Just as another tedious international break started on Monday, Liverpool engaged their already bored supporters by announcing that club captain Jordan Henderson has signed a new long-term contract with the club. Often, this type of news is greeted positively by fans and then forgotten. But despite making 284 appearances for the Reds over seven years, some still question what Henderson brings to this Liverpool side and if he is good enough to play regularly following the summer reinforcements in midfield.
And so, the Henderson debate has been reignited. A debate I will attempt to settle it once and for all.
What Does Henderson Bring To Liverpool?
The role that Henderson plays for Liverpool is best witnessed by comparing how Liverpool perform with and without him in the team. Last season, it was clear that Liverpool’s midfield was much stronger with a fit Henderson in the centre of the park dictating the tempo of the game. While Henderson is often accused of just passing the ball sideways or backwards, this is just not true. While not every pass is a “Hollywood” pass, Henderson’s main strength is in recycling possession until there is an opening for him to play the ambitious forward pass.
This was particularly obvious during the World Cup when Henderson won many plaudits for how he picked out Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard as the two ran at defenders from midfield. While this surprised many England fans, Liverpool fans were not shocked as all season he had been feeding Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the front three with similar passes as they broke opposition lines.
As well as providing a creative base for Liverpool’s attacking play, as a defensive midfielder Henderson uses his mobility and ruggedness to provide a shield for Liverpool’s back four. This is not the most natural role for Henderson having been moved to the holding position from a role as a box-to-box midfielder where he scored seven goals and provided 15 assists in all competitions during Liverpool’s awful 14/15 season. However, it is one he goes about in a robust way, often using his immense football knowledge to get in the correct positions to help defensively while using his leadership skills to ensure that others are in the correct defensive areas as well.
How Does Henderson Compare to the Top Six?
What Henderson adds to this Liverpool team is clear, however, how good is he at it? The other teams in England’s top six also have players carrying out similar roles to Henderson in the shape of N’Golo Kante, Fernandinho, Nemanja Matic, Eric Dier, and Granit Xhaka.
Defensively Kante is the standout midfielder from top six teams, with the Chelsea star averaging 2.41 interceptions and 2.21 tackles per game in the league last season. These are ridiculous numbers, with Matic’s average of 1.67 interceptions per game and Xhaka’s average of 1.37 tackles per game being distant second places.
In terms of setting the tempo and dictating a game, Fernandinho leads the statistics with a pass completion rate of 90% with him averaging 85.24 passes per game in the league last season. Surprisingly Kante has the second highest pass completion rate of 89%. However, this can be explained by him coming last in the proportion of passes played forward. Despite often being accused of letting Arsenal games pass him by, Xhaka averaged the second highest number of passes per game in the league with 75.63.
The final comparison comes from looking at how progressive each midfielder is, to do this I have looked at the proportion of passes the midfielder has played forwards. Surprisingly, leading this category last season is Dier who played 72.4% of his passes forward. This can partly be explained by Dier playing as a centre-back at times last season. Second place in this category is again a surprise, with Matic, normally thought of as a more destructive than progressive midfielder, passing the ball forwards 67.7% of the time.
In comparison to the other defensive midfielders in the top six, Henderson does not stack up particularly well. In the defensive metrics, Henderson’s averages of 1.11 tackles per game and 0.96 interceptions per game see him ranked 4th and 5th respectively. Worryingly, 4th is the highest that Henderson ranks across any of the statistics, with his average amount of passes per game (63.7) and proportion of forward passes (64.8%) also ranking him 4th, while a pass completion rate of just 84% is the worst of all six midfielders.
Does Henderson Still Fit into Liverpool’s Midfield?
Henderson seemingly struggling in comparison to other midfielders at rival clubs will be a concern to Jurgen Klopp and his backroom staff. Indeed, it may have played a part in Liverpool adding two midfielders to their squad over the summer in Naby Keita and Fabinho.
Of the new signings, it is Fabinho who is most expected to challenge Henderson for his role in the side (despite Fabinho not yet making a competitive appearance for Liverpool). Last season in Ligue 1, Fabinho averaged 1.48 interceptions and 1.81 tackles per game, dwarfing Henderson’s defensive statistics. Although Fabinho averaged fewer passes per game last season than Henderson (55.42 compared to 63.7), Fabinho had a higher pass completion rate (87%) with a higher proportion of forward passes (65.5%) than Henderson. Not only should Fabinho prove to be an upgrade in defensive phases on Henderson, his contribution to the team’s build-up and ability to dictate a game’s tempo is likely to be very similar to Henderson’s.
All of this paints a very bleak picture for Liverpool’s captain, bringing into question the decision made in giving him a new five-year contract. This, compounded by the fact that Liverpool’s midfield looked better with Gini Wijnaldum deputising in the holding role in the first three games of the season, and with new signing Keita providing a dynamic link to the forward trio in a manner that may make it hard for Klopp to bench him again, as he did against Leicester. Indeed, the question regarding Henderson’s role in the team may come down to how soon Klopp starts using Fabinho and whether Henderson is returned to the role he had prior to Klopp’s arrival.
If Henderson is returned to the role of a box-to-box midfielder, then Liverpool’s strength in depth will mean that the captain must return to the form he showed in the 14/15 season, where he began to establish himself as Liverpool’s main midfielder despite Steven Gerrard still being present. That season Henderson beat Gerrard in all the statistics mentioned earlier, except for pass completion, despite Henderson playing further up the pitch than Gerrard, who at the time played the holding role.
At the start of this article, I was hoping to show why Henderson signing a new contract would be a major positive for Liverpool and hoped to explain how he would go on to become a Liverpool great. This could still happen if he captains the Reds to the Premier League or Champions League, such has been the longevity of his Liverpool career already.
However, the statistics quite simply do not back this up. Football is not defined by statistics, but the evidence provided in the first four games of the season makes me further wonder about Henderson’s value to this Liverpool side, with Wijnaldum excelling at the base of the midfield and Virgil van Dijk taking on the role of defensive leader.
Nonetheless, Henderson’s new contract is a positive even though it is not as big of one as I first thought. While his statistics last season may not match others, he was not far off their level and is still a quality footballer, one who epitomises the special spirit of Liverpool FC. In the current market, Liverpool would be hard pushed to find a midfielder with Henderson’s skillset and love for the club, let alone one with his leadership qualities and ability to help nurture the young talents coming through at Anfield.
And so, having attempted to finally settle the Henderson debate, I am more torn than ever on the issue. However, for all his flaws now is not the right time for Liverpool to say goodbye to Henderson, something which, at the very least, his new contract demonstrates.