Much-maligned Henderson comes good

Jordan Henderson’s emergence for Liverpool is a testament to the values of hard work and patience.

The 23-year-old was signed by Kenny Dalglish from Sunderland in the summer of 2011 for £16 million, and hailed as another bright young British talent to push the Reds towards the promised land of Champions League football.

He struggled in his debut season as the Reds laboured to an eighth-placed finish in the Premier League, appearing in 37 league games but only scoring twice. What went wrong?

While it is fair to say that the Sunderland-born midfielder did not set the world on fire in his debut season at Anfield, he was nowhere near as bad as is made out.

He was, after all, voted Liverpool’s Young Player of the Year for that season – an accolade he collected twice in the north-east.

His struggles were largely due to being played out of position. Henderson’s speed and versatility was to his disadvantage, as Dalglish played him on the right wing to make up for the shortcomings of his squad.

While Henderson had performed that role in the past for Sunderland, it had been quite obvious that he was most effective in the centre of the park, where his remarkable engine and passing range could be utilised.

While playing in an unfamiliar role, Henderson struggled. As he lost confidence, he played simply rather than dynamically, trying to avoid making mistakes. This only succeeded in calling into question his ability to influence games.

Fans only have to look to his team-mate Lucas Leiva to see that a difficult start does not make a bad player. Lucas endured a torrid first couple of seasons upon Merseyside, reaching a low point when he was booed by the home crowd during a 0-0 draw with Fulham in November 2008.

Lucas however worked tirelessly to establish himself at Anfield and has since established himself as a midfield lynchpin. Indeed, his absence through injury during the 2011-12 season was a major factor in Liverpool’s disappointing eighth-placed finish in the Premier League.

The story of his improvement conveys the importance of patience in a footballing world which is inherently short-term

The comparison between the two players seems particularly apt considering the similarities in their situations. Both players are tireless workers who are highly unlikely to be embroiled in the kind of scandals which have blighted so modern-day footballers.

Both players turned down moves away when at their lowest ebb, with Henderson rejecting Fulham after his underwhelming debut season and Lucas turning down offers from Italy after Roy Hodgson signed Christian Poulsen as an apparent replacement in 2010.

Staying at Liverpool has paid off for both Henderson and the team. Having turned down a move to Craven Cottage, he spent the beginning of last season on the fringes of the team, behind Jonjo Shelvey and £15m acqusition Joe Allen, who was signed from manager Brendan Rodgers’ former club Swansea City.

However by the middle of the season he had forced his way into Rodgers’ plans, having played well in the Europa League. He subsequently put in some impressive performances in the latter half of the Premier League season – in particular a brilliant display in a 2-2 draw against Arsenal, including a superb solo goal.

He also picked up the England U21 Player of the Year accolade for some inspired performances in the engine room as captain of Stuart Pearce’s side.

Rodgers appears to value Henderson as a key member of his new-look side, having started the 23-year-old in each Premier League game this season. The midfielder has maintained last season’s good form, scoring a slick extra-time goal in Liverpool’s 4-2 win against Notts County in the Capital One Cup – a strike set up by a cheeky nutmeg, which alludes to his new-found confidence.

His tireless work-rate is crucial as an ageing Steven Gerrard adjusts to his new role as deep-lying playmaker. His developing eye for a goal is also helpful to a team that has often struggled for an end product.

Henderson still has much to improve on if he is to live up to his transfer fee; he can still be guilty of failing to exert himself upon games. However, he is now on the right path towards fulfilling his huge potential and proving the doubters wrong.

The story of his improvement conveys the importance of patience in a footballing world which is inherently short-term.

Henderson was signed to make an impact in Liverpool’s long-term future, rather than to make an immediate splash in a daunting environment. But it now seems that he’s finally becoming the player Dalglish and former director of football Damien Comolli envisioned when they invested so heavily in him.


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