“If He Was Brazilian” – In Defence of Jordan Henderson

If Jordan Henderson’s surname was Hendrao or Hendrinho, every forward pass would have been memorable and the perception would have been different. He would have been looked at differently than a boring English midfielder, because he’s metamorphosed to much more than that.
"If He Was Brazilian" - In Defence of Jordan Henderson
If he was Brazilian. Art by Onkar Shirsekar.

As Jordan Henderson stepped up to the penalty spot for England against Columbia, supporters in vibrant yellow kits weren’t the only ones hoping he might fail.

English supporters of Manchester United, Everton, and, weirdly, Tottenham and Manchester City fans wouldn’t mind a Henderson miss in an England victory to fuel the narrative slandering the Liverpool captain.

Henderson would have known this on his long, lonely walk from midfield in front of millions worldwide, while alone with his thoughts. He had the weight of a nation on his shoulders; years and years of penalty-related ignominy, poetically personified by his manager Gareth Southgate, standing on the sideline with the burden of missing the crucial penalty in Euro ‘96.

The camera zoomed in on Henderson’s face from the side, giving viewers the perfect view of his fresh skin-tight fade as he set the ball down 12 yards from David Ospina. He looked the same as he always does; the rare player who feeds on the emotional, visceral side of the game so well yet knowing when to let those feelings bubble to his face.

With a confident run up, Henderson blasted the ball with his instep to Ospina’s left, destined for the corner. Ospina beat him there and pushed the ball away.

It turned out to be a nifty microcosm for the criticism he faced, then overcame, at Liverpool and is fighting to overcome with England. They’d say it’s “too predictable” or “bland”, the fact that he opened his foot and took the safer option rather than blasting it towards a top corner with his laces.

Henderson, dejected, begun the seemingly longer and lonelier walk back to his teammates at midfield. He’d rejoin them arm-in-arm, hoping desperately the rest of the takers would compensate for his miss and Jordan Pickford to make a save or two against Columbia.

England, as we know, would kick away years of heartbreak, misery and self-deprecation as they outlasted Columbia based in no small part to Henderson’s fiercest club rivals: Everton’s Jordan Pickford made a brilliant save and England converted the rest of their spotkicks through three Spurs and a Red Devil.

Henderson, true to form, effusively thanked his teammates after the match for picking him up. Henderson, true to form, leaned on his unbreakable mental fortitude from the moment his penalty didn’t strike the back of the net. Henderson, true to form, went out of his way to have a handshake and a pat on the back with devastated Columbia star James Rodriguez.

Yet, still, he is still on the receiving end of baseless criticism as England progress. The lynchpin of Southgate’s tactical enterprise, Henderson gets no credit for single-handedly stifling Columbia’s threat in front of England’s centerbacks.

Will Henderson ever be properly appreciated? Probably not.

First impressions are meant to be natural, and adaptable, but they can harden into a self-fulfilling prophecy. We begin to see what we thought we were going to see. Our eyes search to confirm what our brain first assumed, because we don’t like to be wrong.

The first impression of Jordan Henderson, to a majority of fans, is that he is an average, drab midfielder. A large portion of that first impression is to assume he is in a committed, monogamous relationship with sideways passes and wouldn’t dare flirt with the dangerous ball forward. They think about him more as the 22-year-old that arrived at Liverpool, the one that Brendan Rodgers deemed surplus to requirements and figured it’d be more advantageous to have American Clint Dempsey on the squad, than the evolved 28-year-old he is today.

If his surname was Hendrao or Hendrinho, every forward pass would have been memorable and the perception would have been different. He would have been looked at differently than a boring English midfielder, because he’s metamorphosed to much more than that.

Henderson has changed, but largely the perception hasn’t kept up with the system updates. When you don’t score many goals or create easily-digestible highlights for social media, it’s most difficult to break a first impression.

Art by Onkar Shirsekar.

First off, the 22-year-old Henderson who arrived on Merseyside was painfully ignorant to the wonders of a medium-fade on the sides of his cranium and how to correctly manicure a beard. Even if he grew into the unfair perception of his sideway passing, the aesthetics would look much better these days than they used to.

More importantly, he learned how to be the most vital piece for both Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Gareth Southgate’s England at the base of the midfield as a single pivot. That is one of the most difficult roles in world football, especially so when he’s got the Liverbird on his chest with Klopp’s impetus on front-foot football.

We also habitually underestimate the indispensable role context plays in every scenario. Henderson’s post for club and country is context.

His proper duty is to clean up all the unglamorous tasks that helped allow Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to enjoy the breakout season every Arsenal supporter has been expecting for half a decade and has helped allow the likes of Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard to operate with more creative freedom than one can possibly imagine on Russian soil.

For those who have entrenched themselves deeper and deeper into their anorcharistic view of Henderson, they are prepared to die on this hill. No use of stats, like, the fact that he averaged 48 forward passes, 0.82 key passes, 0.86 chances created per 90 minutes, nor logic, like the eye test and how he has not lost in his last 28 appearances for England (22 wins, 6 draws) will matter.

We don’t like to be wrong, right? That would render their first impressions, and further doubling down, then tripling down, etc., invariably incorrect.

“Please, convey the message;” Klopp pleaded with reporters after Liverpool beat Huddersfield 3-0 at the end of January in 2018. “’Jordan Henderson is a very good footballer’. He’s an England national team player and our skipper. If somebody doesn’t see his value, what can I do? Do you think after what I said now, that they will see his value? I’m not sure. I’m very happy that he’s back, you can write that!”

The plague of widespread underappreciation is a virus Henderson is familiar with, one that those nearest him understand he genuinely doesn’t care about. He’s more concerned with winning the respect of his managers and teammates. And that’s it.

Evident by captaining Liverpool and given so much responsibility for England, Henderson has done just that. Given how often Klopp has spoken highly of Henderson there’s no surprise at the club level, but with country, the context makes it even more impressive.

It has been pointed out by those with an eye for details, how he is directly selected over Tottenham midfielder Eric Dier, someone who has more familiarity playing with current teammates Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose and former teammate Kyle Walker. That’s quality, and that’s context.

An anonymous Liverpool staffer was also quoted by the media saying: “Jordan Henderson doesn’t play to get headlines, he does what is best for the team rather than himself.” That truism shouldn’t need verbalizing because his selflessness leaps off the pitch and caresses you in your living room, bedroom, pub or any other preferred viewing experience.

Henderson is cut from the old-fashioned cloth of midfield gentleman generals, yet has been taught by Jurgen’s School for the Modern Midfielder. He’s dynamic, able to contribute to an attack while providing cover to the defense.

He is always near the top of the leaders in ground covered. The non-scientific eye-test can easily testify on its behalf, before the stats confirm that testimony. Henderson has covered 45.1 kilometers (28.02 miles) in 385 minutes on the pitch during the World Cup, per The Guardian’s Dominic Fifield.

“It’s important everyone knows their roles individually and collectively as a group, and the lads have bought into what he wants,” Henderson said, via Fifield. “I’m fortunate enough to have that at Liverpool, too, with Jürgen Klopp who, for me, is one of the best managers in the world. He’s helped me progress as a player and I’ve tried to bring that here.”

Henderson’s role is to run like a maniac and continue to sweep up the tasks we all fail to notice. Case in point, both for manic and sweeping tasks, is Henderson thriving throughout chaos.

He blocks what appears to be a goalbound rebound; his only option to continue to defend is to tumble-roll towards the loose ball, so he does that. He gets up and starts running again, chasing one Swedish attacker. Then he chases another Swedish attacker, getting stronger as he knows he’s so close to winning the ball back, hoofs a clearance, begins celebrating like a maniac.

That’s just one facet of the Jordan Henderson experience.

After England’s win against Columbia, Henderson continued his ever-professional, ever-likeable habits. He continued to heap effusive praise on penalty-hero Pickford as well as the rest of his teammates.

“I just thanked [Pickford]. I can’t thank him enough. I’m forever in his debt,” Henderson told Liverpool’s official website “He deserves all the praise. He got a bit of criticism last week, undeservedly, so I am so happy for him to achieve that. He made some fantastic saves in the game.”

He also ‘apologized’ to the fans, as if he wasn’t as instrumental as anyone on the pitch for 120 minutes in England’s triumph.

“I apologise to everyone back home, to anybody who skipped a heartbeat!” Henderson said after the match.

Then, two days later, after the country and world digested England finally winning a penalty shootout, Henderson flashed that unbreakable mentality. He wants to take another penalty if given the opportunity.

“It wouldn’t put me off taking another but it might put Gareth off,”  I’d take another one but obviously it’s down to the manager. I would understand if he chose someone else,” Henderson told Liverpool’s official website

That’s what he’s all about, that’s why he captained Liverpool Football Club to a Champions League Final and why he’s an irreplaceable cog in the England machine that made a run deep in the World Cup.

To all of the Jordan Henderson critics and nonbelievers who won’t allow facts to alter hardened, incorrect opinions, I offer you my sincerest luck in executing whatever arduous mental gymnastics you’ll need to continue to support your flawed anti-Henderson narrative.


Tom Bogert

A fan of repetitive disappointment and frustration, I hold Liverpool and the New York Red Bulls near and dear to my heart.