Jordan Henderson Against the World – The Fallacy of Fan Opinions

Can a club hold the highest ambitions while being content with Jordan Henderson as captain? Spoiler alert: they can. Here’s Tom Bogert standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Liverpool skipper; busting myths with a sawed-off shotgun.
Jordan Henderson Against the World
Jordan Henderson Against the World. Illustration by Onkar Shirsekar.

Being captain of Liverpool Football Club is one of the most prestigious gigs in the world. It’s a job almost all kicking a ball around for money would fancy.

But, because life is about timing and relativity, nobody strives to have the armband at Liverpool in the immediate aftermath of Steven Gerrard. You want to be the-guy-who-is-after-that-guy.

And, if an odd number of fans speak on behalf of the majority, then you certainly want the duty after Jordan Henderson. To some, it’s such a low bar to clear that it is as if the next captain will be able to frolic about, time his skip just right to glide over Henderson.

Henderson has quickly climbed the power rankings for Scapegoat En Vogue When Things Go Wrong. Simon Mignolet has clutched the crown with white knuckles for a long time, though like Silicon Valley, it’s more an oligopoly than monopoly. He has shared it regularly with the likes of Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren, whichever body the spirit of a talented-yet-reckless central defender decides to take on. But Henderson had been a dark horse, always there but never the no. 1 fall guy.

Now, with Mingolet mercifully removed from the looming shadow of the Kop, read a bedtime story and tucked in on the bench with a blanket and a nightlight, Henderson seems to be the guy to blame when things go wrong.

But why?

The unwisdom of the masses

Twitter is a real-time extension of the happenings in the world, exhilarating and exhausting.

If Henderson has a bad game, it’s amplified ten-fold. When Liverpool draw Watford, Henderson’s uncreative face is the easiest to point at.

Henderson was heavily involved in Liverpool’s most frustrating run of the season, a stretch of ten games in the autumn. Outside, the leaves were peacefully drifting off trees and fluttering to the earth. But, in the simulation of reality that is our masochistic Liverpool-centric universe, you’d be excused to think the sky was crashing down, simultaneously burning those peaceful trees to ash.

The stretch lasted a month and 13 days but felt like an eternity when we were inside of it. It began with the 5-0 loss to Manchester City and ended with the 4-1 loss to Spurs. Liverpool won just twice, lost three and limped to an infuriating five draws. Across that ten-match sample, Henderson was involved in eight. One of the two he didn’t play was the 7-0 all-conquering tidal wave against Maribor.

It’s not exactly an unfair conclusion to deduce that the captain should be held culpable. And while he shouldn’t dodge the hail of criticism the team (rightly) received, correlation doesn’t always translate to causation. Football is fluid; too many factors went into that dip of form than just Henderson’s (alleged) infatuation with passing sideways.

In a convenient transition, anyone fancies some myth busting?

If you had to guess, right now, of the following midfielders, who has the highest averaged pass distance: N’Golo Kante, Fernandinho, Emre Can, Paul Pogba, Kevin de Bruyne or Henderson?

Well, because of the context as well as your skills in deduction, maybe you’d have guessed Henderson. Why else would that have been in there? Fair enough, you’re right: it is Henderson. His average pass length is 19.72 meters, which is two meters more than Pogba, Matic and Can.

In fact, for midfielders with at least 1400 Premier League minutes this season, Henderson is tied for second in average pass distance. Ahead of him is only Jonjo Shelvey. Somewhere in a Glasgow museum, Brendan Rodgers pats himself on the back.

Among contemporaries such as Pogba, Fernandinho, Kante and Matic, Henderson fits right in. The only player with more forward passes per 90 minutes is Fernandinho and Henderson is much closer to Pogba and Kante in chances created per 90 minutes than he is to Matic and Fernandinho.

Henderson’s hamartia is that he’s English by birth. Creativity is in short supply for English midfielders. His price tag was inflated and because there’s not an –inho at the end of his name, his highlights aren’t ready-made for the world of gifs and vines.

It’s a little like something called the fluency effect. The fluency effect is, essentially, if the information is difficult to assimilate, it has a negative impact on our opinion of the information itself. For instance, in the money world, sometimes a stock will outperform another for no reason other than it is easier to pronounce. It sounds silly, but more than enough studies have proved as much.

In our footballing world, it’s prevalent, too. It’s easy to tell how good Mohamed Salah is. He dribbles around players like dusty mannequins in a department store then rolls the ball into the bottom corner. You need not be an expert to arrive at the conclusion that Liverpool’s Egyptian King is half decent. That information is easy to assimilate.

But it’s less simple to quantify what Henderson does. The rate and success of his passes are each high but is overlooked by pessimists due to that (incorrect) perceived lack of forward passes. He runs incessantly which, at times, put fires out before they spark. And you’d never know he was why an opposition pass wasn’t picked forward. Or you’d never notice why his early switch gave Trent Alexander-Arnold the extra beat to find Roberto Firmino, who in turn has an extra second to time his pass to Salah correctly.

But the story of Henderson isn’t just limited to the pitch, but everything else he represents as captain of Liverpool Football Club.

Irrespective of differing opinions of Henderson within the white lines at Anfield Road, his symbolism to the club as captain is important. And, no, not because he’s a white, British face.

If you discount Jon Flanagan, (and considering his domestic abuse case, expiring contract and lack of first-team football I think it’s fair to discount Jon Flanagan) Henderson is Liverpool’s longest-serving player. Directly behind him used to be Philippe Coutinho (who?) and Daniel Sturridge, both left the club in January 2018 after joining in January 2013.

Henderson is a constant in a chaotic, unsuccessful, decade for Liverpool. The persistence is important. He was taken to the club by Kenny Dalglish in 2011, outlasted Rodgers and has been the senior figure during the Jurgen Klopp era. And if you consider his staying power, fitness permitting, he might outlast a zombie apocalypse or Twitter trolls.

Speaking of trolls.

From a bad gait to a gallop

Remember when Jordan Henderson trolled a David Brent impersonator, Liverpool’s American owners and a part-time rapper called Deuce?

In 2012, Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers (David Brent impersonator) had agreed to sell him to Fulham in exchange for Clint Dempsey (AKA Deuce). All it needed was Henderson’s approval, but he decided to fight for his place at Liverpool. What followed were events which begged for a Benny Hill soundtrack: tiny Fulham tugged at the pantaloons of the daddy FA and pointed fingers. Liverpool’s chairman Tom Werner, to escape transfer sanctions for tapping up, offered a personal written apology to Fulham owner Mohamed Fayed. The same Fulham owner who thought it would be a good idea to erect a statue of Michael Jackson outside their stadium (enter joke about how little boys often touch statues outside stadiums on their way in, but this one could have touched back).

While it’s easy in retrospect to know that Dempsey wasn’t of top four quality, it wasn’t at the time. No one assumed he was going to win the Golden Boot, but Tottenham ended up buying him.

Henderson was 22 years old at the time. Dempsey was 29. That went against Liverpool’s transfer policy since FSG took over (bar Rickie Lambert, of course).

Liverpool had to do a swap in the first place because they couldn’t pony up the cash to do a… £6.75m deal? It gets even funnier when considering Seattle Sounders of the MLS paid a little over £6m to bring him back to America the following summer.  

Henderson personifies Klopp’s ethos, minus the goals. He’s always on the front foot, running around, tackling, clapping, fixing his hair, regularly yelling “fuck off”. He’s the perfect combination.

But don’t take my word for it; take it from Kloppo himself.

“Please, convey the message;” Klopp pleaded with reporters after Liverpool beat Huddersfield 3-0 at the end of January. “’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!”

Klopp is borderline manic. It’s like talking to a flat-earther. When someone says the earth is flat, there’s no logic you can argue back with. For Klopp, he talks about Henderson as if it’s understood. But, to some, it’s not. And there’s no way to bridge that mental gap. Agree to disagree, but Klopp reckons those who disagree are severely wrong.

The 27-year-old also represents another important pillar that holds up the Klopp house: improvement. He’s come a long way since when he first arrived.

Jordan Henderson as a symbol

Henderson represents a transitional shift for me. I went from a child who fancied football to a delusionally obsessed supporter, as his transfer was the first time I fell in love with the transfer window. Because, when you’re a naïve early teen, you have the grandest notion of love and optimism. These days, the harsh elements of reality have eroded that optimism and replaced it with cynicism, but those days I didn’t know any better.

My first glimpse of Henderson was on a YouTube highlight reel. Forgive me for not having consumed much Sunderland football when I was 13, I’d like to believe I had better things to do. The highlight reel began as most do on YouTube: a screen with his name, light on the editorial proficiency with an electronic song timed in the foreground to reach a crescendo when the first highlight got good.

That highlight began with the most English of nutmegs, devoid of much deception or flair, more of a short pass through the defender’s legs, followed by a perfectly curled early cross from 20 yards outside of the 18-yard box.

I was hooked. Welcome to modern football and the internet.

This phenomenon would also lead me to believe that Connor Wickham was the heir apparent to Wayne Rooney’s throne and that an endless stack of mildly promising English midfielders would be the “next Steven Gerrard”, Henderson included. Oh, the magic persuasiveness of awkwardly cut YouTube videos when you didn’t know any better.

Those days, I believed every transfer would be forever. I would have assumed Henderson would still be at the club in 2018, but I would have also assumed that a 37-year-old Gerrard would still be ruling over the Premier League.

But, still, Henderson is a vessel for another question, rife with the philosophical gauge of future ambition.

As always for us football fans, we can’t just live in the moment. Everything has to mean something, and that something must be projected forward.

Here, at the four-point crossing of ambition, optimism, reality and delusion, stands Henderson. The street signs read “Captain” and “35 Games a Season” that point toward a trophy shop, barren in recent times though always has a vacant place in the centre for a Premier League trophy. Can Henderson really be the captain and every-week-starter for a team whose aspirations (should be) to win the league?

Some will say yes though many will say no. They’ll point to Pogba, Kante and Fernandinho in England, Sami Khedira, Sergio Busquets and Toni Kroos abroad. No, Henderson is not bona fide world class. Such a statement would be impossible to justify in any conversation that doesn’t take place inside a tavern.

But world-class isn’t what Klopp needs from Henderson.

World class can be delivered by Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mane ahead of him with Virgil Van Dijk behind him.

What Klopp needs is a reliable constant in the middle of the pitch. He won’t give you the easily-digestible-social-media-highlights like Pogba does, but he also won’t carelessly piss the ball away like Pogba. He’ll never create chances at the rate of Cesc Fabregas, but he won’t jog around with the general apathy towards sweating, either.

As typically is the case with truths, the answer lies somewhere between extremes. No, Henderson is not a reincarnation of Gerrard, but he’s also not Charlie Adam. There is a huge ocean of players between the pie-eating of Adam and trophy lifting of Gerrard. In there, Henderson is floating with the tide, closer to the Gerrard end of the current.

Jordan Henderson is the Liverpool captain, and if we weren’t too busy trying to solve problems that may or may exist, we’d be damn proud of that, because he’s damn proud to be wearing the armband, even if it is after Gerrard. And his aim is to make his act a difficult one for his successor to follow up.

Tom Bogert

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