For some, he was a divisive choice when first selected, and an injury-plagued 2015-16 certainly didn’t help his case. Now, heading into Jürgen Klopp’s first full season in charge, we got the staff of The Liverpool Offside together to answer the question: should Jordan Henderson be the man who captains Liverpool this year?
Energetic, all-running, box-to-box English midfielders, captains for Liverpool and wearers of numbers divisible by 2. To say that Henderson has had to bear the weight of expectation in directly succeeding Gerrard as captain would be an understatement. It could never be a reasonable ask to follow one of the club’s greatest ever players. But at the time, after losing Suarez and predictably finishing 6th-place the season prior, Henderson’s appointment before the 2015-16 campaign felt like the right choice. An above-average player for an above-average club
With the capture of one of the stars of Europe in Jurgen Klopp, however, I would venture that the trajectory of our expectations have changed and that the timeline for Liverpool’s return to the continental elite has significantly shortened. And there are traits and intangibles you want to see in the captain of an elite club: 1) you want him to be one of the best players in the squad, one of the first on the team sheet without sentiment, 2) a motivational influence, capable of putting the team on his back, be it through a heroic “captain’s performance” or simply as an inspirational leader, 3) a rock of a presence in times of turbulence, and 4) possess the ability to consistently dominate his segment of the park.
Barring some or even all of these intangibles, a captain may be a transcendent talent in the mode of Messi or Hazard for their respective countries. By this measure, I don’t believe Peak Hendo rates highly-enough as a player to merit the armband in the medium- to long-term. Because he lacks these intangibles in any discernable manner, we are forced to rate his suitability as a long-term captain as a function of how we rate him as a player. With another few seasons of seasoning, the candidacy of one or two other names in the squad who are in possession of more of these traits might be more suitable.
I’m a big fan of Henderson, and I firmly believe the 2013-14 title was lost not when Gerrard slipped, but when Hendo saw red. While a team cannot win without someone to nick a goal, nor without someone good between the sticks, the true space in which teams contest wins, draws, and losses is in the midfield. There is a reason Liverpool were able to summit Europe in 2005, and one need look no further than 2014-15 to see the problem created by sputtering midfield pistons.
Forced to carry Gerrard for long stretches of Brendan Rodgers’ last full season, Henderson wore himself into the ground performing the most sisyphean of tasks: covering ground for a club legend. I thought Henderson was a worthy heir to Gerrard’s throne when he received the armband, and I still believe the same. However, a worthy heir is not the same as The One. And for a club that imbues its heroes with otherworldly attributes, honorifics, and demigod status, Hendo is not the long-term answer, even if he deserves to start the season as Captain.
What is it we look for in a Captain? As Tito points out, skillfulness vis-a-vis your peers is important; an ability to demonstrate what you want from your teammates is, too; likewise, the respect of your teammates. Tactical nous doesn’t hurt, either. While Henderson is the typical renaissance man skills-wise (with perhaps a better aggregate category score than any other current Red) and the man of the moment, the long-term answer is Emre Can, at least provided he can hone his tactical nous.
Cards on the table, let me get this out of the way first: I love Jordan Henderson. I love him more than I love some family members. I don’t think I’ve made any secret of that fact. With that out of the way, I’ll be quick.
It was always going to be a thankless and difficult job following Steven Gerrard as captain of Liverpool. Henderson’s unfortunate, persistent injuries last season made the job that much more challenging. He had a long road to earning his place within the team—it took persistence, hard work, and confidence in his own abilities. To judge his performance as captain based on last season would be unfair. I think that he deserves one healthy season to try and prove himself before the armband gets handed off to someone else.
Like Lucas before him, many have a predisposition towards viewing Henderson in a negative light. He cost a lot and was more work rate than end product in his first season, and his arrival meant an end for Dirk Kuyt. Then you’ve got last season, where he was injured half the time and even when he played wasn’t anything like fully fit, and with that comes the comfort of recency bias for anyone inclined to see him as all hard work and no end product.
In 2013-14, though, he had a solid return: a goal or assist every 290 minutes. In 2014-15, he was a bright spot: a goal or assist every 215 minutes. That compares well to players like Ilkay Gundogan (g&a/300), Aaron Ramsey (g&a/284), Thiago Alcantara (g&a/231), and Ander Herrera (g&a/213) last season. All box-to-box players with end product. Henderson may not be a superstar who’s going to carry the team, but if he can get back to his 2014-15 form, on paper he’s at least a key Klopp-type player, one nailed on to start 40-50 games a season. That could well make him a solid, safe, long-term captain for Liverpool.
Even if it doesn’t work out that way, though, right now there’s simply not an obvious better choice. Can had a great end to 2015-16, but he’s young and his season started inconsistently. In defence, neither Sakho nor Lovren is guaranteed to start. Henderson has his shortcomings—and he’s not a generational talent—but there isn’t a viable alternative without their own question marks. So. Give it a year. Maybe Henderson rediscovers his form and people see a captain again. Or Can takes that next step. Or Sakho sets himself apart and plays 45 games. But whatever happens, 2017 is the time to make that decision.
It’s pretty clear how I feel about Jordan Henderson. We share a first name, after all, so we share a kinship. Kinda. Or at least I like to think so. Outside of our table here, I’m used to being surrounded by those who underestimate him, which is easy when you’re playing backup to a generation’s legend. And nothing is more disappointing than seeing him finally get the chance to prove himself away from the shadow of said legend and then watch that season marred with injuries—something he hadn’t really had happen before in his career.
This being said, I will always go to bat for him. I think there is no one better suited as captain. Now and in the future. Maybe Emre will come to that point, but he’s also 22 and has plenty of time. Hendo is 26 and looking to spend the rest of his career at Liverpool. He’s had successful winning streaks as vice captain and no one worked closer with Stevie and attempted to soak up everything he could like Hendo did. Plus, he hasn’t even hit his peak years yet. Imagine what he could do fit and with a manager like Klopp behind him, encouraging him and training him.
He’s also the most likely to work hardest to get back to the place he was in before his injury-laden season. Remember when Rodgers told him they could sell him to Fulham? That arguably started his evolution into the Hendo we know and love. That was the catalyst. Hendo is a guy who clearly doesn’t like being told he can’t do something, especially when it involves the game, and I have no doubt that he’ll get back to full fitness and back to the screaming, marauding Hendo—just as hungry and loyal as ever. Plus, when things have been so fluid and uncertain for a while, having Hendo as the figurehead for as long as possible is probably one of the best decisions Klopp and the club could make.
What qualifies a player to be captain? You don’t have to be the best on the team. You don’t have to have recorded the most whatevers. You don’t have to be the loudest. You don’t have to be the biggest, fastest, hardest. You don’t have to be anything, really, but—and I’m talking about real captains here, not a manager giving the armband to some mercenary to keep him in good spirits for a few months; I’m talking about a real captain the team respects, follows, looks to for inspiration if you wanna get poetic—you do have to be a natural leader. Someone who has something different. Something the other players know intuitively. Or feel. The strongest personality maybe. Or the best speaker. The truly fearless. Quiet but courageous. Someone who unites, somehow, at the right times.
Now, I find Jordan Henderson to be a totally reliable, hardworking player. I like that he’s vocal with the refs. I like that he runs and fights. He’s a tenacious player. He’s a good passer of the ball. Good recoverer of the ball. He also seems like one of the good ones, right? The ones who know how special their careers are and appreciate their fortune. I like to root for them; for him. But, I don’t know what Henderson is to his teammates. I don’t know what he is. Everybody knew what Stevie was. A living legend of Liverpool and the sport of football. But, Gerrard earned that position over time, through his attitude, his performances.
So Henderson still needs to become something more for me. And I’m happy to give him time to do whatever it is that means. I see myself watching Jordan Henderson grow. Watching on as his experiences of success and failure mature him as a player. What will he become? Ultimately, it depends on what he is to his fellow players. If he is their natural leader, he could be something great. And I’ll be happy if he rises to the top. But, it’s late and I’m getting sentimental. Who knows, tomorrow I might tell you I don’t give a butt who’s captain.
You actually moved me onto the fence, Matt. We all know the fence is a dangerous place to be, so I assume I’ll get pelted with eggs from both camps. So. Captain Hendo. When he was named as Stevie G’s successor, I was happy for him. Henderson came a long way from being an overpriced midfielder with lots of running and no end product who was frequently played out of position. After his fantastic two-year stretch from 2013 to the start of the 2015/16 season, he seemed like the natural choice to follow Gerrard’s legendary footsteps. Then there was the heel injury, the foot injury, and all sorts of nagging knocks the rest of the way. When he did play, he wasn’t the midfielder we so desperately needed.
Perhaps it is shortsighted, but from our vantage point in the present, there’s no guarantee that he can regain his form and consistency from just a year ago. We were insanely lucky to have Gerrard all those years: a genuine world-class talent, respected across football, and deeply committed to the club. We don’t have a similar world-class talent at the club today, nor someone with as much love for the club.
Henderson should definitely be given another season as captain, but if plantar fasciitis continues to limit his playing time and form, we’ll need to move on to a commanding, consistent, and vocal player on the pitch. My vote would be Mamadou Sakho. His decision to use fat-burners was questionable, but his handling of the suspension has been the definition of class and selflessness. He gives his all for Liverpool Country, and I’d like to see him wear the armband if this season resembles last for Jordo.
As someone who was happy to give Jordan Henderson a chance as captain under Rodgers when the former Sunderland midfielder was finally going to come out of the shadow, I’d be fine with giving him a chance under Jürgen Klopp. The Henderson I expected to see last season was a player coming into his own who would no longer be unburdened the presence of Steven Gerrard. What actually occurred was an underwhelming campaign mostly owing to injuries. Henderson is a player who leads through the example he sets and the professionalism he unerringly maintains. The 26-year-old midfielder should be given the opportunity to prove himself as Klopp’s head of a squad the manager is in the process of reconstructing.
There are, however, two players who could reasonably replace Henderson as captain. Mamadou Sakho is the first, and while the French defender is worryingly prone to injury, he possesses a compelling and charming air of leadership that Henderson simply lacks. He connects with the fans and is often a defensive, if not talismanic, beacon of hope. Still, not being available as regularly as the manager would like might exclude Sakho from the conversation. Then there’s Emre Can, a player who just has everything in terms of stature, presence, attitude, ability, and relentlessness. While Sakho is the same age as Henderson, Can is four years younger. And this could be the season the German midfielder takes over.
With links to the likes of Mahmoud Dahoud, Henderson’s position as a regular starter may be under threat soon, too. For now, though, Henderson should start as captain. The main task is to be free from injury and impress in the side; the rest will follow.