Jordan Henderson: An Unlikely Hero

| Jordan Henderson: Overcoming a Reputation – A United Fan’s View |

| The Transfer Market |

Football is beautiful. A compelling match can invoke every possible emotion in 90 short minutes of blood and thunder. Hard week at work? Relationship problems? Money problems? Many fans rely on their football club to be an emotional crutch; an element of achievement, entertainment and togetherness during the rigours of daily life. The problem is that very few football teams can consistently provide that distraction. All have issues that interfere with their ability to perform and consistently win games, and many fans react angrily when their expectations are not met, hence, ArsenalFanTV.

Enter: the transfer market. To fans, football transfers represent hope. They are the perceived solutions to the problems. “If only we had player X in the team…” is quite a captivating thought. In 2018, Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool’s transfer committee had identified such problems with their leaky defence and moved decisively to a solution: the combined £141.8m purchases of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker. 

Transfers like these trigger envy amongst opposition fan bases, particularly when a player arrives with such an immediate presence as Alisson and Van Dijk; showcasing their talent and reputation. Even as a spoiled Manchester United fan, I had felt the grips of jealousy when Mesut Ozil, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, N’Golo Kante and many others transferred into team colours that were not my own.

Van Dijk Alisson
Virgil Van Dijk & Alisson Becker

| Tyneside to Merseyside |

Then there was Liverpool’s 2011 acquisition of midfielder Jordan Henderson from Sunderland for around £20m; yeah, that one didn’t generate much envy.

Henderson had been linked with a transfer to Manchester United prior to this and it was a purchase I was not in favour of. Just months before Sunderland delivered Henderson to Merseyside, United’s midfield had just delivered them to their third Champions League final in four years. The success of Barcelona and Spain’s football model during this period had redefined the role of a midfielder, and Henderson did not fit into this blueprint in my opinion.

Intelligence, ball control, passing accuracy, use of space, vision, first touch and game management; all had now become the sexy qualities required by an elite midfielder. I remember those two finals against the “passing carousel” of the Barcelona midfielders well.

Henderson, meanwhile, was a player synonymous with work rate, tackling and safe passing – a painstakingly ordinary player in my eyes. What use was tackling when you couldn’t get near the ball? As far as I was concerned, he was a continuation of the mediocre, ‘Stewart Downing’ type of transfers that occurred during the Hodgson and Dalglish era (with the odd, notable Uruguayan exception). I was glad the club I supported had not taken the “overpriced and overrated” English bait. To make him captain after Steven Gerrard’s 2015 departure was laughable in my eyes at the time. 

For years, my viewpoint of Henderson remained unchanged – a player who could work hard, but lacked the quality to be a top midfielder; a player who inspired fear into rivals before a ball had even been kicked. I had fallen into the trap of using a very small amount of information and the player’s general reputation to indirectly make grand assumptions about his quality and potential to improve – despite having hardly ever watched him, relatively speaking. In hindsight, comparisons with prime Xavi and Iniesta may not have been entirely fair on the young Tynesider.

Gerrard Henderson Armband
Steven Gerrard passes the armband to Jordan Henderson

| Stepping Into The Gerrard Void |

Fast forward to the 2019/20 season and Henderson has been undeniably world class for those who have actually seen him play, with the emergence of a captain-like presence in the heart of Liverpool’s midfield. There is an aggressive urgency and expectation that he brings to the team. Upon winning the ball, he is immediately looking for a vertical pass into the feet of Liverpool’s front 3 or a ball out to the fullbacks as they push up the sideline. It’s clear that with and without the ball, Jordan Henderson is truly one of Klopp’s philosophical disciples on the field. 

Yet, despite this tenacity and aggression to win the ball back and distribute it effectively, Henderson’s defensive discipline has led to him only receiving 1 single yellow card in the Premier League this season. As I watch him now, I see a powerful and determined player who leads by example, intelligently approaching opposition midfielders on their blindside before biting sharply into tackles.

| A Quick Comparison |

So how does Henderson’s tackling capabilities this season compare to ball-winning machines like Ricardo Pereira, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Wilfred Ndidi? While Liverpool’s skipper made 55 tackles, Ndidi made 91, Wan-Bissaka 99 and Pereira 119. So although these three harassers tackle more numerously than Henderson, an analysis of their tackle success rate tells a different story. Pereira and Ndidi boast a 57% and 52% success rate respectively, while Henderson’s 67% is identical to that of Wan-Bissaka. This illustrates that when the Englishman does battle another player for the ball, he has the same or greater chance of winning it as the best ball-winners in the league.

But perhaps the greatest improvement in the 29 year old midfielder’s game is his ability on the ball. His dribbling, eye for a pass, passing range and ball control skills have progressed to a level that I had previously considered beyond his capabilities.The hard work and discipline is still apparent, but it has been supplemented by an array of highly-developed technical qualities.  Confident long ball switches to escape pressing or exploit space on the far side have become second nature. Impressively, Henderson has also shown himself to be quite adept at executing an increasing amount of ‘thread the needle’ through-balls, line balls and channel balls; which have allowed Mane, Salah, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, in particular, to run riot on the counter attack.

Having played both centre midfield and defensive midfield this season, Henderson’s reliability in possession is significant, with 84.49% of his passes in the Premier League finding their target.

While dispossessed 1.05 times per game in his first season at Anfield, Liverpool’s captain only lost the ball 0.16 times per game this current season; showing a marked improvement over the decade in his pressing resistance and strength in duels.

Highlights of Jordan Henderson in 2019/20

| Bringing Glory Back to Anfield |

Many have criticised Henderson for passing sideways too often. This season, however, he completed an average of 17.64 forward passes per game, which is 28.2% of his total passes made. For comparison, arguably the best player in the league, Kevin De Bruyne, completed 16.07 forward passes per game on average, which was 28.4% of his total passes made. Chelsea’s Jorginho made an average of 21.3 forward passes per game, representing 29.7% of his total passes. While Jorginho may quantifiably pass the ball forward more than Henderson and De Bruyne, their percentage of forward passes compared to their total passes is nearly the same. It is important to recognise that Jorginho is Chelsea’s primary playmaker, plays deeper than Henderson, receives the ball more often from his defence and so it could be expected that the Italian has more forward passes per game on average than his English counterpart. Regardless, it is clear that Henderson holds his own with some of the best when it comes to forward passing. His reputation as a sideways passer is frankly lazy and inaccurate.

Last year, Henderson lifted the UEFA Champions League trophy in Madrid and, in the coming months, Henderson will achieve what Steven Gerrard could not; lifting the Premier League title for his club and ending the drought that has followed Liverpool Football Club around for the last 3 decades. Jurgen Klopp’s influence on his captain is due much credit, but there can be no doubt that Jordan Henderson, arguably now the lynchpin of his club’s midfield, has become a footballer to admire and a footballer to envy.

Henderson Champions League
Jordan Henderson lifts the UEFA Champions League in Madrid

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *