In Henderson, Kenny Dalglish had signed a player who had impressed the Premier League immensely with his key, commanding performances for the Black Cats in central midfield during 2010/11, helping them finish 10th in the league—their best finishing position since 2001.
Pressure and Transfer-Fee Stigma
Was Henderson to be the long-term replacement for Steven Gerrard? What a question. What responsibility. What pressure.
The spotlight was firmly on Henderson, not helped by his £20 million price tag, which he vowed to repay on the pitch—quoted by Paul Doyle in The Guardian as saying: “It’s a lot of money but I don’t make the figures up. It just shows that Liverpool have a lot of faith in me and I’ll keep learning and working hard to repay them.”
It was perhaps his inflated transfer fee that kept Henderson in the first team for the whole of his first season at Liverpool despite some very questionable performances—missing just one league game.
As lacklustre as some of his early games were for Liverpool, it wasn’t a diagnosis resting solely with him. League Cup and FA Cup runs to the trophy and final, respectively, Dalglish’s Liverpool finished a lowly eighth in the Premier League.
It had been a big year for Henderson, and the criticism he had collected was somewhat harsh. “He was a young man living in a new city and, as he soon realised, playing for a club with taxing expectations,” wrote Sachin Nakrani in The Guardian.
The summer of 2012 was a key point in the evolution of Henderson, rejuvenated by nearly being sold to Fulham upon Brendan Rodgers’ arrival from Swansea.
Rodgers came in with his own plans, his own dossier on what football philosophy should be soaked up by Liverpool and how he was going to do it.
The Northern Irishman brought with him Joe Allen, a young and creative (if not lightweight) central midfielder, and Henderson had the opportunity to join Fulham, initially as part of a deal which would see Clint Dempsey move to Anfield.
The offer to leave Merseyside so quickly surprised Henderson—quoted by Chris Bascombe of The Telegraph as saying: “When the manager told me I could go to Fulham it was a bit of a shock at first. What he said came as a sort of bolt from the blue. I think the Dempsey situation had stalled, but it wasn’t really of interest to me.”
Henderson rejected life in south-west London and stayed. With the guidance of Dalglish’s successor and his back-room staff, he soon grew into one of the most important members of Rodgers’ squad.
Physical and Mental Improvement
Inspired to work hard on all aspects of his game, from his fitness to passing and working closely on his mental strength with the club’s psychiatrist, Dr Steve Peters, Henderson threw down the suffocation of the price tag that was holding him back and transformed into Liverpool’s battle-axe.
After an impressive start to the 2013/14 campaign, Henderson’s defining moment came during Liverpool’s 5-0 demolition of Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in December.
With Gerrard out injured, Henderson took his opportunity to prove to the rest of the world what he was capable of.
Owing a lot to his work with Dr Peters, Henderson no longer looked like a player who didn’t believe he should be playing for Liverpool—his ferocious performance driving Liverpool forward with such momentum that they could have scored eight or nine.
During that game in north London, Henderson had a pass accuracy of 92 per cent, won 100 per cent of his aerial battles and had 78 touches of the ball—more than any other player on the pitch, according to WhoScored.com.
Having brilliantly worked in Luis Suarez for the game’s opener, his goal was a world-class finish, volleying in when many a player would have found less control on the ball.
Danny Gallagher of This Is Anfield wrote this month:
Henderson’s form this season, thus far, has been nothing short of magnificent. To the watchful eye, his performances have included the full package of aesthetic pleasure; from astute passing to methodological tackling, from off the ball play-reading to calculated pressing, all areas of Henderson’s game have improved exponentially, a joy to behold.
Such has been Henderson’s success this season that he now looks certain not only to travel with England to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, but also to start for Roy Hodgson’s team.
Henderson’s commitment and desire to win integrates with what Rodgers is trying to do at Liverpool perfectly. He has a hunger to cover both attacking and defensive responsibilities, which comes with an innate need to have stamina and athleticism, recently revealing he has to be told when to stop training so as not to overdo it, as per Colin Harvey in the Daily Star:
Sometimes I need people to tell me to rest. After training sometimes I like to do a little bit extra.
A few of us do a bit of shooting or whatever it might be but sometimes you need to give your legs a rest and prepare for the game in the best way that you can.
We have the right people at the club to tell you when you can and when you can’t do the extra bit.
Such is that contagious drive to win the game that Liverpool start every game like a dog being let out of a trap, hitting teams with relentless offensive pressure from the first minute.
The "Gait" Quote and 2013/14
Ferguson put his draconian sport science behind him and handed over United’s responsibility to his friend David Moyes, who signed Marouane Fellaini—and the rest is history.
Since that infamous quote was made public in October, Henderson’s season has gone from strength to strength.
Sachin Nakrani of The Guardian gave a fair assessment of Henderson’s overall consistency in December:
Not every performance has been impressive, but few now doubt that Henderson is an important element of Liverpool’s midfield, providing energy, drive and assurance in possession, traits all seen in the rout of Spurs, when the midfielder made up for the absence of Steven Gerrard through injury with arguably his best showing for the Merseysiders since arriving from Sunderland two years ago, one capped by his first league goal of the season from a position just behind Luis Suarez.
The 23-year-old’s strong performance in Liverpool’s 4-3 victory over Swansea at Anfield in February, in which Henderson scored two very different kinds of goals, typified a more recent Henderson performance, being a stable anchor between the Reds’ midfield and attack.
According to Squawka, Henderson boasts a pass accuracy of 86 percent, has created 50 chances and scored three goals. By the same stage last season, Henderson had created just 33 chances—such is his involvement in Liverpool’s attacking rejuvenation.
For England, Hodgson would be foolish not to start Henderson when the World Cup comes around. Henderson has worked up an intelligent partnership with Steven Gerrard and works week in, week out with two other Liverpool must-starts for England—Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge.
Furthermore, Henderson has long shown good leadership qualities, from his days as captain of England Under-21s to his role in Liverpool’s midfield today. He will be an important leader on the pitch at Anfield for years to come.
It’s been a roller coaster of a ride for Henderson over the last three years, but as he continues to find himself as a player and a man, the evolution continues—and it’s very exciting indeed.