Jorge Jesus struck upon an eye-catching description of Jordan Henderson to kick off 2020. “He is the best midfielder in the world in his position,” the Flamengo boss insisted in a recent interview. “[Jurgen Klopp] never drops him.”
Looking at the raw statistics, the Liverpool captain can be seen as the most indispensable player in Klopp’s engine room. Henderson has made more starts than any other midfielder this season, while the turn of the decade saw him tally more appearances than any other player in the Premier League throughout the 2010s.
A long-term ankle injury for Fabinho – the Reds’ first-choice No. 6 – has increased Henderson’s game time, and while Jesus’ assertion is certainly contentious the Portuguese touched upon a worthwhile topic: a divisive figure throughout the majority of his career on Merseyside, the 29-year-old is now producing his best run of form, and his importance to Liverpool is indisputable.
Part of a questionable splurge in the summer of 2011 that saw him, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Sebastian Coates and Jose Enrique brought in for a combined £52 million, Henderson has endured a difficult and much-publicised struggle to gain respect at Anfield.
He was a serviceable midfielder for both Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers, but was deemed an acceptable makeweight in a bid for Fulham’s Clint Dempsey in 2012, and after rejecting the switch to Craven Cottage fought to reclaim a starting role that saw his three-game suspension absence prove costly in the bid for a first Premier League title in 2014.
Inheriting the armband from Steven Gerrard in 2015, Henderson was then dogged by the spectre of his legendary predecessor, and though perceptions of the ex-Sunderland midfielder remained largely positive on the terraces, the rise of social media in modern football led to a warped view of the Reds’ captain.
This was magnified by the off-field difficulties he faced as his father, Brian, successfully battled throat cancer – the midfielder described dealing with the situation as a “different pressure,” adding that “the only way I could help him was to play well on the weekend, because I knew he'd be watching.” Meanwhile, outside of Merseyside scrutiny over Henderson’s performances mounted after an ill-advised admission from Alex Ferguson in his 2013 autobiography that he opted against signing him as a 20-year-old because he and the staff “thought his gait might cause him problems later in his career.”
Shifting between roles under Klopp – from a roving No. 8, to an initially awkward No. 6, back again, then back again – has in ways exemplified the toil Henderson has undergone to merit his place in an increasingly dominant side, but it also exemplifies the quality that has made him so pivotal to the manager’s success at Liverpool.
“Yes, he’s exceptional. Yes, he’s outstanding,” Klopp explained after a 2-0 win over Sheffield United which kicked off 2020. “I have to say, what Gini and Hendo [are doing] especially now, because they had the biggest number of games played there, it’s just incredible. Absolutely incredible, I don’t take that for granted for one second. If anybody who is with us doesn’t see the quality of Jordan Henderson, I can’t help him. Is Hendo the perfect football player? No. Do I know anybody who is? No. Is he unbelievably important for us? Yes.”
Klopp concluded that “in life, character and mentality helps always, and in this case especially,” and as Liverpool have grown into what the German has affectionately and accurately dubbed ‘mentality monsters’, so too has Henderson.
On the pitch, he sets the tone for the Reds’ pressing game, with an indefatigable work rate allowing his side to employ the devastating counter-pressing approach best seen of late in the 4-0 win at Leicester on Boxing Day, while his passing range, energy on the overlap and the timing of his runs add another dimension—whether operating from deep, driving forward on the wing or arriving late to finish chances, such as in the 2-1 victory over Tottenham in October. While Klopp acknowledged that he “didn’t like the No. 6 position when he saw how good Fabinho is,” the way in which he has flawlessly stepped up in the Brazilian’s absence is characteristic of a team-first mantra that Henderson has helped the manager imprint on his squad.
His role as captain off the field is equally important. Having found a kindred spirit in Klopp, he has developed the attitude of a serial winner: super-focused and never satisfied. But more so, Klopp and Henderson share the passion required to lead a club with the gravitas of Liverpool. That could be seen as they embraced on the pitch after the final whistle of the Champions League final in 2019, and later as the captain lifted the Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup.
Those platforms in Madrid, Istanbul and Doha were a long way from the journey down from Sunderland to Liverpool as a skinny youngster with 71 top-flight appearances and a £20 million price tag to his name, and the character and mentality Henderson has shown to endure and succeed only reinforces a growing list of world-class performances that vindicate Jesus’ effusive praise.
It may have taken him close to a decade to turn doubters into believers, but at the start of a year in which he turns 30, Liverpool will be hoping Henderson can maintain this dominance for many seasons to come.
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