Following the Liverpool path laid out by Lucas Leiva
Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson’s commanding midfield performance against Norwich a fortnight ago told the story of how much the 22-year-old has developed in recent months, quietly but assuredly becoming one of the team’s best performers, following a similar path laid out before him by one-time pariah, now firm fan favourite, team-mate Lucas Leiva.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that it collectively became okay to hold the Brazilian international in high regard, but we shouldn’t forget that he was widely and routinely mocked after moving to Anfield from Gremio back in 2007-8. This was back when Liverpool could boast one of the strongest midfield departments in the whole of Europe, with Steven Gerrard, Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano and Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso as regulars. There is certainly no shame in looking an inferior player to that trio of world-class operators.
Lest we forget, though, with a constant need to re-write history on Lucas in what has quickly become the ‘cool’ contrarian viewpoint to take, while the abuse he received was out of line and certainly wrong, that is not to say that his performances didn’t merit criticism. There were flashes of his talent, the 5-1 away win against Newcastle in 2008-9 standing out in particular, but he lacked that crucial consistency, often ranging from the sublime to the atrocious within a few games. Being picked on by supporters is never warranted, but we shouldn’t conveniently ignore the underlying point just because he is good now.
Of course, this was all forgivable because to put it into context, he moved to England, a completely different culture, style of football and environment to Brazil, at the relatively young age of 20. He was highly regarded in his homeland, having already made his international debut against Algeria, but he was still a raw, box-to-box midfielder with drive, commitment and a decent passing range, but perhaps lacking the positional awareness and authority to have a lasting influence in important games. However, he is now an absolutely integral member of the starting XI who is not only missed, but pleaded for whenever he is absent.
There are many parallels to be drawn with the club’s move for Henderson back in 2011 with Lucas, but both were shown remarkable faith by the men at the helm at the time – Rafa Benitez and Kenny Dalglish – as they sought to adapt to the tough playing environment that is Liverpool, a club which has claimed the reputations of many a talented, promising young player in the past.
While Lucas struggled for consistency early on and may have been hampered by the quicker tempo Premier League and his more glitzy counterparts in midfield, Henderson was shunted out wide by Dalglish into an auxiliary right midfield role akin to when Sunday league teams stick the young 17-year-old up front simply because he’s fit and young. This wasn’t and will never be his natural position, just like it won’t at Arsenal for Aaron Ramsey and he has always played his best football when part of a midfield three, usually at its tip.
The £16m price-tag has also hung around Henderson’s neck like an albatross and he hasn’t been helped by the subsequent failures of the club’s two other major purchases that summer, Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing. He has always been conveniently lumped in along with that duo despite being played slightly out of position in a struggling side full of new players which lacked a clearly defined plan. It’s no coincidence that under Brendan Rodgers, a man with a ‘philosophy’, preferred system and adopted style, Henderson looks much more at home and comfortable in his own skin. He clearly knows what his role is now.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Rodgers appointment in the summer was how he planned to deal with the expensively-assembled remnants of the Dalglish-Comolli era and his marginalising of Jose Enrique, Downing and Henderson early on in the campaign, while Carroll was sent out on loan, smacked of a man trying too hard to put his own stamp on the squad. Credit must go to the 39-year-old, though, for reversing the fortunes of the aforementioned triumvirate in recent months.
The sheer size of the fee forked out for Henderson demands a fully-formed player, which he most definitely is not, but he is an industrious, determined and intelligent technician; decent on the ball, but not flashy, often picking the simple pass rather than the Hollywood ball. Early comparisons touting him as ‘the next Steven Gerrard’ were both lazy and wide of the mark. He is not a very English type of player, he keeps things ticking over and is more of a jack of all trades in terms of midfielders go as opposed to someone who will stand out in any one role for a prolonged period of time, very much like Manchester City’s James Milner.
Nevertheless, he is clearly worth pursuing with and he’s shown flashes this season – away at Udinese, at home to Norwich, at home to Sunderland – to suggest that he is making good on his potential and developing into a well-rounded and reliable member of the first-team and it says it all that he was hugely missed during the recent 2-1 defeat away to Manchester United at Old Trafford, with his energy and urgency both on and off the ball crucially absent during a terrible first half team display. He wasn’t helped early on by Rodgers given the fact that the manager seemed unsure of what his best starting midfield was, but he’s more than playing his part now.
Much like Lucas, Henderson is clearly worth persevering with and as I’ve always argued, no matter what the fee, a long-term attitude has to be taken to his signing, just as it was with the Glen Johnson in the past, in that you will eventually see a return on your money in the form of longevity rather than eye-catching, lung-bursting runs and magnificent spraying passes. He has won over a few more cynics recently, but really, like his Brazilian team-mate, all he ever really needed was the time to settle. Patience is a precious commodity in football these days, but with concerns to the 22-year-old, he is worth the wait.