfielder, with a capable defensive player behind and beside him who can quickly and accurately pass the ball off.
With Gerrard in the team though, Henderson's only option to is try to become that defensive midfielder, or else continue to feature—and, to an extent, flourish—in the right-sided role. It's not perfect for him, but the lack of support he gets from midfield at times contributes in part to that.
When Henderson has been playing that role recently, the Reds often attack at pace with four players: the front duo, Victor Moses from the No. 10 role, and Henderson from the right. The rest of the midfield are too static to regularly contribute.
Putting him in that central role would solve several issues at once, at least for the time being. It would give an extra body to counter with, leaving Gerrard only momentarily as the deeper central midfield player, it would give Liverpool's defence better protection than Lucas is currently capable of providing and would leave the right-sided position for Glen Johnson or Martin Kelly, more natural options, to fit into.
Henderson has been of huge importance to Liverpool as they have moved to earn and consolidate their top-four position at the beginning of the season. They have got there not by being at their very best in football terms, but by setting up well, defending doggedly at times and showing good capacity to make the most of their chances.
Tactically Henderson has been asked to do several jobs and has stuck at it, performed well and finally been handed his chance in his best position, if not exactly his best role.
He'll feel he's done enough to earn the right to continue there for now, and for Liverpool to keep themselves up at that end of the table over the longer term, that's exactly what they should do.
Stats via WhoScored and Squawka