Analyzing Jordan Henderson’s Role, Improvement Areas and Future at Liverpool

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?

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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.

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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.

Paul Thomas/Getty Images
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.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

English Football Weekly: Arsenal Slip, Liverpool Close-In; A New Managerial Generation; BT Sport’s Champions League Megadeal

EPL Week 11 recap: Reds dominate; Spurs slip; United roar

There were no lingering memories of Liverpool’s forgettable loss at the Emirates last week, as the Reds took Fulham to task and practically ripped them apart. Four goals were scored at Anfield on Saturday, but it really should’ve been more like seven or eight, such was the Reds’ domination. Fulham’s form will have been the bigger talking point, however. This was a side that indulged the laxness of Dimitar Berbatov and kept a pedestrian midfield unmoved for 90 minutes. Surely Martin Jol is on the brink of the sack; he has to be, or Fulham will spiral into a relegation battle.

After a promising start to the campaign, suddenly it doesn’t look so rosy anymore for Andre Villas-Boas and Tottenham, which on the surface should just be ludicrous—20 points and joint fifth in the table doesn’t spell crisis in any way. But after the three Premier League clubs at the bottom, Spurs are the fourth lowest-scoring team in the top division, and it’s starting to hurt them big time. Sunday’s loss against Newcastle, albeit against an inspired Tim Krul, represented their second loss in three home games. For all of the money AVB spent on the midfield in the summer, he has yet to find someone to link the middle with the front.

On the flipside, Manchester United are rising again—and fast. David Moyes crowned an encouraging run of performances with a statement of a display against Arsenal on Sunday. Given the tightness of the league this season, it won’t have caused the seismic wave that’s been mentioned in too many quarters in the immediate aftermath, but it does give United’s rivals plenty to think about—and Arsene Wenger will have plenty to think about as well. It’s not the end of the world for the Gunners, not still leading the table going into the international break and almost a third into the season. The January window will be key for both clubs.

That Southampton won yet again shouldn’t be a surprise anymore: They’ve won more often than not this season and find themselves just three points behind the league leaders. Title challengers? We can’t be sure yet, but they’re definitely European contenders right now. West Brom also delivered a very credible draw at Chelsea, who will be very relieved that their controversial penalty gave them even a point. Norwich’s 3-1 win over West Ham will also offer some much-needed breathing space for Chris Hughton and co.—about time his summer acquisitions started hitting the net. Let the international break be over sharpish. This league is too much fun.

 

A new generation of managers is emerging

In the Premier League top four currently are two managerial stalwarts who have practically won it all in European football—Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho. But it’s the two other occupants that intrigue, for they are relative novices at the top level.

But Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino, and the style of football they preach, are a breath of fresh air in the fast-changing Premier League landscape—and a very welcome change of scenery at the top as well. Look just a bit further down and we see the likes of Roberto Martinez and Andre Villas-Boas, who also champion the merits of possession, energy and pressing. And this can only be a good thing for English football.

It’s always seemed that English football has been slower to catch onto emerging footballing trends. After all, it’s taken until now for possession-based technical football based on an energetic, high-pressure playing style to take root in the Premier League. But it’s taking it by storm, and we as fans are reaping the benefits.

As managers bring with them a philosophy—not just a winning mentality—this inspires clubs to revamp their structures, academies and internal setups to catch up to the rest of the continent (clubs that trust their managers enough, mind). As the coaching setup is increasingly tailored to cater to youngsters from around Europe (due to the globalizing nature of football), coaches and methodologies need to be updated to reflect the relentless growth and development.

Could the Premier League and the English national team end up not as adversaries, but as mutually beneficial endeavors? Food for thought as we consider another side to football below.

 

BT Sport, the latest game-changer in football

The buildup to Week 11’s Premier League action was dominated by the earth-shattering revelation that BT Sport secured the exclusive broadcasting rights of the Champions League and Europa League starting from 2015—for a massive £897 million.

How will this affect English fans? Well, this allows them to tune into one broadcaster only for their European fix, which is much easier to manage for cable subscribers. It also frees up the Champions League final and at least one match featuring each participating British team to be shown free-of-charge every season, which is a boost to everyday viewers as well.

Those already sounding the death knell of affordable football for the everyday fan need not panic just yet; the goal behind this money-spinning deal is to get even more interest to ramp up the bids the next time around, so there will be mechanisms to make European football coverage at least as affordable as it is now (inflation permitting).

What it also means is that starting from 2015, European football will be even more of a cash cow for top clubs than ever before. (Yes, “European football,” given that the Europa League will be given much more of a boost as well.) While this news has gotten the Daily Mail to proclaim an imminent rise in significance and importance of the FA Cup and League Cup, it also means that the much-mocked Arsene Wenger Fourth-Place Trophy will edge ever closer to reality.

Those clubs that are fighting to get back into Europe—and especially the Champions League—by the start of the 2015/16 season might be tempted to shell out even more on prospective signings in the coming few transfer windows to stock up enough ammunition to launch a real fight for the top four, which will have UEFA scrambling to impose its controversial Financial Fair Play rules—but also raise the quality of the Premier League even further, perhaps at the cost of creating a “Big Eight” in the English top flight.

We’re only beginning to scratch the surface here, but BT’s deal has already changed the landscape. Now they should consider shelling out just a little bit more to bring Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher over from Sky. Then it’ll make a tad more sense.
This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.