Synoptic of the turnaround of Liverpool’s form as a club over the past 18 months, Jordan Henderson has gone from being a bit-part player in danger of being farmed out to another club, to an ever-present for the Premier League title favourites.
The England man has missed just 22 minutes of Liverpool’s season so far, but the Anfield side will have to do without Henderson for the next three games following his red card in the win over Manchester City at the weekend.
With Liverpool's nerves being tested every time captain Steven Gerrard went in for a tackle against City, due to him being one booking away from a suspension, it was Henderson who swooped in under the radar and caused Brendan Rodgers a midfield selection problem with a rash late tackle earning him a straight red card.
Henderson has been integral to Liverpool this season and his absence will be sorely felt as he sits out the business end of the campaign. His suspension leaves Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen fighting to start the next three games but how well can either man cover Henderson and how sorely will be missed?
Only Yaya Toure has made more successful passes than Henderson in the Premier League this season, who has the highest total at Liverpool with 1,663 completed passes to teammates.
The provider of seven assists, Henderson is also the second-highest chance creator at Liverpool behind Luis Suarez. The midfielder has provided 60 chances for his teammates; higher than both his set-piece-taking captain Gerrard and the diminutive Brazilian Philippe Coutinho.
The 23-year-old will clearly be missed by Liverpool, but who is best suited to replace him out of Lucas and Allen?
Given Liverpool’s abundance of attacking resources the ideal choice would, at first glance, look to be Lucas. The Brazilian has the experience to help in closing out the title and has been a mainstay in the side for a number of seasons now, only missing out this season through injury sustained earlier in the year.
Defensively solid, Lucas has made more interceptions and clearances than both Henderson and Allen per 90 minutes played this season and would add a steel and solidity to the centre of midfield.
He also has the experience and calmness in possession to keep the ball, with a pass accuracy of 91 percent that has not been bettered by any of his teammates this season.
However, while experience may be on Lucas’ side, the smart money on Henderson’s replacement is Allen. Liverpool have evolved in the time that Lucas has been out of the side and he looks ill-suited to the role that Henderson has been playing.
It’s easy to forget that Steven Gerrard has only been playing in his current withdrawn midfield position since Lucas’ injury at the tail end of 2013, but he is currently filling the role that Lucas would ideally play.
Henderson’s incessant running has become a key part of Liverpool’s play, helping to press high up the pitch, harry opponents and cover ground. Neither Allen nor Lucas are as good at this as Henderson, but Allen is the better of the pair.
Possessing defensive stats that, while not on a par with Lucas, are solid enough—particularly his tackles per 90 minutes of 3.36—Allen has the all-round game to better replace Henderson.
Allen has created more chances per 90 minutes than Lucas this season and has also taken more shots on goal and gone past his marker more frequently.
The heatmap above shows Henderson’s typical positioning when getting a touch of the ball and Allen is better suited to fill in than Lucas, who would look a fish out of water in one of the two wide berths in the Liverpool diamond.
Allen has already played in the diamond this season, albeit on the other side, and he made five successful tackles as Liverpool beat Manchester United 3-0 in March.
The mobility and all-round game of Allen suggests that he will be the man to fill in for Henderson. Solid enough as backup, the Welshman has a better all-round game than Lucas but is a downgrade on Henderson going forward and in terms of mobility. However, expect to see the former Swansea man line up for the crucial next game, barring another tactical tweak by Rodgers that could see Lucas alongside Gerrard and Coutinho further forward.