When Kenny Dalglish splurged the not-insubstantial amount of twenty million quid on Sunderland youngster Jordan Henderson in the summer he described his new signing as ‘Anfield’s legs’. The implication being that here was Liverpool’s long-term successor to Steven Gerrard, a player to cover every blade of grass from box to box; an energetic marauder to inject some much-needed bombast into the reds’ possession that could often look a touch pedestrian when their talisman skipper was missing.
With the absence of Stevie G through injury this term the promising new recruit has enjoyed ample early opportunities to showcase his talents and at least put down some markers that he is capable of taking on such a mantle. Alas he has not. Despite Liverpool’s fine start Henderson has generally appeared to be out of his depth and hopelessly ineffective in far too many games. At times I would even suggest he has been ‘carried’ by his team-mates.
Some of this can be attributed to an over-willingness to impress – Henderson has on occasion unsuccessfully attempted the spectacular when the simple was available – while those who suggest he should be given time are worth listening to considering he is adjusting to life at a big club at the tender age of twenty-one. A lot of responsibility and expectation has been foisted upon his young shoulders.
That being said, a courtesy examination of any Liverpool-related comment on here will reveal that his disappointing first few months at the club has not come as a huge shock to me personally. As harsh as this sounds, I just don’t rate the lad particularly highly and thought he was desperately over-valued at Sunderland where he never once imposed himself on a game and worse still would sometimes disappear completely for large spells. That’s some trick in itself for a player deployed in the heart of the action.
Though he obviously possesses a fair amount of technical ability Henderson, to my mind, was a timid private over-promoted to a midfield general which remains the case today.
Spearing – who plays like a bulldog and has a face that resembles the same animal chewing a wasp – has limited stature at this level.
I’m perfectly happy to concede that I may yet be proven very wrong indeed. After all, I have form when it comes to prematurely writing off the prospects of a Liverpool midfielder as I – along with most of the nation in fairness – initially viewed Lucas as a hapless liability. Boy was I mistaken there; after seasons of fruitless drudgery the combative Brazilian metamorphosised into one of the finest defensive mids in the world. The knee injury that cruelly cut short his season at Chelsea last week would have been cause for ironic celebration amongst the Kop faithful not so long ago. Now it is rightfully viewed as a catastrophic loss.
Dalglish’s first reaction on being deprived of his indispensible midfield shield was to recall Jonjo Shelvey from his loan spell at Blackpool. This was a revealing move not because he will replace Lucas in the holding role but because he may stand in for the person who eventually does.
As Liverpool prepare themselves for a tough test at Craven Cottage this evening the popular consensus is that Jay Spearing will undertake the onerous task of trying to replicate Lucas’ blend of bite and guile in their engine room. This may indeed be the case tonight and perhaps even for the relatively straightforward fixtures to come. But for the big games can he be trusted? Spearing – who plays like a bulldog and has a face that resembles the same animal chewing a wasp – has limited stature at this level. Bluntly, in my eyes he is a decent Championship player. So could Dalglish be tempted to take some of the pressure off his struggling £20M youngster by taking away the creative expectations and instead anchoring Henderson in front of the back-line? If so it is a move that could yield benefits for all concerned. He would be free of the responsibilities to impose himself in the attacking third – no more Anfield groans at his expense – and instead concentrate on the more ‘bread and butter’ aspects of the game – tackling, tracking, and simple ball-to-feet passing.
Restrained to the basics Henderson’s game began to make sense and for the first time I began to see what all the fuss was about.
Furthermore it is a position that I believe would suit Henderson. During last summer’s Euro Under-21s in Denmark he was relied upon to be England’s creative outlet in the centre of the park. Against the likes of Spain Henderson was comprehensively outclassed and out-passed. All-too-often his attempts at spraying a Hollywood thirty-yarder out wide found the touchline and his movement was akin to a headless chicken. During two of the games I noticed that – after yet another nascent move broke down from his poor control or distribution – Henderson began to sit deeper and deeper, focusing on the simple things and linking up play from there.
On the face of it this could be construed as a form of cowardice. Far from it in my view. It revealed that here was a player with a lack of ego who had a good understanding of the game. What’s more he looked a natural there. Restrained to the basics Henderson’s game began to make sense and for the first time I began to see what all the fuss was about. He hustled and bustled when not in possession and immediately calmed once the ball was won – a key attribute for a player in such a role. He made himself available at all times and kept things ABC. He looked, in short, rather bloody good there.
Perhaps I am in the minority here but I genuinely believe that the devastating deprival of Lucas to Liverpool’s campaign may yet provide a considerable silver lining with the gradual emergence of Henderson as a player of Premiership quality.
Whilst I still contest Dalglish’s assertion that he will become Anfield’s ‘legs’ it is certainly possible that entrusting the youngster to an anchored position may help him walk before he can run.