“He has got all the skills technically that we needed…He’s good with the ball, he’s creative, he’s got good passing, he’s physically very good…That’s everything we wanted in a midfielder and he’s versatile as well.” – Damien Comolli (Liverpool Director of Football) on Jordan Henderson, June 2011
Upon signing for Liverpool in the summer of 2011, the transfer of Jordan Henderson was seen as coup of sorts for the historically successful club. Then 20, the former Sunderland midfielder had apparently been on the radar of Alex Ferguson, and had been named the Northeast club’s Young Player of the Season for his second successive year. However, since then he has polarized fans like no other English player, barring perhaps Michael Carrick.
Initially, he was granted time and patience by Liverpool fans due to his age and occasional flashes of promise. By the end of his first season, where he had played 44 games and participated in both the FA Cup and League Cup finals, the Anfield faithful demanded more. The departure of Kenny Dalglish, and the arrival of Brendan Rodgers and Joe Allen only increased the pressure on the young midfielder. As the fans reached their breaking point with Henderson, Liverpool embarked on their glorious 2013/14 season, in which he elevated himself from Rodgers reject to fan favourite. By the end of the following season, he was named captain of Liverpool as Steven Gerrard left for wealthier pastures across the Atlantic.
While Liverpool fans have largely accepted his presence in their side, partially due to the serious deficiencies that exist in other parts of the field, Henderson remains a hugely divisive figure for the national team. In a position that competes with Jack Wilshere, James Milner, Dele Alli, Ross Barkley, Eric Dier, Fabian Delph, Michael Carrick, Mark Noble, and recently Wayne Rooney, Henderson’s no goals in 26 appearances creates obvious criticisms. Criticisms that Roy Hodgson does not seem to agree with, as Henderson is one of his first choices in every squad. To find out exactly what the Liverpool midfielder brings to the team, I decided to analyze his performance in England’s final Euro 2016 group game against Slovakia.
Injured for the first two matches, Henderson had been drafted into the team to replace Wayne Rooney on the right side of midfield. With the several other changes that occurred, this meant he would be primarily linking up with his Liverpool teammates Nathaniel Clyne, Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana. His role would be replicated by Wilshere on the left, with Dier retaining his holding role in the middle. This provided an interesting setup, which promised to bring the most out of the creativity and versatility that Comolli had predicted half a decade earlier.
As England kicked off, it became clear that the height of Slovakia’s ambition for the match was a point. As such, England’s attack was given space outside the final third and they opted to use the right flank as their favoured outlet. Henderson proved to be vital to this tactic. As Sturridge drifted across a fluid front three and Clyne bombed down the wing as a makeshift winger, Henderson occupied the gap created between them. From this position, he was able to repeatedly release Clyne, whose crosses were proving to be the most promising method to Slovakia’s goal. Additionally, when Sturridge dropped deep, Henderson pushed forward into the box, thereby not only creating space for his Liverpool teammate but also maintaining the numbers in the area. As he dedicatedly followed his orders, he stayed between 20 to 40 yards from the goal; close enough to influence proceedings, but far enough that he wouldn’t be tightly marked.
As the first half came to a close, I remember being impressed by Hodgson’s subtle tactical organization that meant Henderson made a small, but vital, impact without Slovak retribution. He had even had a direct influence on the attack, as he had both released Vardy with a long ball over the top (England’s best chance of the match) and had a shot blocked in the box. However, as I sat watching the inane ads that intersperse the halftime show, I realized that there were several problems with his performance. What would he do if he had to combine his offensive duties with defensive responsibilities? As it is, he rarely tracked back due to the rarity of Slovakia’s attacks. What if England needed to chase a goal? Even if he were pushed forward, would either he or Lallana be able to provide the end product needed? Was he the kind of midfielder who would take risks, a la Wilshere or Alli?
The start of the second half brought much of the same tactical battle of the first, but now I viewed it as a tedious waste of time until England kicked into overdrive searching for the goal that would win them the group. Ten minutes in, Rooney started warming up. While he may not be the player he was, his arrival definitely signified an attacking intent. The only surprise was that he was to replace Wilshere instead of Henderson, as the former could be be quite threatening. Soon after, Slovakia made a tactical change of their own that created a striker-less system reliant on Hamsik’s brilliance for the occasional counter. With this ultra-defensive stance on display, Hodgson decided to throw on the big guns of Kane and Alli. However, again, I was surprised when he decided to leave Henderson on the pitch, and bring off Lallana and Sturridge.
As it became clear that England would have to force the win, the entire team pushed forward. Alli and Rooney interchanged positions often, forcing the Slovak right to improvise their defense. Kane and Vardy played as high as possible, as the wingbacks started bombarding forward again. Dier and the centrebacks pushed to Slovak box, as the Tottenham man tried to repeat his party trick against Russia.Even Joe Hart was outside his box. The only exception was Henderson, who maintained his 20-yard distance from goal, continued to supply Clyne, and only attacked the ball when one of his teammates on the right dropped deep. While Henderson ran the show in the first half, he was completely anonymous in the second. This is particularly damning considering he didn’t have any real defensive duties, and had lost set piece privileges to Rooney and Alli.
Going into the tournament, Hodgson was lauded for discarding his conservative reputation by calling up five strikers, including the untested Marcus Rashford. His usage of all his strikers in the winning second half against Wales was seen as proof of his evolution. His decision to make six changes for the Slovakia match was even criticized in some quarters as too adventurous. However, his treatment of Henderson belies these developments. Even while he threw on attackers in the hope of nicking a goal, he kept his on-field conservative general. He knew that Henderson would maintain his position, regardless of urgency or necessity, and could be counted upon as an unambitious (and some would say unnecessary) line of defense.
Why is Henderson one of the first names on the English team sheet? Perhaps because he shares his manager’s philosophy of stoic solidness over risky rampage. This doesn’t make him a bad player; in fact, he actually had a good match. What it does make him is an uninspiring choice, especially when he takes Wilshere’s or Alli’s position.