Jordan Henderson has been Liverpool’s most in-form player in recent weeks and was once again vital as they went back ahead of Manchester City.
It was his cross at the start of the second-half, that allowed Sadio Mane to nod Liverpool into the lead against Chelsea, while his all-round display helped Jurgen Klopp’s side keep up their relentless pursuit of winning the Premier League.
But few would have predicted the England international would end up be such an important player, given he has divided plenty of opinions over the years and after voicing his desire to play further up the field, he is backing up those claims with a number of inspired displays.
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The scene is Old Trafford, there are 72 minutes on the clock. In the red corner you have the Liverpool manager and in the other red corner you have the Liverpool captain. The decision is unanimous, Klopp emerges the winner, but Henderson is far from happy with the outcome, it’s contentious, he has been substituted for Xherdan Shaqiri and can not understand why.
He applauds the fans, each clap harder than the one before, ignoring Klopp’s outstretched hand. He was frustrated at being played out of position, he had a point to prove and had not been allowed to, until now.
On Sunday, there was no such repeat, Henderson was again hauled off, this time for James Milner, but he was more accepting, hands were shaken, there was an embrace between manager and player at the final whistle, the job against Chelsea was almost done. Henderson had more than played his part and not for the first time.
While the headlines were inevitably taken up by Mohamed Salah’s thunderous effort, or Eden Hazard’s inability to convert after he decided he would once again, single-handily try and haul Chelsea back into a match, Henderson was actually the most impressive, as he has been for some weeks.
With Fabinho guarding the backline in a defensive role, Henderson had been set free. It was his foray into the box, Steven Gerrard style, that culminated with a delicate cross onto the head of Mane, Liverpool were in front.
Henderson had created two chances and one had led to the deadlock being broken, his touches in the opposition box has increased considerably too, from an average of 1.3 to 5 at Anfield yesterday.
“When I play the deeper position my role changes and I try to do different things and I can’t affect it as much in the final third,” Henderson said after the win over Porto. “In this and the last game when I play in a [more attacking] position I feel as though I can make a difference going forward as well,” he said after speaking with Klopp about reconsidering his position on the field.
That last game he was referring to, was against Southampton, Henderson came off the bench, another late surge ended with a goal. The ensuing celebration was filled with joy, there was a hint of relief also, it was his first strike or assist in 49 matches, another significant contribution at a crucial stage of the season.
Yet turn the clock back to the start of the campaign and you would probably have been laughed at had you tipped Henderson to be a vital cog in Klopp’s title-chasing machine.
During the World Cup semi-final, Henderson was guilty of poor decisions, his passes were wayward, he failed to dictate and steady the England ship against relentless Croatian waves. While Luka Modric controlled a submarine heading towards the final, Henderson was struggling to steer his dinghy.
When Henderson was signed from Sunderland, there was a collective groan from the red half of Merseyside. A willing, honest player, he was no Xabi Alonso, comparisons with the legendary Gerrard were inevitable, even if Joey Barton thought otherwise.
‘Someone somewhere trying to make Henderson, heir to Gerrard’s throne. It will end in tears. He isn’t and will never be capable. Not many are,’ he wrote, one of five critical remarks made against the 28-year-old.
In Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, he noted his reason for not bringing Henderson to Old Trafford: “The modern footballer runs from his hips, and we thought this gait might cause him problems later in his career.
Granted Henderson lacks the grace of Alonso, he never will be a Gerrard and his role as a deep-lying midfielder became synonymous with the sideways pass, the safe option as pointed out by a number of pundits, but his improvement in recent weeks has been noticeable, hard to ignore, even if you are not a fan of his.
Against the Czech Republic, Henderson was everywhere, breaking up play and contributing in attack and defence, it was he who begun the build-up towards the opening goal for Raheem Sterling.
The following match away to Montenegro, Henderson was benched, but came on in a more advanced role, as a No.8, to set up the fourth and fifth, just like he unlocked Porto in the Champions League. We all know what happened against Chelsea.
As a gruelling season nears the end, Liverpool’s midfield was in need of a new dimension, fresh impetus, few would have considered Henderson to be the desired change, but he has been, his energy key when those around him have started to tire, Henderson is playing some of the best football of his career.
While it was Klopp’s hand he refused to shake just a couple of months ago, Henderson has since forced the same limb with his persistence and belief and Liverpool are reaping the benefits as a result.