A week after failing to impress against Valencia, Jordan Henderson again had a poor showing, this time against his former club Sunderland in the first match of the new season. As much as wildly overreacting and proclaiming the campaign an utter failure on the basis of one opening day draw is an unhealthy, reactionary approach, it's also impossible to ignore the fact that not everything went according to plan. And that in some cases it's hard to explain things away as players simply lacking full fitness or needing more time to settle in.
And Jordan Henderson had an exceptionally poor showing against Sunderland.
Henderson wasn't heavily involved in Liverpool's passing game even in the first half when the home side appeared fully in control, and he posed little threat on Sunderland's goal when the game moved into the attacking third, continuing the largely anonymous play on the periphery that lead to only 13.63% of respondents believing he was part of Liverpool's best eleven. However, his problem wasn't that he lacked in workrate. Far from it, Henderson's running was tireless, his relentless attempts to cover ground nearly matching the output expected from Dirk Kuyt, the man he replaced on the right.
No, the problem with Henderson's game—most especially in defense—was a complete and utter lack in positional discipline. In attack he may have been under instruction to tuck inside, or that he did may have simply been the result of the player moving into areas he is more comfortable in, and so his reluctance to provide width on the right to match what Stewart Downing brought to the squad's left isn't hugely worrying. What is is that he remained entirely tucked in when tracking back, leaving young John Flanagan completely isolated at fullback for much of his time on the pitch.
From nearly the first minute to the sixty-first when he was taken off, his positioning in the defensive zone more closely resembled that of a free-roaming attacking midfielder than a wide player, with a blatant example found early in the second half (fig.1), when as Sunderland broke with the ball he could be seen harrying Stephane Sessegnon admirably as Sunderland moved up the pitch. The problem was that he ended up being dragged centrally, ignoring Sunderland's left-sided midfielder Ahmed Elmohamady and fullback Kieran Richardson while tripling up with Lucas and Charlie Adam in the centre of the park, and as the play developed he just chased Sessegnon further and further inside.
It's not simply an issue of the player being out of position covering on the break, either, as after Sessegnon floated a cross into the box and the ball come back to Sunderland, Henderson still didn't move to the outside (fig.2), venturing even further into the heart of midfield and an area already well covered. This time it immediately lead to a two versus one situation, with Elmohandy and Richardson both bearing down on Flanagan as the ball was finally played into the area Henderson had ignored for almost thirty seconds in the defensive zone (fig.3).
While Richardson didn't score on the chance that followed, it was a pattern that would be repeated all afternoon, with Flanagan being left on an island in defense. This had a definite effect on Flanagan's game, as the young fullback became more and more withdrawn in defense, unable to aggressively close down players because he was frequently left alone two against one. As the second half wore on, Flanagan even began to back off early in one versus one situations. Perhaps a more experienced fullback would have remained aggressive, but Flanagan's confidence closing down attackers had clearly taken a hit and his overall defensive game was suffering for it.
More than simply being a problem of poor positioning that had a negative impact on his fullback's defensive game, Henderson's statistics point to how inefficient and ineffective his own defending was a result of that insistence on constantly chasing players into the centre of midfield: One failed tackle. That's it; that's all he contributed defensively. Sixty-one minutes spent following players in towards Lucas and Adam, chasing them from behind, lead to no successful tackles, no interceptions, and no defensive clearances. His one unsuccessful challenge was central and in Sunderland's end of the pitch.
The match away to Sunderland towards the end of last season under Kenny Dalglish conveniently offers a comparison point, with Dirk Kuyt playing sixty-one minutes on the right in a 2-0 win. He won four tackles and committed two fouls that day—all in the defensive zone and well right of the centre circle. He also made three interceptions, all on the right and two in the defensive zone. On top of that he recorded a defensive clearance on the edge of Liverpool's penalty area and cooly slotted the winner from the penalty spot.
This time around, with Henderson on the pitch for the first sixty-one minutes instead of Kuyt, there was nobody filling the defensive duties on the right of Liverpool's midfield. Even on Sunderland's acrobatic equalizer Henderson can be seen drifting centrally as Sunderland get their first throw-in in the attacking zone (fig.4). Following that throw, Downing quickly closed down the man with the ball and knocked it out for another Sunderland throw. And once again Henderson stayed high and central (fig.5).
In the end, the cross came in and was volleyed home to draw Sunderland level, though as it was not a two on one situation the blame in this case must rest fully on Flanagan for not closing down his man quickly enough. Still, it was one more example of a pattern repeated throughout the match, with Henderson being drawn like a magnet towards the centre of the pitch and the young fullback taking up an increasingly passive stance in defense as a result.
For all that his performance was quite thoroughly dire, it's hard to question his inclusion too strenuously. Even with Henderson providing little at either end of the pitch, on another day Liverpool would have buried all their chances and won by two or three goals. And even if Henderson is mostly a name for the future, he should still be more than good enough to start every now and then, playing a valuable squad role this year. He also spent much of last season on the right for Sunderland, suggesting that even if it isn't his natural position, he should have a fair level of comfort out wide.
Plus, if you don't start Henderson against his former club, when do you?
So that he did have one exceptionally poor display isn't meant to damn Henderson or his selection. And it's entirely possible that were the match played again tomorrow he would put in a dominating display at both ends of the pitch from the right-sided role that seems his likely lot this year. Unfortunately, reviewing match footage and player statistics does nothing to dampen the initial impression many came away with: Henderson wasn't particularly effective anywhere on the right, and despite doing a lot of running he was quite literally a non-factor in the defensive zone—which was always going to be a problem given that John Flanagan was forced into service by the injury to Glen Johnson.
It isn't the end of the world, the end of the season, the end of Henderson's career, or a sign that it's time for the inevitable backlash against Kenny Dalglish to kick off because in retrospect it appears obvious he made the wrong selection. But it is a mark against Henderson's effectiveness on the right moving forward, and this time it was in a match that mattered instead of a meaningless preseason friendly. Having an inexperienced kid playing fullback didn't help, either, but no fullback would have looked particularly good left on an island the way Flanagan was. It's also a performance that does a lot to illustrate through contrast exactly what Dirk Kuyt and his often heavy touch brings to the right-sided role.
Still, Henderson is young and has time to learn, and for most he was never going to be a player to start week in and week out this season. There's still plenty of time for the coaching staff to install a touch of defensive, positional responsibility in a player who may be more naturally suited to playing inside despite the experience he did have last season on the right. But if Saturday's performance is all he's capable of brining to the right of midfield right now, then it's hard to see him as a legitimate starting option for Liverpool in the coming weeks.