Assertive Henderson Driving Liverpool Title Assault
The injury to Fabinho was adjudged by many as a harbinger of doom for Liverpool and their prospects this season. After all, the leggy Brazilian was a cornerstone for the Reds as they accumulated 97 Premier League points last season and won their sixth European Cup.
Into the sizeable void stepped captain Jordan Henderson and — despite making his positional preference known to Jürgen Klopp, a conversation that facilitated him moving to a more advanced midfield role last season — the 29 year old has produced his best run of form in a red shirt.
Showing a hitherto unseen level of confidence and assertiveness since he inherited the captaincy, the Englishman has been in excellent form. The end result is the European Champions maintaining their dual assault on the Premier and Champions League’s, a prospect that felt improbable when the influential defensive midfielder fell to the turf in pain against Napoli.
Henderson has shown high levels of form for the north-western giants before, but mainly before he assumed the captains armband, a responsibility that often felt like it daunted him.
In the ultimately ill fated 2013/2014 season, Henderson was the selfless midfield conduit whose unglamorous work allowed Steven Gerrard, Phillipe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling to flex their attacking muscle.
In fact, the former Sunderland midfielders red card against eventual champions Manchester City meant he was suspended for the infamous defeat to Chelsea, with the lack of midfield energy and balance conspicuous in his absence. Many felt that course of history could have been alerted had Henderson played and Liverpool’s title drought would have been brought to an end.
The following season, 2014/2015, is widely viewed as Henderson’s best at Anfield; with the number 14 notching 6 league goals and 9 assists in a run of form belying the teams poor campaign.
But the most instrumental the England international has been in Liverpool red has been in the last few weeks.
The trademark energy and intensity remains in his game, but Henderson — contrary to the main gripes of his critics — has shown an expanded passing range and the gumption to try low percentage probability passes.
The most striking example of the captains new varied passing game came in the Club World Final. Struggling to prize open Flamengo — the Brazilian Champions — the game finished 0-0 in normal time and penalties felt inevitable until Henderson intervened.
A beautifully weighted through ball broke through the lines of Flamengo’s midfield and defence and into the path of Mané — who, after a dribble and a turn — assisted Firmino for the eventual winner.
It was exactly the kind of pass Henderson was pilloried for not even trying in the pass, and here he was executing it in the final throes of a game as big as a Club World Final.
The 4-0 shellacking of second placed Leicester City was another living gallery of the new found assertiveness of the most played Premier League player between 2009 and 2019.
Playing with Georginio Wijnaldum and Naby Keita — a trio who, on the evidence of the crushing of the Foxes, has a nice synergy — Henderson’s switches of play kept the home team pinned in their own half and allowed the Reds full backs to maintain their high berths on the pitch.
Another strong performance came in the European Champions’ comfortable 2-0 win over Sheffield United at Anfield. A game in which Liverpool successfully completed the fourth most amount of passes in Premier League history, producing the kind of showing that was thought to be the antithesis of a Wijnaldum, James Milner and Henderson midfield.
Without turning to pop psychology, the upturn in the club captains on ball performances seem to stem from an increased self confidence and assertiveness. The weight of lifting trophies, it appears, has lifted a weight off his shoulders.
Succeeding a club legend like Steven Gerrard as captain is as thankless a task as any in football, but the recent evidence suggests that Henderson finally believes he deserves the honour and it’s reflected in his performances.