With his recent call-up to the upcoming England friendlies, Jordan Henderson has returned to the England fold with his reputation reinstated.
After all, his previous international involvement was in Euro 2012, where he took over Frank Lampard’s No. 8 with much derision. This time around, Henderson joins the squad as an overdue reward, after he was overlooked for England’s qualifier matches in September despite starting his club season in great form.
At this point, we’ve all heard about Henderson’s turnaround at Liverpool: He arrived from Sunderland for a price tag that was too high and heaped unrealistic expectations on his shoulders; he played way too often in his debut season despite mediocre performances at best; he was the fans’ favorite to leave in the summer of 2012 for a massive loss; he was offered to Fulham in exchange for Clint Dempsey but decided to stay to fight for his place; he worked hard and forced his way back into the starting XI; he’s now an indispensable member of the first team.
Which is all well and good—and Henderson deserves major credit for fighting his back into Brendan Rodgers’ thinking and into his first-choice starting lineup. (Rodgers, for his part, deserves credit for putting his faith in his abilities and granting him a chance to show his worth.)
But with the January transfer window coming up and with the midfield surely a priority area for further strengthening in the coming months, what can we make of Jordan Henderson’s role at Liverpool?
At Present: Ever-Present and Versatile
The good news for the No. 14 is that right now he’s in great form and full of confidence after an encouraging start to the season (as B/R’s Karl Matchett has broken down here), so much so that he’s played in all of Liverpool’s Premier League games this season and has become an integral part of Rodgers’ current system.
Whether it’s a 4-2-3-1, a 3-4-1-2 or a variation of a 4-4-2, Henderson’s tremendous work rate allows him to get up and down the pitch and exert pressure on opposing midfields, and while he started his Anfield career seemingly not able to channel his energies to useful contributions and positions, he’s now much more tactically aware, as his manager has acknowledged here in the Liverpool Echo.
With a high defensive line and midfield pressure key to Rodgers’ footballing approach, Henderson’s physical attributes have a crucial role in the current setup, and so it has proved, with Joe Allen kept out of the side since returning from injury due in part to Henderson’s impressive form.
His versatility has also seen him keep his place despite the constant changes to Liverpool’s tactics and formations this season; he’s filled in in a more attacking midfield role, a defensive-leaning central role, a right-sided free role and also as right wing-back, all to modest success, and this sets him apart from other competing midfielders.
Given his obvious improvement and his willingness to work hard for the Liverpool cause, it’s easy to see why Rodgers has put his trust in Jordan Henderson, and Liverpool fans are starting to come around to him being an integral part of the setup.
Further Improvement Areas and Potential Evolution
But while he’s put in encouraging shifts this season, Week 10’s trip to the Emirates Stadium served as a timely reminder of how much he still needs to work on.
Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey—himself also a rejuvenated hot midfield prospect—took home all the plaudits in a marauding display reminiscent of a certain young Steven Gerrard, with Henderson’s trusty midfield pressure being reduced to little effect as the Liverpool midfield were simply overrun.
Symbolic of the long, hard journey Henderson must still take was a chance early on in the game, when he ran the length of the midfield and bore down on goal, but only managed to fluff his shot so badly that Wojciech Szczesny wasn’t even tested.
Clearly, goalscoring is a key area that Henderson must work on if he is to remain an important member of Rodgers’ squad. The on-fire front two of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have shouldered the vast majority of Liverpool’s goalscoring burden thus far this season and look likely to do so for the coming months, but the midfield must be looking to chip in with the occasional goal, and Henderson, especially in an advanced role, must add goals to his game.
We’ve seen glimpses of his ability to strike a ball during his time at Anfield; now it’s a matter of adding the composure and consistency to test goalkeepers every week: Simply being a chance-creator—something he has been known for since his days at Sunderland—is not enough for the long run.
While the mercurial through-balls of Philippe Coutinho are a prized inimitable asset of the No. 10, Henderson must still look to influence the game more with his passing in the final third. According to WhoScored.com, Henderson has notched an 87.4 percent pass success rate and an average of 1.6 key passes per game, but only 0.3 crosses per game and a solitary assist this season.
In a current narrow system that puts the onus of wing play on full-backs Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique, the crucial creative forces, besides the SAS strike partnership, are the central midfielders, which suits Henderson to a tee, considering his natural technical and physical attributes.
A simple change in formation, however, and the likes of Victor Moses, Joe Allen, Raheem Sterling and Luis Alberto, who are kicking their heels on the bench and waiting for a run in the first team, would be eager to take to the field and showcase their dribbling, one-on-one take-ons and cultured passing, all of which can’t be considered Henderson’s forte.
But with endless stamina already on the books, Henderson could and should model his game on the likes of the born-again Ramsey and Chelsea’s Ramires, both of whom drive as box-to-box midfielders despite not being the most physically formidable (Yaya Toure seems to be a class apart). If he adds goals and more creative side to his game, Henderson could evolve into a true modern top-class midfielder.
Future: Squad Player or First-Teamer?
And he would do well to add such dimensions to his midfield play, as this current Liverpool setup is vastly different from the one he joined in 2011.
Back then, the Reds were wounded from the fatal last months of the ill-fated George Gillett and Tom Hicks ownership and the disastrous half-season reign of Roy Hodgson, and Kenny Dalglish was parachuted in to salvage the campaign—and brought in a host of British players to try to build Liverpool with a home-grown flavor.
Anfield was a place of low expectations back then, struggling in the league, and Henderson was gifted unconditional trust in the midfield without having to prove his quality week in, week out.
But the Liverpool of 2013 is different, and Anfield has a different vibe to it. Currently placed second in the league, Rodgers’ men are aiming for a place in the top four, with whispers of an unlikely title challenge if their current form holds up.
Recent transfer window acquisitions have been encouraging and mostly successful, and with the central midfield a clear weakness in the current team, club management look likely to purchase real quality to strengthen the middle of the park—and likely to bolster the attacking areas as well.
Jordan Henderson is currently an integral member of the first-team squad, but it still feels more like he is a jack-of-all-trades hard worker than a top-class midfielder with genuine quality starting every week at the top of the Premier League.
He will need to further improve his game like he has in the past year to retain his status as a first-teamer in a much stronger and confident team, or else risk being a casualty of the inevitable culling and rebuilding in the Reds machine.
And we wouldn’t be surprised if he proves the doubters wrong. Again.