SINCE his arrival from Sunderland in 2011, Jordan Henderson has found himself figured and refigured in several different roles for Liverpool.
With the Black Cats, Henderson was another promising English midfielder, making himself noticeable for his energy, charging down the right flank or through the middle. Over the course of four years at Liverpool, he was elevated from potential sell-on to club captain, once former skipper Gerrard moved on, another English midfielder once renowned for his work up and down the pitch. Moving into central midfield and taking the armband under Brendan Rodgers, many critics precipitously claimed (or rather worried) that Henderson was being groomed to replace Gerrard in that dominant, central role.
As fans have seen under Klopp, however, Henderson has since been slotted back in a position commonly referred to as a pivot, or as the ‘number 6’, usually sitting between two midfielders in a 4-3-3. The role requires a player to hang back in a defensive space, slightly ahead of the two centre-backs and behind the two midfielders. When in possession, the pivot brings the ball out from the back, either playing wide to the full-backs or up to the attackers, or simply recycles play to slow the tempo. When defending, the pivot becomes imperative in cutting passing lanes and screening the back four, looking to break up opposition play. This is where Henderson has drawn the most criticism.
Klopp’s 4-3-3 has relied on Henderson fulfilling this role as the defensive midfielder, and arguably it is not one he is wholly adept to play in. In the League this season, Henderson has made 1,099 passes in 13 games, averaging over 78 per match, more than any other Liverpool player. When on the ball, Henderson has an admirable passing range, much like his position demands, and can either play a long diagonal ball to the wingers, or look to create linear options closer by. When the Reds are into control, their skipper seems fine.
When the pressure is turned on Liverpool, meanwhile, the entire defensive unit, as a seven, seem to struggle. Henderson has not adapted fully to the role, as singular and imperative as it is, requiring an intelligent sense of position and movement that it seems he hasn’t quite developed yet. Man City’s 5-0 drubbing of them back in September seemed to announce this, as Henderson, the most defensively competent in a midfield trio alongside Wijnaldum and Can, couldn’t handle City’s press and incisive attacks; against Tottenham, later in October, he was caught out several times, leaving large swathes of space for Kane and Son to sprint into. Arguably, Henderson struggles in his screening role because he has no support; it’s true, he is no Makelele, or even a Casemiro, and therefore must rely on his fellow midfielders coming back to help or falling back on the solidity of the defence.
Often, Henderson looks as if he’s caught in two minds when the other team attacks: he wants to move forward to press, using his energy to squeeze by rushing at opponents and cutting off potential passing spaces; paradoxically, his job requires him to sit back and screen, something he’s not always prepared to do. When he is caught out of position, or beat by a quick ball, it’s down to the back four to stop the incoming attack, who have proved to be more than unreliable at times this season. His failure to adequately screen is hindered by advanced midfielders and a leaky defence.
In recent times, Liverpool fans’ vitriol towards Henderson has also been dished out to Dejan Lovren, another scapegoat for his wayward defensive management and untimely tackles, as a reason why the Reds let in sloppy goals. Criticism is not due on one player, however, and never should be when a team begin underperforming. In their last eight League games, of which Henderson has played six, Liverpool have only conceded four goals. Klopp’s side rely on their press and fierce attacks to pin the opposition back, arguably reducing strain on their own back line by keeping the ball. When facing a Tottenham or a Man City, or even Sevilla, Liverpool came under treat and were unable to stay solid.
With the signing of Naby Keita in 2018, Liverpool will gain yet another energetic, box-to-box midfielder; yet one who will bring grace and flair on the ball, much more than Henderson, Milner or Wijnaldum can offer. What Liverpool really need, however, is a proper pivot: someone, unlike Henderson, content to screen their shaky defence. The Liverpool skipper is not suited to this role under Klopp, and the manager needs to decide if he really can expend more time developing him for it, or try something different. Henderson is, despite the critics, a key player, and his energy and determination to win the ball do not come as a prerequisite with every footballer.
Claims that Henderson is not passionate enough to lead the team are ridiculous; suggestions that he is being played out of position, meanwhile, are more credible. With such a stellar attacking threat, it seems a shame that Liverpool are so unreliable in defence. But defending, much like attacking play, requires the cohesion of an entire block or unit. Whilst the acts of one man can hamper it, the failure of the entire unit chiefly comes from a general lack of organisation. Henderson is only a sign of this disorganisation. Whether the Reds tighten up their play, or spend big in January, remains to be seen. Regardless, all Liverpool fans will be hoping that Klopp can make the team as consistent at the back as it is going forwards.