Sunday, 13 January 2013

Why Jordan Henderson makes Liverpool's midfield work

Those involved in the Gestalt School of Psychology knew little about football, but you suspect the emphasis on the collective would have struck a chord with Brendan Rodgers. The late nineteenth century school is often summarised using a famous Aristotle line: 'The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.' 

For Rodgers, nothing could be more apt.

Liverpool's midfield has been something of a conundrum this season. There are three positions and six able players to fill them. That the midfield three struggled to function with a variety of combinations throughout the first half of the season should have been one of Rodgers' greatest concerns. The need for attacking reinforcements is obvious and the manager has already started to work on constructing a front-line to suit his style.

There will be no strengthening in the midfield for the players are already there. An England captain, a Welshman who understands the system inside out, a Brazilian regular, a 24-year-old Bundesliga 'Player of the Year' and two young England internationals are all Rodgers needs, but the fluency that they should have been able to achieve has not been a permanent feature of the Liverpool midfield. It has been there on occasions, but missing every bit as frequently.

The problems have occurred in transition. The Rodgers mantra demands the ball to be pressed when it is lost. However, all too often this pressing hasn't been done as a group. One or two press, others go halfway to where they need to be and three quick passes can expose Liverpool's back four. Go back through all of the goals that Rodgers' side have conceded this season and the space between midfield and defence will become a recurring theme.

The two fixtures in 2013 have revealed something that may come as a shock. The least fashionable of footballers may be the solution to the problem.

Jordan Henderson is a footballing price-tag. He showed some promise when deployed centrally in the closing weeks of the Dalglish reign and has been building on that under Rodgers, but is constantly compared to the fee Liverpool paid.

There is no disguising that Henderson's first season at Anfield was a torrid one at times. Signed for an inflated fee that he had no control of and asked to play in a position that suits few of his strengths, it is no wonder the 22-year-old looked out of place.

The Jordan Henderson who captains England's U21 side has often been a confusing sight for Liverpool fans. Even during his toughest days at Anfield, England's Henderson flourished. He was at the heart of his team's passing, barked orders at his team-mates and shone as a box-to-box midfielder. He would then go back to the right side of Liverpool's midfield and the timidity would come over him again.

Henderson may have been a potential makeweight for Clint Dempsey in the summer, but his manager would be ill-advised to dispose of him in January.

Liverpool's two games in 2013 have brought 3-0 victories and Henderson has been heavily involved in both. He refused to allow illness to prevent him playing at QPR, before earning a second start in the win against Sunderland. The point of the midfield triangle may not have been where many expected him to make his greatest impact, but Henderson deserves to continue there. He may not have been a young Bundesliga sensation or have Jonjo Shelvey's goalscoring record, but he makes Liverpool's midfield work.

The great traits that Rodgers is associated with are passing and pressing. It is the latter than Henderson does better than anybody at the club.

Henderson has many improvements to make in his game but there is one thing that he can do without fail – run. His work-rate is exceptionally high and has a positive effect on those behind him. Liverpool have often been caught with two of the attacking trio pressing the ball, but with a big gap to the midfield. This allows opponents to play through Liverpool and find themselves with a great expanse of grass to attack.

Henderson is often the player pressing highest up the pitch. He combines with Luis Suarez to cover the central pass and both wide attackers push on to prevent the isolated centre-back from using his full-backs. As such, Liverpool have regained a great deal of cheap possession in the past two games.

The former Sunderland midfield also has the mobility to get around the midfield. He can press the defence and still recover his position in the central three if the resultant clearance falls to an opponent. It comes as no surprise that Steven Gerrard has had two of his best games of the season with Henderson at the head of the midfield. Henderson does the leg work, Lucas or Joe Allen do the scrapping in front of the back four and Gerrard is given a greater freedom. He can play deeper and look to penetrate as he did for Luis Suarez's second against Sunderland in the knowledge that Henderson will not be far away from the front three. Alternatively, Gerrard can make a run beyond the attack in the knowledge that Henderson has the mobility to cover behind him. When Lucas, Allen and Gerrard were playing as a combination, there was always a doubt as to who could cover the ground if needed. With Henderson involved, the midfield functions in transition with far greater comfort.

The other benefit of Henderson's mobility is the increased threat it poses on the counter-attack. Against both QPR and Sunderland there were instances when Liverpool broke from a corner and ended up with at least three players tearing towards the opposition penalty area. Suarez is often the architect, turning a man on halfway and driving forward. Sterling is usually there too, his arms flying all over the place as he makes up the ground. The third player in the attack is usually Henderson. Watch Suarez's first goal against Sunderland. The Uruguayan may take the opportunity without looking for a team-mate, but both Sterling and Henderson are there waiting for a pull-back. If he keeps finding such spaces as Liverpool break clear after regaining possession, it shouldn't be too long before he adds goals to his game.

Liverpool have been working with Dr Steve Peters since Rodgers' arrival at Anfield. Peters was a vital component of British Cycling's success and a host of successful athlete's attribute part of their success to him. It wouldn't surprise me if Henderson had paid him a visit. He has a different demeanour to the character who pulled on the Liverpool shirt last season. He isn't looking to pass responsibility elsewhere anymore. By doing so, Henderson was sacrificing his greatest strengths to avoid making mistakes. With a little self-belief, there is a suggestion both at club and international level that there is a player hiding in there.

With Lucas and Joe Allen both requiring injury management through a busy schedule, Henderson should be the constant in the Liverpool midfield. Shelvey and Allen have both played more games than they are used to and in both cases, it appears to have caught up with them a little. Henderson's form allows Shelvey to recover, while Allen and Lucas can alternate playing time as Liverpool negotiate a tricky period.

Liverpool face their greatest tests of the season in the next month. Visits to Old Trafford, the Emirates and the Etihad will be a true measure of how far Rodgers' side have come. Having stumbled upon an advanced midfielder who brings the best out of those in partnership with him, it would be a big call for Rodgers to leave the ever-improving Henderson out.

Henderson now has 50 Liverpool league appearances under his belt. For the first time in that period, he is showing why he could be remembered as more than a transfer fee.  

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