After Liverpool’s 3-1 Champions League quarter-final first-leg defeat away to Real Madrid last week, many fans bemoaned Jordan Henderson’s absence.
The club captain will be out for an unspecified amount of time after undergoing surgery on an abductor injury he suffered in the Merseyside derby in February.
In the Madrid loss, the Reds — rather uncharacteristically — lacked intensity in their press, which has been the tactical foundation stone that Jurgen Klopp built his Premier League and Champions League victories upon.
At his aggressive and determined best, Henderson would surely have caused issues for Toni Kroos and Luka Modric — the Spanish team’s creative, playmaking duo — and Madrid wouldn’t have been as potent in attack, especially with their approach of playing long passes over the top of the visitor’s defence.
But an area where Liverpool misses Henderson the most is the often-overlooked work he goes through to facilitate both Trent Alexander and Mohamed Salah and allows them to influence games in attack.
Ostensibly a right-back, Alexander Arnold, thanks to his prodigious playmaking and technical abilities, is more akin to a centre midfield and most of his best work in attack doesn’t come tight to the touchline — in the manner of an “orthodox” full-back or winger — but rather in wide channels, or as they’re known in modern football parlance, the half-spaces.
Similarly, Salah may start on the right-hand side of the attack, but he is not a conventional winger. The winger plays narrow and in field — with Sadio Mane performing a similar role from the opposite flank — and is an additional forward in a fluid attacking trio.
Due to both players having a tendency to play narrow and in the central band of the pitch, the onus fell upon Henderson to act as an auxiliary winger and provide the width to make space in the middle of the pitch and to stretch the defensive shape of the opposition. Defensively, the number 14 can act as a cheat code for the Scouser and the Egyptian and let them play further up the pitch with the insurance policy of the hard-working and tactically astute midfield general behind them.
Coming through at Sunderland, the England international played on the right-hand side of a 442 midfield so it didn’t take a huge adjustment for the 30-year-old to provide the thrust in wide areas of the pitch for Klopp.
Henderson’s influence in wide areas is best summed up in the below images, taken during Liverpool’s 3-1 victory over Manchester City at Anfield in the 2019/2020 season.
Hitting the byline like a chalk on the boots winger, the captain swung an inviting cross into the box and Sadio Mane — after evading the attentions of his markers — powerfully headed home to seal the win for the hosts, a result that had a major bearing on bringing the title back to Anfield for the first time in 30 years.
With the captain injured, Thiago and Naby Keita have played on the right side of the midfield and while they have mostly coped admirably, playing in this role doesn’t suit their best attributes. Both players are more comfortable operating from the left-hand side, and the Spaniard and the Guinean both like the ball to feet and to dictate games.
Henderson, on the other hand, is adept at — thanks to his upbringing in senior football at Sunderland — playing on the flanks and crossing the ball, a trait that made Liverpool — who wanted to maximize Andy Carroll’s ability in the air — sign him in 2011.
Besides, the skipper has had the advantage of building synergy with Alexander Arnold and Salah over the course of the last four seasons, with much of their understanding built during pre-seasons. Thiago and Keita — or any other midfielder for that matter — haven’t had that luxury.
Leadership and intensity are the talents most associated with Henderson, but something Liverpool have missed is his ability to influence Liverpool’s most creative player and their most deadly forward.