Here we are again. The international break. Otherwise known as a drab, Premier League-deprived, two-week period where England fans come together in a collective lambasting of Liverpool and England captain, Jordan Henderson.
Every. Single. Time.
Gareth Southgate announced on Wednesday afternoon that Henderson would occupy the captain’s armband for England’s Friday night friendly against the Netherlands (coincidentally with their newly appointed national team captain being Henderson’s Liverpool team mate, Virgil van Dijk).
Here are some of the replies on Twitter when it was announced.
Such profound, well-articulated, level-headed, well-informed insight from the England faithful. You wouldn’t expect anything less.
Let’s dissect the responses, then.
“One of the most average players in the league”, doesn’t quite add up when Henderson has more or less been an automatic starter for Liverpool for over half a decade now, including being an integral member of the 2013-14 side whose title challenge just so happened to fall off the rails when Henderson was suspended in the final few games of the season after a late red card in the win against Manchester City at Anfield.
“Someone who shouldn’t even own a pair of football boots”. Well, that just doesn’t make any sense, given he is literally a professional footballer (for a side in the last eight of the Champions League) who needs football boots to do his actual job.
“He wouldn’t even make the Scotland squad”. Really? I think you’ll find this is, again, factually incorrect, based on nothing but a bizarre hatred of a player who is repeatedly targeted by fans on social media in a way which often goes well beyond the usual level of criticism in football, to outright abuse.
Unfortunately, this abuse sometimes even comes from those who spuriously claim to be “Liverpool fans”. See below for a cursory glance at his Instagram after Liverpool lost to Spurs in October.
Absolutely charming. Quite what these so-called “fans” are trying to achieve by dishing out vile abuse to a footballer- who is also a human being with normal feelings like the rest of us- I have no idea. You’d be naive to think they don’t read it, either.
Aside from the online abuse, there’s also a strange online obsession with Henderson as a player who apparently, only ever passes backwards. It’s one of those confirmation-bias perceptions which people are determined to prove in order to suit the viral, vitriolic anti-Henderson agenda.
So I looked up the numbers on Squawka to compare other holding midfielders from the top English clubs and found the following to be true.
Percentage of passes played forwards in the Premier League this season:
Jordan Henderson: 67%
Nemanja Matic: 68%
N’Golo Kante: 62%
Mousa Dembele: 64%
So there we have it. Maybe actually watch Henderson play football for Liverpool and you’ll spot his raking, cross-field 50-yard passes which he executes multiple times every game to switch the play and set Liverpool on the attack, or the manner in which he can set the tempo of a game better than any other midfielder in the Liverpool squad with his incisive, forward passing.
Remembering that this is a player who, when last deployed in a more free-roaming role in 2014-15, racked up 14 assists and 7 goals from central midfield- a tally most top-level midfielders would be pleased with.
Then there’s the whole captaincy debate itself. The notion that it’s a “joke” that Henderson should be England, or even Liverpool captain.
Yet almost every manager throughout Henderson’s professional career has deemed Henderson worthy of the responsibility of being captain. He took on the armband at England U21 level. Brendan Rodgers made him Liverpool vice-captain before awarding him the full-time role following Steven Gerrard’s departure in 2015. Jürgen Klopp has since retained Henderson as his skipper, while Gareth Southgate has made Henderson captain of the senior England side on multiple occasions since Wayne Rooney’s international retirement.
As it stands, it’s currently between Henderson and Kane in terms of who will lead England at the World Cup in Russia this summer.
There is a reason for all this. Those who work with Henderson in the sport at an elite level on a daily basis respect and admire his qualities. He’s clearly well-liked and highly respected by his teammates, too, and conducts himself in a manner befitting of such a responsibility at Liverpool.
Leadership is one of those qualities which is almost impossible to define without any inside perspective on what a player does on the pitch. One can only assume that the reason Henderson has continually been entrusted with the captaincy role is that he fulfills the criteria his managers and team mates want from their skipper.
Never involved in any controversies and always one of the hardest-working players on the pitch, Henderson is a model professional. Off the pitch, he’s also an excellent club ambassador, as shown by messages such as that he posted to Liverpool fans via Instagram following severe travel disruption for away supporters after the away leg of Liverpool’s Champions League last-sixteen tie against Porto.
There are few figures better qualified to discuss Henderson’s captaincy credentials than Gerrard, who most would agree is Liverpool’s greatest ever club captain. Speaking in his 2015 autobiography, Gerrard said:
“Jordan was one of the Liverpool players I cared about most. I always had a good feeling he would become a vital player for club and country. I could see a lot of myself in him.”
More recently, in February this year, following more public criticism of Henderson, Gerrard stated:
“I think we’re a better team with him in the XI, I think he brings an awful lot to the game that I appreciate as a midfielder.”
Taking on the captaincy role after Gerrard was always going to be an enormously difficult challenge, as Henderson constantly- and unfairly- finds himself judged against the credentials of his predecessor, whose status at Liverpool is virtually impossible to replicate.
Henderson is far from the perfect midfielder, but he is nonetheless a very good one. Any claims that he’s “average” or “mid-table” standard are quite simply, nonsense. The job he does in anchoring the Liverpool midfield is one of the most demanding roles arguably in the league at this moment in time, having to cover an enormous amount of ground to provide a solid basis for Liverpool’s scintillating, attack-oriented side to flourish, while also having to protect the back four, at times, almost by himself.
He’s had some poor games this season, as well as some very good ones. Injuries over the past three seasons have undoubtedly disrupted his ability to remain as a consistently influential figure, although those issues appear to have been less of an issue this season.
If you’re picking a Liverpool midfield to start against Man City in the Champions League quarter-final, Henderson, alongside Emre Can, is almost certainly in that starting XI.
The fact that England have few, if any, better options in terms of central midfielders capable of controlling games from deeper positions is not Henderson’s fault. He has never quite delivered his best performances at international level thus far, but at the present moment in time, he certainly warrants his place in the squad, and most probably in the starting XI.
You never see the same degree of mass-abuse for the likes of Eric Dier, John Stones, Kyle Walker or Adam Lallana, for example.
For Southgate, and for Klopp at Liverpool, Henderson remains a key figure and maybe, just maybe, those working in management have a more informed perception of his qualities as a footballer than those who perpetuate the mythical bandwagon of Henderson being the apparently ‘useless liability’ that Twitter might have you believe.