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The Smart Move

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Jordan Henderson credits Brendan Rodgers with instilling in him the tactical intelligence that has made him such a vital cog in the team led by Steven Gerrard, a player the manager believes will be clever enough to negotiate the yellow card tightrope ahead.

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It was the only way Stevie could stop Hendo's giddy skipping...
It was the only way Stevie could stop Hendo's giddy skipping...
Alex Livesey

Watching the ongoing Moyesification of Manchester United last night, with more than a modicum of unseemly glee, I was struck by how lucky (at last!) Liverpool fans currently are to be watching a squad of clever footballers who are developing, both individually and as a unit, under the tutelage of a genuinely inspiring coach. As this most auspicious of seasons careens invigoratingly towards its close, we fans of the Redmen finally know the heady thrill of being confident in our team and its manager, simultaneously. It's a wonderfully exhilarating sensation and one which our rivals from over the East Lancs Road have become familiar with over more than two decades.

However, whilst their Mancunian cousins comfortably took the three points away from Old Trafford yesterday evening, United's gaggle of absurdly well-remunerated stars were pusillanimous in most duels, lax in possession, irresolute in attack and sieve-like in defence. By the time the imperious Yaya Toure emphatically finished the third goal, the stellar likes of Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney had been roundly beaten in every aspect of the game, just as they had when Liverpool won by the same score at the weekend.

Even the most ardent Pollyanna would have balked at predicting such a rapid ascension for Liverpool under Rodgers' stewardship concurrent with United's post-Ferguson decline, but similarly, only a belligerently dour fan of the Merseysiders could fail to be vaguely aware that this seems, at least, like the most sudden of reversals of fortune. All around the world those who are loyal to the Liverbird are crossing fingers, touching wood and waving at magpies but their superstition is redundant. Irrespective of what joys or disappointments the final games hold, Brendan Rodgers and his team have proven themselves to be resilient and trustworthy whilst also playing the most attractive football in the top flight.

In his own way, Jordan Henderson has been every bit as vital to the team's league position as the more obvious likes of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. The young England man has added a consistency and a pleasing craft to his unparalleled industry. The Sunderland native has overcome the ill-judged disparagement of both the media and his own club's fans to emerge as so much more than the workhorse he has been unimaginatively branded. Anyone who has seen Henderson captain and anchor the England Under 21 midfield over the last few years will not be in any way surprised by his form this campaign but one-by-one his detractors and doubters are being silenced by his relentless excellence.

Henderson himself is clearly revelling in his position as one of the first names on Rodgers' team sheet. Indeed his enthusiasm is amongst his most endearing attributes. Only a wilfully miserable sort of curmudgeon could fail to have been forced into a smile by the midfielder's high-tempo pressing, crisp incisive passing and joyously celebratory skipping. He is, however, quick to modestly deflect the praise and credit the manager for his development as a footballer.

"I think I've improved tactically and the manager has helped me do that," the hair-product fancier insisted. "He's really helped channel my energy into the right direction and focus on certain things. It's really helped. I've always been pretty fit and wanting to close and chase down, but it's about using that in the right way. I feel as though in the past maybe I haven't used it how I should have. It's no good just running all over the shop and being out of position, which maybe a few years ago, when I look back, I was probably doing that. That's just enthusiasm, energy and wanting to do the right things."

There was a time when, in the opinion of this scribbler, Henderson was cowed by the presence of the footballing deity that is Steven Gerrard, alongside him. The tonsorially splendid youngster is not the first to have displayed such stagefright but lately he is dovetailing nicely with his England captain and the younger man has emerged as one of the most vocal members of the team, not averse to remonstrating with any teammate he feels is slacking.

Gerrard himself, has developed as a captain over the last couple of seasons and he will need every scintilla of the guile and game intelligence he possesses if he is to navigate the next few games and not pick up a yellow card and a two game suspension. His manager has faith in the club legend to get as far as the April 13th cut-off without sanction from a referee. Having gotten just two yellows in the first 21 Premier League games, Gerrard has amassed seven in the last ten, but Rodgers is confident that his captain can get through the games to come.

"We just have to cope with the situation," the Carnlough man insisted. "I have spoken to him about it and we just have to be that extra bit careful. I think he has been very unlucky. His last two bookings have been unlucky. The one against Manchester United should never have been a booking. He won a header that was very difficult to win and he was unfortunate against Cardiff at the weekend because he committed a foul which also should not have been a booking. We didn't help him because we gave away the ball so cheaply. He has been unfortunate. It's a role he can play and he will find a way, I'm sure. He just has to be a bit more cautious but he is clever enough to get through that."

Clever. That's damn right. If Henderson, Gerrard et al perform with intelligence allied to the brio and finesse they have displayed all season, the superstitious amongst us can happily look forward to the blissful torture of ensuring all our rituals are observed but with the peace of mind that the team will likely perform well regardless. For, whilst the result is clearly determined by the socks you choose or the seat in which you sit it also helps when you've got smart footballers making the smart move on the pitch.