In the summer of 2012, Brendan Rodgers was that desperate to land Fulham’s Clint Dempsey that he offered the London club both Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson in exchange for the attacking midfielder.
Now, fifteen months since the August when Dempsey chose Tottenham ahead of Merseyside, the American is struggling back at Fulham on loan from Seattle Sounders, Stewart Downing is at West Ham and Jordan Henderson remains at Anfield, revelling in his role as one of Liverpool’s stand-out performers.
After the promising start to life at Liverpool which included a goal in a 3-1 win over Bolton, Henderson failed to build on his early form under Kenny Dalglish and he contributed to another form of ridicule over the “Moneyball” approach to transfers led by then Director of Football Damien Comolli.
The £16 million spent to lure the youngster away from Sunderland, named their player of the season for 2 seasons running, just a year before looked to be wasted as Dalglish passed and Rodgers came in, eager to remove the failures that undermined the previous regime.
The move to Fulham was resisted however and Henderson, who had been to the European Championships that summer with England, was confident enough in his own ability to believe the next stage of his development would be better spent with Liverpool. “He told me he wanted to stay here and fight” Rodgers has said.
He had to make do with a squad role until his break came in a 0-1 Europa League win at Udinese in which he scored the game’s only goal and produced a superb all-round display. Growing into the role at the head of Liverpool’s midfield anchored by Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva, Henderson saw off Joe Allen and Nuri Sahin to make 44 appearances as he showed glimpses that he could be a central member to the work in progress under Rodgers.
Still, there was indication that the Northern Irishman, who made an admission in the wake of his team’s FA Cup defeat to Oldham that they were not yet ready to deal with life after Steven Gerrard, was not yet convinced as he spent the summer targeting Henrikh Markhitaryan and Willian in a bid to bolster his midfield.
This season however Henderson has started all 27 league games, a feat only replicated by goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, in which he has already created 49 chances, an improvement on the 33 he managed in the whole of the last campaign and a figure that has seen him register 6 assists to put him third on Liverpool’s most productive players behind Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard.
Able to play on the right of midfield, behind the striker in an advanced role or slightly deeper where he has most often been deployed alongside Gerrard in the absence of Lucas Leiva’s long-term injury, his versatility has proved a huge asset to Rodgers as well as a trait that makes him a sure-fire candidate for this summer’s England World Cup squad.
Goals have been scarce, just 4 in total, though his most recent contribution was the two goals he netted against Swansea on Sunday in the 4-3 win that kept the Reds just 4 points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea.
The double were indicative of his game, emerging from deep to join attacks, the first a sharp strike from the edge of the box that found the top corner and the second a determined sprint into the box to poke home a rebound off Michel Vorm. It was a display that saw him named man of the match and yet another showing of his driving influence in the engine of Liverpool’s midfield.
It is in central midfield where his energy and the incredible stamina that was notable from his early days with Sunderland are used so effectively, providing the lung-busting runs to fit in with the brisk counter-attacking style that is preached by Rodgers.
“He has always had a great engine, but Jordan can do everything – he has got a few tricks, can pass a ball fantastically and hates to lose” is the verdict of Kevin Ball, his coach during his time at Sunderland, and his eye-catching displays against Spurs and Arsenal this year have indicated how his industry and work-rate have eased the burden on his 33 year old club captain.
The midfielder has won the ball back 132 times at a rate of once every 17 minutes, becoming the beating heart of a team that specialises in harrying the opposition in deep areas and charging up the field with venomous intent.
It is somewhat ironic that Henderson’s tireless running has become his most notable characteristic in a season where has had to endure the criticisms of Sir Alex Ferguson who, in a series of barbs aimed at Liverpool in his autobiography, said the midfielder had an odd gait, a style of running with a straight back that will cause fitness problems later in his career.
Rodgers launched a defence of his young player, calling him the “most improved player in the Premier League this season”, a statement that, while no doubt debatable, holds great sway given the standard of his performances.
For Rodgers, it was a case of educating the youngster into using his quality more wisely,“I told him to use his energy and run off in between the lines. Tactically his understanding of the game is much, much better. That is a massive credit to him because he is working very hard, listening and wanting to be a better player” he said of the 23 year old he believes his ready to showcase his vast improvement on the world stage this summer with England, whom he last appeared competitively for in extra-time in the Euro 2012 defeat to Italy.
“I see a young player who is athletically good and technically strong,” said the manager from County Antrim, “tactically he is aware of the game now. He can participate in the game, he knows when to move inside and outside.”
It has been a greatest success from a troubled early career where Henderson had to deal with the diagnosis of Osgood-Schlatter disease, a condition that affects the upper part of the shin, and the unusual physical growth that troubled his physique. Still, he managed to break through at Sunderland, making his début aged 18 during the 2008/09 season.
Even then, with Sunderland fans usually patient with home-grown players, it proved difficult for the youngster as he divided opinion within the Black Cat faithful who booed him off the field during a 5-0 defeat at Manchester City. Still, he battled back and earned his move to Liverpool where again he struggled before again he has battled back.
“He had some tough times at Liverpool at first but, typical of Jordan, he will battle and scrape through it. He always did with us at Sunderland and he has done precisely the same at Anfield” said Kevin Ball who remains in touch with the determined teenager he takes great delight in producing during his time in the north east.
It now seems, after enjoying a great deal of patience, he has produced a Liverpool regular, now ready to break into the England set-up.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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