Henderson & Milner prove their worth in priceless fashion
Another week, another Liverpool game that ages supporters approximately 20 years in the space of 90 minutes.
There’s doing things the hard way and then there’s the Reds.
Friday’s memorable 3-1 win at Southampton was the latest title statement from Jurgen Klopp’s men, in a season that continues to defy belief in terms of consistency, winning mentality and a freakish points tally.
This was no normal routine victory away to a relegation-threatened team, though, as the evening had numerous twists and turns, culminating in 30 glorious minutes of vindication for two of Liverpool’s most harshly treated players.
Such is the modern age, fans were itching to see the Reds’ starting lineup when the teams were announced an hour before kick-off, waiting to find out where they could tell Klopp he was wrong about his selection this week.
But no, his side looked perfect on paper. There were few disagreements about the personnel the manager went with, especially in the middle of the park.
Fabinho, Gini Wijnaldum and Naby Keita have long been seen as Liverpool’s strongest midfield moving forward, assuming you ignore the returning Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the time being.
The most naturally gifted, exotic and dare I say hipster-friendly midfield in Klopp’s armoury, their inclusion alongside one another was seen as a huge positive, only enhancing Liverpool’s chances of three points on the south coast.
You could almost feel the delight, not only because of those selected but also because it consigned Jordan Henderson and James Milner to the substitutes’ bench.
The so-called ‘Brexit Midfield’ – a dreadful term, and one that shows a deep lack of respect for two impressive footballers and wonderful team players – were no more, and Liverpool would excel without them, right?
How ironic, therefore, that the midfield unit everybody wanted almost ended up being the key reason behind the Reds’ Premier League title bid going up in smoke.
The trio suffered a dismal time of things as a unit, never looking happy alongside one another, allowing Southampton to dictate proceedings and boss the midfield battle.
They struggled individually, too.
Fabinho was unusually cumbersome, often being beaten far too easily, Wijnaldum was anonymous throughout and Keita was a defensive liability, despite netting his first-ever Liverpool goal and offering some attacking thrust.
With the scores level, the match approaching the hour mark and the Reds the inferior team, Klopp turned to his captain and vice-captain for inspiration.
The heavy-legged Wijnaldum was hooked, as was Trent Alexander-Arnold, and immediately the pair made a noticeable difference.
Milner brought bags of experience and calm at right-back, performing like the savvy player who won two titles during his time at Man City.
The veteran has been in these situations many times before and he used the ball intelligently, never panicked and became one of the most prominent figures as the minutes ticked by. He is a winner.
Henderson, meanwhile, played like a man possessed.
Possibly irked by his earlier omission, the 28-year-old snapped into tackles, provided forward thinking and excelled in the No.8 role he enjoyed so much back in 2013/14.
He was on it from the moment he entered the fray and his first major contribution of the night came with 10 minutes remaining, as his precise header found Mo Salah in his own half, who did the rest in stunning fashion.
Henderson saved his best moment for last, however, finding the net from close range after a lung-busting run into the box, following typically slick work by Roberto Firmino.
The celebrations that followed were among the most passionate of the season to date, with the skipper bordering on out of control in front of the away end.
This meant so much to him. He will know full well that he underperformed at Tottenham last weekend, but this was the perfect response – a true captain’s performance.
After the game, I heard somebody say that if Steven Gerrard had produced a similar cameo, at such a vital point in a title race, it would go down in folklore. It is hard to suggest otherwise.
Klopp has to consider using him in this role moving forward.
While Friday’s victory was unquestionably a night for all Reds to come together and enjoy a magnificent win, those who spend their time defending Henderson and Milner will have found it hard not to feel a little smug towards those who endlessly rip them to shreds.
Neither should be starting every week for Liverpool if Klopp wants to take his side to the next level, but they also remain good footballers with 111 England caps between them.
The hope is that their invaluable contribution at St Mary’s will have shown the naysayers that a lot more credit is often merited, rather than play down their influence and hope they never start a match for Liverpool again.
The captain and vice-captain turned the match on its head, ensuring the table-topping Reds are still in with a wonderful chance of immortality next month.
Without them, we might just be talking about Southampton ending Liverpool’s hopes.