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Everything’s the Best: From the Center of the Park

Liverpool rolled to another big victory and the midfield - led by Jordan Henderson - is finally getting its due.

Liverpool FC v Southampton FC - Premier League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

One of my least favorite things about sports is rival fandom. While I enjoy a back-and-forth with friends in good spirits, I am not one to go trolling other fans when they talk smack about my favorite teams. It’s just not something I find enjoyable - especially when I consider the incredibly personal, embarrassingly personal, even, connections I have with the teams I support.

Generally, my response when someone’s having a go at my squad is to just let it go or deflect with some good-natured thing about the team they support. Look, there’s lots in this world worth fighting over, do I really want to go round for round with someone about making the decision to root for Everton or Manchester United or Manchester City or Tottenham? No. I’d rather use that time and energy to corral my incredibly adorable daughter from things that might injure her or just do dance whenever her favorite songs pop up on a viewing of Mulan (this really happened).

So, yeah, I generally see banter and roll my eyes and keep it moving. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a few pundits and analysts that I greatly respect suddenly starting to take a few unwarranted shots at Liverpool. They’ll remain nameless because, ultimately, their identity isn’t that important, but the amount of shock I had at reading their takes was met with the wisdom of one of our own - ELiz - in words that I continue to chuckle over: “Liverpool being good has really scrambled the brains of some people.”

It’s true. It’s everywhere. Whether it be on a national call-in show on the BBC, or on Twitter, the veracity with which people are contorting themselves to try and find devious explanations for why Liverpool are good at this whole footballing thing is pretty wild. I mean, apparently #taintedtitle is a thing and not, you know, some sophomoric joke.

One of the things that really got me turned around was the bait-y assertion by one of those aforementioned pundits who off-handedly snarked at the idea of Jordan Henderson being listed among the best midfielders in the world. Especially because, based on a running analysis he’d been peddling, Liverpool’s midfield was a rather forgettable lot.

Now, to be fair, that analysis wasn’t wholly without merit. First, the start to the season showed a Liverpool midfield that looked to be sinking into new roles and hadn’t quite figured things out yet. As the season progressed, it became clear that there were some tactical flourishes, not the least of which was asking the fullbacks - and Trent Alexander-Arnold especially - to carry the load on the creative front, with the midfield being used more as a disruptor and recycler unit.

Which, I think, is when this person first fell in love with the analysis. The thing was, it was always incomplete: it’s become clearer that Liverpool sought to build a more solid defensive shape early in the season so that they could roll out varied tactical adjustments moving forward. Liverpool fans would know, of course, the quality of the people manning the middle of the park.

Folks like Naby Keita, Gini Wijnaldum, Fabinho, James Milner, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Quality players that all manage to fill different roles and provide different nuances to Liverpool’s overall gameplay. But it’s clear that they weren’t all clicking early on.

Part of that was tactical, but also another was the rash of injuries, especially to Keita and AOC. Seeing them in the lineup over the past three months showed what their unique skillsets could mean to a club that was missing a creator in the middle of the park.

But I chafed especially over the little dig from that analyst because it singled out Jordan Henderson. Or, at least, Hendo was the representative that brought out that little barb. And the thing of it is that the captain is such a valuable player to Liverpool.

I know that we’re part of the Jordan Henderson Appreciation Society here at TLO, but it should go without saying that Hendo’s always been a player whose qualities have been a bit understated. A nearly metronomic ability to recycle possession, often on one-time passes, is sometimes hard to appreciate. He’s not a ball-carrier and he does a lot of his best work on the defensive side of things. He seems to get on by his grit more than anything.

But this weekend’s match reminded everyone exactly what he’s got in his locker. Often played out of his preferred role as a shuttler/box-to-box mid, Hendo has shown superb tactical flexibility. On the weekend, he was seen on the pointy end of attack, trading off on forays forward with AOC.

Hendo rewarded everyone’s faith with a goal after a beautiful interchange with Roberto Firmino and an absolutely exquisite assist to Mohamed Salah. He also provided his expected level of leadership and intensity.

There was lots to say about Liverpool’s performance against Southampton, but the thing I took away was how it would be impossible to look at that performance and downgrade our midfield. So much good was done by them and, thankfully, they notched the type of product that ends up on the scoresheet.

Maybe Liverpool doing amazing things is going to continue to leave everyone else’s brains scrambled as they try to understand how. But not me. I’m just gonna soak up this group of Reds and how utterly likable they are. How they all work for the singular goal of winning each match. And how, nearly every single time out this season, they’ve done precisely that.

We’re watching a masterpiece being fashioned in front of us. Maybe this is what it’s like to see the Mona Lisa up close.

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