Kain Watson makes a case for keeping things Red in England's midfield this summer...
On Saturday June 14, England will begin their World Cup 2014 campaign against 2006 champions Italy at the Arena Amazonia in Manaus. Roy Hodgson has until then to correctly select and prepare a squad that will carry the hopes of an entire nation in Brazil (no pressure).
It's generally accepted that places in midfield are up for grabs, with, fitness permitting, Steven Gerrard the only guaranteed starter by virtue of his role as captain. His tried-and-tested international partnership with Frank Lampard has never convinced, though (you may have read about it...), while other experienced alternatives such as Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick are primarily one-dimensional players synonymous with England's previous disappointments. Meanwhile, younger players like Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverley have demonstrated little of late to warrant a starting place.
But there is one player who has quietly shone in the Premier League this season, and who could work perfectly for England if he were to start with Liverpool team-mate Gerrard in Brazil.
Jordan Henderson has played an understated yet pivotal role for Brendan Rodgers' side this term. Of all the potential candidates to go to the World Cup as a central midfielder, none have played as many minutes as the 23-year-old this season. The Liverpool youngster has played the full 90 minutes in all but one Premier League game this year, racking up roughly nine hours more game time than Gareth Barry, 13 more than Jack Wilshere, 15 more than Michael Carrick, 17 more than Tom Cleverley and 18 more than Frank Lampard. The fact that he’s playing regularly and accustomed to playing 90 minutes will do his fitness levels no harm, and can surely only be an advantage when playing in the demanding conditions of Brazil.
In matches where the opposition have had the lion’s share of the ball, Henderson has found ways to use possession economically in order to keep his team in control.
In Liverpool’s matches against Everton and Arsenal, the opposition enjoyed 60.3% and 57.3% possession respectively. But despite this, Henderson repeatedly made himself an outlet for his team-mates and recycled possession with great accuracy to relieve some of the pressure and build attacks. The Reds won both games by four-goal margins, and Henderson topped his team's passing chart in each.
It will come as no great shock that England may experience long periods without the ball in a World Cup group which also includes Italy and Uruguay. In this scenario, to have a player like Henderson who has the ability to run for 90 minutes and use the ball effectively, could prove priceless. Where he excels over the likes of Cleverley & Co. is that he can distinguish between being economical and harmless with possession.
As the above graphics show, Henderson has a variety of passes in his arsenal; highlighted by his 92% and 89% pass accuracy in these games, and the fact he created four chances despite Liverpool's lack of the ball. Against Fulham at Craven Cottage, for example, 52 of his 88 passes were forward and he finished the game with an impressive 93% accuracy.
Henderson’s overall game has improved considerably under Rodgers' stewardship now that he is an established first-team regular. The former Sunderland man has proved his versatility playing out on the right too, while his six assists are the joint-fifth highest in the Premier League.
In terms of his defensive contributions, Henderson presses all over the pitch instead of just sitting back and inviting pressure onto his team.
When in a deeper role, Henderson's defensive qualities also come to the fore. In fact, he leads the way in defensive clearances of all realistic central-midfield candidates, amassing an average of 2.59 per 90 minutes. This figure betters those of Gerrard (2.58), Carrick (2.41), Lampard (2.19), Cleverley (1.31) and Wilshere (0.41). Moreover, his shots blocked per 90 minutes ratio is second only to team-mate Gerrard.
Where he has made more of a tangible contribution, however, is going forward. Aside from his aforementioned assists tally, he creates chances at a greater rate than any of England’s other viable central midfield candidates other than Gerrard. Per 90 minutes, he crafts 1.80 opportunities – eclipsing the likes of Lampard (1.61), Wilshere (1.65) and Cleverley (0.62) – while producing 1.59 key passes over the same period.
Although not a prolific goalscorer, Henderson has notched three times thus far, including two against Swansea. Of the players contending for a starting spot for England, this sees him behind perennial goals-from-midfield leaders Gerrard (8) and Lampard (5), and level with Wilshere.
During the Christmas period, former Red Jamie Carragher remarked that if one were to look at his stats – aside from his goal tally – they could very easily be mistaken for those of Gerrard, claiming there was no higher praise he could give the young midfielder. At the time Henderson had created the third-most chances from open play and made the fifth-most passes in the final third of all players in the Premier League.
Clearly, he is a player coming of age. His individual displays and current partnership with Gerrard epitomises everything that England's national team used to be stereotypically associated with – steel, hunger and determination, with the quality to match.
The fact he’s playing regularly for a team mounting a title challenge should signal his readiness for international football. With the likes of the battle-worn Gerrard (34), Lampard (35), Barry (33) and Carrick (32) approaching the twilight years of their careers by the time the World Cup begins, it's time to hand over the baton and give the next generation of players the valuable experience for future tournaments. Who better for Gerrard to guide through the journey than his 23-year-old team-mate, with whom he has more of a relationship with than any other of the younger alternatives?
Barring an unfortunate injury - or unless common sense eludes Roy Hodgson - Daniel Sturridge will start up front for England. To have the nucleus of a successful club team transferred to a national side is a gift that, up until now, Roy Hodgson has only afforded to Manchester United’s underachievers. More than simply romancing Liverpool, though, it's about giving starting spots to those who have shown they deserve it – and on that basis, few players can stake a bigger claim.