Liverpool’s nearly historic run of Premier League performances is over. It has been for some time now.
Jordan Henderson is injured.
“Cum hoc ergo propter hoc.” Correlation does not imply causation. But in this case, could it be? Is a hamstring injury to Liverpool’s captain actually a major contributor to the Reds’ cavernous dip in form?
It is this particular author’s opinion that Jordan Henderson is the most underrated player in the Premier League at this current juncture. His distribution, calmness on the ball, and leadership quality is undervalued by nearly every fan on the planet – even Liverpool ones. At the start of the season, I wrote that Henderson was the second-best midfielder in the English top flight. Even now I can admit that may have been ambitious, but knowing what we know now, it wasn’t that far off the mark. Yet even Liverpool fans hammered me for my pick.
According to sofascore’s player aggregation, Jordan Henderson has scored as the 11th best player in the entire league this season, and it’s largely thanks to his versatility. There is only one midfielder in the entire league this season with at least 50 tackles, 25 key passes, an 80% pass completion rate, and beaten one-on-one fewer than 30 times: Jordan Henderson. Throw in nearly a 60% long-ball completion rate, 327 passes in the opposition final third (16th in the Premier League among midfielders), and eight big chances created (sixth among midfielders), Henderson can literally do it all, at least on paper.
Take a look at Jordan Henderson’s performance in his most recent full 90 minutes of Premier League play against Norwich City a few weeks ago. Then take a look at Fabinho, his replacement, from the two most recent performances – the near-miss against West Ham followed by the brutal loss to Watford. What do you notice, right off the bat?
Even today against Bournemouth, which Liverpool again eeked out a narrow victory which saw them slightly lucky, Fabinho was toothless in midfield, and while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looked to provide some creativity moving forward, two players are attempting to do the work that one Jordan Henderson can accomplish.
These are small, single-match examples, but you can see that Henderson’s directional passing is far and away more progressive than Fabinho’s. The Brazilian struggled to move the ball forward, even in a game where the Reds scored three goals. With less volume, Henderson still managed to move the Reds into dangerous positions all while keeping safe possession. Fabinho was completely unable to unlock Watford – his passing map looks like it was up against a brick wall – while Henderson found joy against an equally-defensive Norwich City side.
And yet the most compelling argument may be this: Liverpool has, to put it simply, completely fell apart once its captain got injured. Since yanking his hamstring in the 80th minute of the Champions League loss to Atletico Madrid, the 29-year-old has missed four matches – three in the Premier League and one in FA Cup play. Liverpool has stunk in all four. The Reds needed a second-half comeback to beat West Ham (that quite frankly should have been a warning sign, in hindsight), they were absolutely battered by relegation-threatened Watford, they were soundly beaten by Chelsea in the Magical Cup, and then today’s lackluster performance against Bournemouth that managed to scrape out three points. How do you argue with results?
It may be that Henderson’s true influence goes far beyond his play on the field. NBC analysts Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle discussed this very thing on the most recent episode of their podcast The 2 Robbies, where they broke down what has gone wrong for Liverpool of late.
“The things that we take for granted from Liverpool were not there,” Robbie Earle said of Liverpool’s loss to Watford. “The things that make them different and special…there are things that are a given, and they weren’t there. It’s maybe a little reminder to this football club that despite great names and huge club and great history, every single week in the Premier League you have to earn it.”
He went deeper, acknowledging that Henderson may not be a brilliant footballer in terms of a flashy style, but his personality is critical to the squad.
“I get the sense that James Milner, Jordan Henderson…not on their watch,” Earle said. “Not if they’re in the team. In terms of Liverpool great footballers, they wouldn’t be at the top of the list, they might not even be in the top 10. But in terms of influence across this team, numbers one and two.”
“The one bit that’s been a constant, the one bit that’s been how they keep on this drive and determination was missing. There was a great shot of Milner and Henderson sitting in the stands [of the Watford loss], and in my mind I was just going ‘not on their watch.'”
While Henderson was still out injured against Bournemouth on Saturday, Milner returned and delivered one of his trademark work-rate moments with a game-saving goal-line clearance in the 61st minute.
Robbie Mustoe agreed, and praised Henderson’s ability to influence his teammates to work hard for 90 minutes, something that is clearly missing of late.
“Football is incredibly infectious,” Mustoe said to follow up Earle’s point. “If somebody is closing the ball down and working really really hard, you automatically do the same thing. If there’s a drop-off in somebody’s performance, they make a couple of sloppy passes and then somebody else does it, it becomes infectious as well. Once that starts, you’ve got to stop it, and Henderson will point his finger or get a hold of somebody and make sure that person doesn’t do it again and that it doesn’t become infectious within the team.”
They weren’t the only ones, either. England recognized Jordan Henderson with its Player of the Year award last calendar year, while Gary Lineker noted Henderson’s absence from the Liverpool side as well.
There’s every chance that @JHenderson’s injury could well clinch him the Footballer of the Year trophy. Sometime’s you don’t realise a player’s importance to a side until they’re absent.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) March 3, 2020
So, this one can admit that maybe ranking Jordan Henderson as the second-best midfielder was slightly overzealous. Yet, the argument could be there that maybe Jordan Henderson is indeed the most important midfielder in the entire English top flight, and that certainly counts for a lot, as Liverpool may be finding out the hard way.