Q. What do Steven Gerrard, Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson all have in common?
A. They are all attacking midfield players who were told by their managers to play in a deep central midfield role.
The result for Gerrard and Allen was an unimaginable level of abuse from some sectors of the fanbase, mainly from those who didn’t seem to realise that the player in question was being asked to perform a completely different function. All many could see was that the player’s goals had dried up and that he was suddenly passing more often. This week we officially find out that Jordan Henderson has been handed the poisoned chalice. We know this because he spoke about it in an interview with the Liverpool Echo:
The Reds skipper has spent most of the opening stages of the campaign operating as a deep-lying central midfielder in Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Klopp and assistant Zeljko Buvac have devoted hours on the training ground at Melwood to explain exactly what they want to see from a player whose talents have previously been utilised further forward.
“I have learned a lot in a very short space of time,” Henderson said.
“I have played as the No 6 or the deep-lying midfielder and I feel as time has gone on I have learned quickly and obviously the manager helps me on the training field.
“I feel I have progressed in that position and I feel comfortable there. It is not too dissimilar to what I did.
“Pre-season I played in that role against AC Milan, and then I moved forward in the game. I think I can do either really.
“Being the No 6 is more disciplined. When the team is going forward I am thinking more about protection and how I can help and what I need to do rather than running forward and getting in the box all the time. When you are more advanced you are more free to run off in behind and get further up the pitch.”
This interview helps to explain a couple of issues. Firstly, why when there was a sizeable purge of players over the Summer Klopp seemed genuinely surprised when it was suggested Henderson would be one of those to go. It appears that Klopp had singled out Henderson early on for this specific role and in retrospect it makes perfect sense. We all know Henderson’s weakness is his shooting but we also know his strong points are his passing, especially his long-range passing, his chasing down of players to win back possession and his robust tackling. Therefore, It’s not that surprising that Klopp decided to move Henderson back into a role more akin to a playmaker. Secondly, it explains why we’re not seeing Henderson arriving late into the box like we have done on previous occasions, playing as a box-to-box midfielder is no longer part of his brief.
It’s worth noting that Henderson has completed 209 passes this season, the highest amount of any player in the Premier League. This would indicate two things: a) Henderson’s role has indeed become more like that of a playmaker, and b) Henderson hasn’t been as inaccurate as some would have you believe.
However, all this evidence explaining Henderson’s circumstances will still not sway a large proportion of Liverpool supporters who continue to doubt him. The problem is that many of them will be measuring him with the wrong yardstick. Some will expect a dynamic box- to-box midfielder reminiscent of an early Gerrard. What we have instead is an apprentice Pirlo. Henderson has already had to shoulder the criticism of his performances last season, a completely unjust situation given that his injuries were beyond his control, and I fear he may feel the brunt of the fans this season due to a positional decision taken by Klopp, not himself.