This is a question I’ve heard asked by Liverpool and England supporters in equal measure. Some Liverpool supporters believe Henderson is merely filling a gap until Jurgen Klopp brings in a stronger midfielder, whereas some England supporters dislike the fact Henderson is taking up a place in the first eleven, a place that could be occupied by one of the talents from their own domestic clubs. Yet Jurgen Klopp was willing to play Henderson this season even though he could hardly walk at times and Roy Hodgson played the midfielder for the whole ninety minutes against Germany even though he was not short of options. What is it that managers see in Henderson that some fans don’t?
There is one statistic more than anything else that might give us a clue – since Henderson has played for Liverpool we have won 50% of games with him on the pitch and only 31% when he has been absent. For this season alone we’ve won 60% of games with Henderson present and only 21.4% when he’s been missing. This trend is the same for every year Henderson has been at the club, we win significantly more games when he plays compared to when he doesn’t. This is not a coincidence, Henderson is actively affecting the outcome of games but if you were to ask a selection of supporters exactly how he does this you’ll probably be met with blank stares.
In my opinion, the fundamental mistake people make when assessing Henderson is that they think a team should consist of eleven players with individual flair. It may perhaps be more useful to think of a team, be it Liverpool or England, as being like a wall with some players taking the role of bricks and others taking the role of mortar. If the likes of Kane and Sturridge can be considered as bricks in this scenario then Henderson is most definitely the mortar. Managers like Henderson because he’s a cohesive element a team, joining the front and back ranks like mortar joins bricks.
Henderson does not do flair, he does competent and that is a quality that shouldn’t be underestimated. If we look at the recent England victory over Germany Henderson was tasked with more roles than any other player on the pitch – he was asked to quickly distribute the ball from the backs to the forwards, to close down and press opposition players when they had the ball, to shield the back line should the opposition make a break, to get in the opposition box to add numbers to any attack, to fill in should players be caught out of position, to take corners and to take free kicks. The next time someone asks what it is Henderson actually does just point them towards this game and suggest they watch it closely. He does much more than people tend to realise.
This is not to say he does all of these things well, his finishing still leaves a lot to be desired, but most of what he does allows his sides to maintain an upbeat tempo and a degree of control over oppositions. Because he helps his teams establish these elements it then allows players of conspicuous talent – such as Vardy, Kane, Sturridge and Coutinho – to take advantage. It’s quite rare these days for a side with Henderson in it to lose control of the midfield, if this does happen it usually means he and his teammates have been outnumbered in that department.
Something that has annoyed me somewhat was the rather harsh criticism that Henderson received which did not take into account the debilitating injuries he has suffered this season. No only did he fracture his foot but he was also plagued with a condition called plantar fasciitis, a condition that required Henderson to play on with a stabbing pain in his heel until a muscle in the underside of his foot ruptured, which it eventually did over a number of months. It is extremely difficult to gauge Henderson’s progress this season as these conditions have infringed on his performances so heavily. There were times it was clearly visible that he was in discomfort when standing on one foot or running and yet he still put in his trademark effort. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for him, having all the will to play but not the physical freedom to do so. One can’t help but wonder whether the likes of Daniel Sturridge would’ve shown such determination if afflicted with the same injury.
There is a movement among certain websites, most noticeably This Is Anfield, to have Henderson relinquish the captaincy to Emre Can, a player some believe to be more dynamic and a natural leader. Such websites suggest the captaincy is weighing too heavily on Henderson’s shoulders. To these assertions I would just retort that Henderson spent months on the sidelines followed by months playing in pain, how could we possibly obtain a clear picture of how he was dealing with the captaincy under such circumstances? Also, the role of the modern captain is one as much off the pitch as on it. Henderson deals with both media and corporate responsibilities with ease whereas I’ve never even heard Emre Can speak. Those who think Henderson is too passive as a captain should just recall the vocal encouragement he gave the returning Flanagan throughout the City game. It seems some people have a picture in their heads of the type of captain they want to see, usually a Gerrard clone, but in reality we are unlikely to see a captain of that ilk ever again. It would be dangerous to dismiss others as being unsuitable just because they can’t reach an unobtainable standard.
It would be wrong to say all in the media are underwhelmed by Henderson, in truth there is a spectrum of opinions regarding the player. As an experiment I scanned numerous publications the day after the Germany game to see how Henderson had rated and unsurprisingly the scores he received differed noticeably. The BBC Sport website were somewhat unconvinced by his performance giving it a very restrained five whereas The Guardian considered his display essential to the victory thus scoring him an enthusiastic eight. Other publications scored Henderson sixes and sevens thereby underlining the lack of consensus on whether Henderson benefits the England setup or not.
In reality, Henderson is simply one of those players you either buy into or you don’t. With his upright running style he’ll never win any awards for being the most graceful of footballers. However, if there is one streak that runs through his whole Liverpool career it’s one of determination. Even when factors beyond his control have left him at a disadvantage Henderson has always put in a shift. I disagree with those who want a more dynamic player as a captain. Yes, players like Can may be swashbuckling in their attacks but in the role Henderson is given for both Liverpool and England he gets to orchestrate play and with every match his reading of the game will improve. I like having a captain who acts as an overseer, who can see the nuances in a game and affect it directly. I believe this is a role Henderson currently inhabits and given a little time, and luck with injuries, he could become an intelligent player who will assist Klopp greatly in his aims. As the sports writer Henry Jackson put it, ‘He will never be a world-class footballer, or a consistent match-winner, but players of his ilk can be integral to the success of any team.’