After a quiet start to the 2014/15 campaign, Jordan Henderson has been in fine form in recent weeks – and all while wearing the captain’s armband in the absence of an injured Steven Gerrard. It’s a status he will become accustomed to next season after Gerrard’s departure to LA Galaxy, when Henderson will become Liverpool skipper on a permanent basis.
He has long been groomed as Gerrard's replacement – the man himself said he hoped Henderson would be “the new Steven Gerrard” upon his arrival at the club – although it’s taken the protégé a while to live up to that billing. Now in his fourth season at Anfield, he’s arguably playing the best football of his career.
Henderson endured a sluggish start to life at Anfield. Signed in the same period as Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll, he was initially cast as another overpriced flop recruited on the back of a flawed transfer strategy that concentrated heavily on the ‘chances created’ statistic.
The other three, for various reasons, didn’t quite work out – but Henderson was different. More athletic than Adam, more confident than Downing and more reliable than Carroll, he was always a good bet for the future. His evolution over the past couple of years, however, has been highly surprising.
Kenny killed you
Henderson suffered under Kenny Dalglish because his position kept changing. He was fielded as a central midfielder in either a two or a three-man midfield, then shoved out to the right flank.
He was also compromised by the fact that, while supposedly set to become the next Gerrard, he was having to fit into the same team alongside the then-England captain too. It took a while for Henderson to find his feet, and to find his best role in the side.
Maybe, however, it was actually the other way around – Henderson started to shine when Gerrard found his best role. It’s worth remembering that it was only midway through last season that Brendan Rodgers decided to experiment with Gerrard in the deepest-lying midfield position, and that freed up Henderson to play a more attacking role. Gerrard was now sitting deep and creating, but he didn’t have the speed nor the stamina to play an all-action, box-to-box midfield role as in his younger years.
Therefore, Henderson was essentially providing the balance, supplying the energy, the ball-winning and the driving, forward runs higher up the pitch. In his first season under Rodgers, he shone primarily when used in a functional role – like when providing pressing high up the pitch in a 2-2 draw at Arsenal, for example.
Last season, though, his confidence was up and he started to provide moments of magic on the edge of the opposition box, too. As Liverpool played a direct game based around powerful forward running, Henderson was the perfect player to provide backup to Raheem Sterling, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
Things have become slightly more complex this season. The attacking section of Liverpool’s side has changed, and it’s gradually become apparent that Gerrard is no longer part of Liverpool’s optimum XI.
The switch to 3-4-3 (or 3-4-2-1) means there are only two conventional midfield slots up for grabs, and it’s worked better when Henderson plays alongside Joe Allen or Lucas Leiva, more positionally disciplined and responsible players than Gerrard. For the first time, Henderson is ahead of Gerrard in the pecking order.
His last two Premier League performances have been particularly impressive. In the 2-1 win over Manchester City, Henderson curled in a superb opener and then provided tremendous pressing from his central midfield role throughout the game, with Allen sitting deeper and protecting the defence.
He followed that with a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win over Burnley, where he also showed maturity by gradually holding his runs more as Liverpool moved into the ascendancy, helping the side to protect the lead – the type of thing Gerrard was often criticised for lacking, incidentally.
The strange thing about calling Henderson the new Gerrard, however, is that it’s impossible to say precisely what Gerrard was to Liverpool.
He broke through as a tough-tackling defensive midfielder, then became a box-to-box player, then an attacking midfielder, then a No.10, and then gradually dropped back to become a deep-lying creator.
Whatever role Henderson plays, Gerrard will have done so before. Ultimately, though, the comparison is irrelevant – if Henderson keeps on playing at this level, Liverpool will get over Gerrard sooner.
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