Does Jordan Henderson still have a Liverpool future under Brendan Rodgers?
The former Sunderland man has failed to make much of a splash in 18 months at Liverpool - Joel Ramey uses the FREE FourFourTwo/Opta StatsZone app to assess the midfielder's chances of making a name for himself at Anfield...
In taking just two points from their first five league fixtures - scoring just four goals and failing to keep a clean sheet in the process - Liverpool endured their worst start to a season since 1903. A start like that would surely cast doubts over the likelihood of achieving a top four finish - something that has eluded the Reds since the 2008/09 season.
But the numbers don't tell the whole story. They neglect to mention the harshness of Liverpool's opening fixtures; three of those games were versus Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal - the side's that finished first, second and third in last season's Premier League. They neglect to mention that the other two fixtures, both played away from home, came against West Brom and Sunderland - opposition usually formidable on home turf. They neglect to mention that Liverpool's performances in those games were actually at times quite encouraging, though overshadowed by sloppiness at the back and profligacy in front of goal.
Eight games later, signs of some improvement have become more apparent. Rodgers' Reds are unbeaten in that stretch, heading into their match-up with Tottenham on Wednesday, keeping four clean sheets in the process. There are just three victories in those eight games, indicating that there is still much work to be done, but at least it seems Brendan Rodgers' philosophy - one which he refuses to abandon - is finally settling into the minds of his players.
"Attached to me is a certain way of doing things, which I'm very proud of," declared the Irish tactician ahead of his side's victory over Wigan. But he correctly acknowledged that what he is doing will take time and that he needs a stable squad like the league's successful teams have in order to progress as planned. "It's about getting the right players in as well as moving on those who aren't getting a game," he added.
And he has started that tedious process. His appointment spelled the end of the King Kenny era in more ways than one. With Rodgers came not only a different tactical approach, but also a demand for players who can fulfill it. So, out of the club went Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll, with Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson largely left in the shadows - all four were signed by the Scottish club legend.
Into the side came the likes of Joe Allen, Nuri Sahin, Raheem Sterling and Suso (the latter pair promoted from the youth ranks) - the kind of technical players Rodgers outlined a clear preference for. Rodgers' wielding of the axe may have appeared ruthless, but the likes of Carroll, Adam, and Henderson hardly covered themselves in glory last season, despite featuring heavily following big-money transfers. Downing's failure to register a single league goal or assist last season saw the former Aston Villa man become the butt of many jokes, some were at least willing to express some sympathy for young Henderson.
The 22-year old cost ÃÂ£16 million from Sunderland after two decent seasons in the Black Cats' first team. The burden of that price tag, that of moving to such a prestigious club with such a huge, expectant fan base, not to mention the fact that Liverpool as a unit struggled throughout the season are all factors that contributed to his tough debut campaign. Still, Rodgers was keen to get rid and start afresh. Henderson would have been at Fulham right now had he accepted their offer, but instead opted to stay, expressing his shock and dismay at being told he could leave the club in the last transfer window.
"What [Rodgers] said came as a sort of bolt from the blue," he recently told the Daily Telegraph. "I worked really hard to come to a club like Liverpool and I didn't want to leave in a hurry. I want to stay at Liverpool for as long as I can. I want to keep fighting for my place and I told the manager that. I said I wanted to stay and keep fighting because I believe I can get into the team."
After being an unused substitute in five of Liverpool's first seven Premier League matches and only playing 50 minutes across the other two, Henderson has since started four of the Reds' last five games in all competitions - two in the league - suggesting he may be getting there. But with Lucas Leiva's return imminent, a return to square one may well beckon for a player who started 31 league games last season. Things may not be going his way so far under Rodgers, but his commitment to the cause has caught the manager's eye.
"Jordan's a wonderful talent and he's got a great future here," said the Liverpool boss after initially looking to sever all ties in the summer. "Okay, he may not be playing as much as he has done, but his appetite and application and his willingness to learn and improve have really been fantastic."
But in what role does Henderson's Liverpool future lie under Rodgers?
So far in his Premier League career he has featured in mainly three positions; central midfield, central attacking midfield, and right midfield.
He has shown himself to be capable of doing a good job when deployed on the right. While still at Sunderland, he scored two goals in a match against Wigan from that position. He didn't stay on the right flank, though; he drifted across the pitch, taking up positions in the middle as well as on the left, showing that he has good movement off the ball. Both goals were scored as a result of his drifting into a central position.
He is also capable of causing a threat when sticking to the right flank, even though he isn't the most technically-gifted of players when it comes to dribbling past opponents. He did so versus Wolves late last year for Liverpool - he attempted three crosses in that game, finding his intended target twice. But despite being athletic and reasonably fast, the right flank isn't where Henderson wants to be playing long term.
"As a midfielder I aim to make an assist, so I think about making the right pass for the strikers," Henderson told FourFourTwo Performance. "Is he quick? Does he like the ball to his feet? Does he like it in behind? Once IÃ¢ÂÂve made the pass, I follow it and get in the box.Ã¢ÂÂ
So Henderson, who perhaps lacks the positional sense needed to properly execute Lucas Leiva's role deep in midfield, sees himself as an attack-minded central midfielder or attacking midfielder. But does his quality of passing suggest he can fulfill that role?
When positioned in central midfield, he has shown himself capable of spreading the play out wide and keeping things ticking in the defensive and middle thirds of the pitch. His passing charts from away to BSC Young Boys and at home versus Udinese in this season's Europa League are good examples of this. He can also get forward. In fact, one of his two assists versus Young Boys came from his leading a counter attack.
His desire to pick out the final ball sometimes leads to a lack of patience in possession, though, which in turn leads to hasty long passes that result in possession turnover. Fortunately, a manager like Rodgers who has a slow, short passing philosophy is just the kind of manager Henderson needs to encourage him to be a bit more patient in possession.
Away to Swansea at the weekend, he consistently picked up the ball around the halfway line and kept his passes short. Off the ball, he got forward when Liverpool were in possession, taking up positions at the edge of the box and, on occasion, inside it. He was unfortunate not to be found on several occasions by team-mates. In possession, however, he was part of the reason why service to Luis Suarez was poor on the day. He needs to improve his play in the final third. This is especially evident when he is deployed as an attacking midfielder.
Sunderland's away match Bolton in 2010/11 and Liverpool's fixture away to Anzhi Makhachkala earlier this month are two occasions on which Henderson has played just off the main striker (Stephane Sessegnon at Sunderland and Adam Morgan at Liverpool). While his movement off the ball was generally good, he experienced difficulty releasing players through the middle with defence-splitting passes.
Perhaps, he prefers picking his final passes when running with the ball on the counter - the aforementioned assist versus Young Boys - would be an example of this - but those opportunities won't always present themselves. If Henderson really wants to be a playmaker, he has to improve this aspect of his game. He has to be more incisive when his team is enjoying more possession in the attacking third.
But before all that, he has to work on boosting his confidence. During that Europa League game away to Anzhi, he made a fantastic run beyond Adam Morgan who found him with a nicely-weighted pass, but rather than shooring, Henderson tried to cut the ball back even though the pass was clearly not on. It was the kind of moment that suggests Henderson's confidence is currently at a level somewhere nearing rock bottom. Yet he is eager to kick on and prove his doubters wrong.
"I'm learning all the things I need to learn and I have got to take on board what people are saying around me to try to improve myself as a player," he said.
It's certainly the right attitude, and one that should help him make the most of his talents, given time. The question is whether Rodgers is prepared to give it to him.
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