Even before joining Liverpool, Jordan Henderson had kicked up a major positional debate. His potential was never a point of concern, especially after he was listed among 13 young players to watch out for, from around the globe on the FIFA website. The point of contention was whether Henderson was being bought as a right winger or as a future central midfielder – ‘the next Steven Gerrard’, they said!
Four months into the season and Kenny Dalglish’s act of persisting with Henderson on the right flank has put an end to one debate, but fueled another one – whether Henderson is good enough to play on the right wing? The answer is pretty clear now and is a resounding ‘no’. The perplexing thing is that the answer should always have been clear before the start of the season, judging by Henderson’s last season as a Sunderland player. And as games go by, the damaging realization that Dalglish’s squad – even after splashing millions – is in desperate need of a right winger and a striker, engulfs the red half of Liverpool.
Apart from the fact that he is being played out of position, another explanation of his mediocre performances lie in the transition from a smaller club to a bigger club. However, the primary cause of trouble due to this transition is not the pressures that come from playing for Liverpool, but the difference in tactical expectations from a right winger at the two clubs that will be shown later in the article.
Although Liverpool supporters all over social networks were divided in their opinions on Henderson’s ability to play on the right side of midfield, there seemed to be an air of relief when (apparent) ‘Sunderland sources’ claimed he was better on the wing than in the centre of midfield; and was only played in the centre by Steve Bruce in the absence of captain Lee Cattermole. But this was far from the truth and Henderson, without any fault of his own, is being exposed to criticism at Liverpool.
Central Midfielder – Sunderland 2010/11
In his last season at Sunderland, the midfielder started 27 games (out of 36) in the centre of midfield, including a couple of games on the right side of an attacking midfield trio in a 4-2-3-1 formation – which required him to be more central than a typical winger. In 14 of Sunderland’s first 15 Premier League games of the season 2010/11, Henderson started in a central midfield role; the only exception being at White Hart Lane, when he was given the duty of keeping Gareth Bale in check.
Till Henderson was identified as Sunderland’s best option as a right-winger, he was the mainstay of the central midfield. He formed partnerships in the centre with several partners like Lee Cattermole, Cristian Riveros, David Meyler, Steed Malbranque and Kieron Richardson. Later, he was identified as Sunderland’s best option for right wing; but not the best option for the midfielder himself a la Gerrard’s stint on the right at Liverpool.
Now, let us take a look at the ‘heat maps’ (the darker the circles, more touches in that sector) of a selection of Sunderland’s games from last season. Sunderland’s best results of the season came when Henderson was heavily involved in the heart of midfield. These matches also show a slight variation in Henderson’s central roles and duties.
Against Blackburn Rovers, Henderson registered 3 shots on goal – including hitting the crossbar – and had an assist to his name. He was influential all around the field in a very dominant, box-to-box performance. His energy and driving runs forward ran the Blackburn midfield ragged.
At Anfield, his defensive roles came to the fore and Sunderland were unlucky to come away with only a point. Henderson was instrumental in guarding the back-line and sweeping anything in and around their penalty box. He was also the key in dictating the tempo of the game and played a pivotal role in Sunderland’s attacks, eventually registering 3 shots on goal.
At Stamford Bridge, in Sunderland’s most famous of wins, Henderson’s role along with Cattermole was once again key to the success. As can be seen from the above heat map, his task was to maintain pressure up the field and keep Ashley Cole in-check by occasionally drifting out on Chelsea’s left flank. He did this by keeping it neat and tidy in Chelsea’s attacking half to curtail Cole’s attacking instincts. While he wasn’t a threat in the box, he set up many chances including providing Gyan with an inch-perfect assist from centre of midfield.
Right Winger – Sunderland 2010/11 vs. Liverpool 2011/12
Jordan Henderson was also deployed on the wings at Sunderland, just like he is being used at Liverpool. Steve Bruce utilized Henderson’s high energy levels, decent crossing ability, safe possession play and the ability to tuck in towards the centre when required. This made the Sunderland midfielder not only a threat on the flank, but also a threat in the middle by popping up in and around the box, and not being tracked. Sunderland did not require a typical winger to play in that position.
The above heat maps display Henderson’s task – and freedom of movement – on the right flank at Sunderland. He is not only heavily involved in the central regions of the attacking half, but is also a goal threat around the opposition’s penalty area. In fact, against Wigan, Henderson’s forays into the opposition penalty area resulted in him grabbing two goals from near centre of the penalty box. In this role for Sunderland, Jordan was much more of an attacking threat since he was relieved of his defensive duties. But the heat maps also show that Henderson would rarely end up near the by-line to put in a cross, preferring to drift inside.
However, to play as a right winger for a club of Liverpool’s stature is obviously a whole different job. For Liverpool, who would usually play against teams looking to stifle them by outnumbering and crowding out the midfield, a right winger’s job is to use the full width of the pitch and stretch teams as much as he can. This will only happen when a natural right winger plays in that position. Although Dirk Kuyt’s movement, intelligence and experience does a decent job of using the width, Liverpool have been crying out for a natural right winger for a long time.
In attempting to hug the touchline more often, Henderson has had to curb his natural instincts – which is to drift inside at will – and is expected to drive past the full-back and deliver crosses; something that doesn’t come naturally to him, resulting in his much-maligned high percentage of backward passes. It is not a surprise that his end product – and sometimes, his overall involvement – in a game from the right flank has been pretty poor.
The above heat map – from opening day draw against Sunderland – bring out the key problem in his time at Liverpool. Ideally, Henderson’s role for the Merseyside club should be more advanced than at his old club, considering that the Reds are a much more offensive side than Sunderland. However, the young midfielder seems virtually stuck on the right wing when Liverpool attack, neither moving forward with the ball nor towards the centre. His most advanced touch on the ball against Sunderland was pretty far from the penalty area or the by-line.
On top of this, in his desperation to get more involved in the centre, he was found out of position a number of times early in the second half, leaving former teammate Sessegnon a free run on Flanagan at right-back. Unlike his time at Sunderland, Liverpool didn’t have many men behind the ball to cover the situation.
Against Wolves, the situation was rectified to some extent with Henderson getting involved in a typical right winger’s position, deep into the left side of Wolves’ defense and getting touches in advanced forward positions. However, just like against Sunderland, he was least involved of all midfielders and also executed the least number of passes, but improved shots on goal and attempted crosses.
Now, let’s take a look at Henderson’s average position as a right winger to provide further evidence regarding the difference in his roles at the two clubs.
The three red dots on the wide right near the centre line in the above heat map are a better indicator of Henderson’s time at Liverpool. Most other red dots are distorted due to Henderson’s switching of flanks with Stewart Downing for long parts of the game. In general, you can see that Henderson’s right-wing play at Sunderland was more advanced and/or more central, thereby closely resembling his preferred position.
Best games for Liverpool thus far
However, Henderson’s two best league games thus far – at least, in terms of involvement if not end product – have been at the Emirates (playing as an AM) and against Bolton at Anfield (playing as a RW).
In London, as an attacking midfielder, although his end product was lacking, his movement and quick passing caused a lot of problems for Arsenal. An increase in the number and spread of circles (touches) in the above heat map indicate that Henderson was not only more involved in the game, but also had the freedom of movement. He registered the highest number of completed passes by a Liverpool player in the match.
In his cameo as a substitute against Manchester United at Anfield, he was once again seen in a similar role with almost devastating effect, but for David De Gea’s interventions.
Ironically, though, his best performance did come playing at right wing in Liverpool’s demolition of Bolton. However, this was only made possible because of Kenny Dalglish’s line-up of Suarez, Kuyt, Downing and Henderson – the most mobile and energetic players in the Liverpool squad. These four players popped up all over the place to run Bolton ragged in what was seen as the best performance in many years.
Due to Suarez and Kuyt’s sharp movement, Henderson could afford the freedom to drift into the centre (see the above heat map) – registering 3 shots on goal, including his first Liverpool goal. This is something he can’t afford when Andy Carroll is in the the team due to the big man’s lack of mobility. Quite bizarrely – and inexplicably – these four players have only started two games together for Liverpool this season. Is Carroll’s price tag affecting Dalglish?
Inferior numbers – Liverpool 2011/12
In terms of numbers when Henderson has played as a right winger (all other than games against United and Arsenal.), he can be shown lagging behind Downing, who plays in his preferred natural position.
First, he has not been putting in the required number of crosses – Henderson has put in a cross once every 35 minutes, compared to Downing’s cross every 17 minutes. Second, he has also lacked a goal threat from the wing, registering a shot on goal every 75 minutes, compared to Downing’s every 55 minutes.
And finally, even after arriving with a reputation of creating a truck load of chances from his last season at Sunderland, he is way behind in the ‘shot assists’ statistic with a shot assist every 87 minutes compared to Downing’s every 40 minutes. Worryingly, this is in comparison to Stewart Downing, who himself has been labeled a ‘disappointment’ thus far.
While Jordan Henderson is being criticized for his mediocre displays, the truth is that he is a central midfielder stuck on the right wing. Blaming Kenny Dalglish is a fairly rare occurrence at Anfield but if the Liverpool legend voluntarily took a ‘right winger’ off his shopping list due to Henderson’s presence at the club, he has made a massive error in judgment.
The Scottish manager faces a problem adjusting Henderson elsewhere though, since he is still a ‘work-in-progress’. His passing range doesn’t suggest that he could partner Lucas in the centre and suggestions of replacing Lucas to partner Adam can be discarded due to his lack of tackling ability – against Wolves, Kuyt made more tackles in 18 minutes than Henderson did in 72 mins.
Dalglish can either dip into the January transfer market to find a quick fix for his right wing, or he can be justifiably brave and bench Carroll to deploy the same devastating front-line that dominated Bolton and Stoke in consecutive games but was never seen again. Alternatively, he can revert back to Kuyt as first choice on the right flank.
If he does not, Liverpool run the risk of transforming Henderson into another Kuyt – a man who has lost much of his primary position instincts – and perhaps, damaging his career. He was always one for the future and due to Liverpool’s squad inadequacies, we are fast forgetting that.