England's journey through Russia is over. For once, everyone involved has emerged unscathed; to a man, Gareth Southgate and his 23-man squad come away with credit in the bank despite ultimately being unable to bring it home.
Questions can be asked over the missed opportunity to make the final, but now the World Cup is over, reflections can begin on a campaign that saw England make the final four, and the looking ahead to the new season of club football, which kicks off in a month’s time, can begin.
Along with Kieran Trippier and Jordan Pickford, Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson was England's best player. Harry Kane has scored six goals to put himself in pole position Golden Boot, but four of those were from the penalty spot, and he was unable to get involved in the semi-final when it mattered.
Playing at the heart of the midfield, Henderson dictated the play and led the team as if he were the captain. Against Croatia, he was outnumbered in midfield and left to combat the threat of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, as well as Mario Mandzukic coming deep and Ivan Perisic coming inside, with little support until a minor hamstring issue forced him off, replaced by Eric Dier.
Prior to the tournament, Henderson was not popular among England fans, but that is no slight on them. In fact, there are a relatively vocal portion of Liverpool fans who watch him week in, week out, who remain unconvinced.
Opinions, even among Liverpool fans, could not be more split – he is either someone who can do no wrong or do no right; the truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in between.
What is undeniable is that in the space of six weeks, Henderson has captained Liverpool in the Champions League final and was crucial to England at the World Cup. That has not occurred by accident.
Jurgen Klopp, just like Brendan Rodgers and Kenny Dalglish before him, values him. Southgate is the latest in the long line of coaches to recognise his quality.
A captain’s role
With Fabinho arriving earlier in the transfer window from AS Monaco, many were quick to assume that meant the end of Henderson, but that could not be further from the truth.
Even if the aim was to replace him, Henderson has proven to be a fighter before. In 2012, Liverpool wanted to offload him to Fulham in order to seal the signing of Clint Dempsey, but he stuck around, dug his heels in and turned his Liverpool career around.
A heel injury has hampered him for months and continues to be monitored, and he has had to adjust to a new role at the base of the midfield having previously been effective as a more box-to-box player.
The criticism that is always aimed at Henderson, and even was at the beginning of the World Cup where he was justifiably selected ahead of Tottenham’s Dier, is that he plays too many sideways passes, and opts for the safe ball. That, quite simply, is a myth.
In Russia, Henderson played numerous raking cross-field passes to change the angle of an attack or set up a counter, while for Liverpool last season, the low ball from deep to set a forward through on goal was fairly regularly deployed (see Mo Salah’s goal at Wembley against Tottenham, or the pass into the Egyptian at Anfield against Stoke City which should have been converted).
At the World Cup, one Henderson pass led Rio Ferdinand to suggest had the name on the back of his shirt been Andrea Pirlo instead, we would be raving about it for weeks.
Of course, there are occasions when Henderson plays it safe. Some of those are misjudgements when he should have chosen something different, but others are simply admissions that a forward pass is not on, and therefore keeping possession is the best possible course of action.
If there is little movement in front of him, his job becomes moving the ball into a different position to open up a defence, and he is normally a good judge of that.
Dier showed how hard it is to play the role Henderson occupies with his below-par performances off the bench in Russia; often the positions Henderson picks up or the tackles and interceptions he makes go unnoticed because of how efficient and simple he makes them look.
Had his missed penalty against Colombia been the one to send England home, it would have been unjust. Thankfully, that cruel outcome was avoided with the magnificent Pickford coming to his rescue.
Until Croatia won on Wednesday night, Henderson had played 30 consecutive England matches without defeat, constituting the longest run any England player has ever managed. The winning goal last night came 12 minutes after he had been replaced.
That 30-game run included matches against the Netherlands in Amsterdam, Italy home and away, and a win over Germany in Berlin, as well as this World Cup. The last time Henderson featured in a defeat was at the last World Cup in Brazil, where England lost to Uruguay and crashed out in the group stage.
A crucial cog
Henderson’s England form proved that he is a good player. On the world stage, to add to the European stage he was on last season, he stepped up and showed next year he will still be crucial.
Fabinho will not form an entirely new midfield along with Naby Keita and Nabil Fekir or another attacking midfielder. Rotation is king for Klopp and all will be instrumental as Liverpool look to charge forward on multiple fronts.
Klopp has already hinted that Fabinho will need time to acclimatise and adjust to the Premier League’s physicality, and Henderson is not going to lie down and let the Brazilian take his spot without a fight regardless.
Shock reports from Spain last week suggested that Henderson is a target for Barcelona. There is no substance behind that, but it does show how much his stock has risen. Clickbait or otherwise, seeing his name linked with a move to the Spanish giants did not seem laughable.
In the Premier League last season, Henderson averaged 0.9 key passes per game, with an 84.4% passing accuracy overall (the same value he achieved against Tunisia, where he was lauded). He made an average of 77.2 passes per game.
For context, a player often deemed one of the best in the country in the same position, Fernandinho, posted similar numbers, slightly better in some areas and slightly worse in others. The Manchester City man played 0.6 key passes per game, had an overall accuracy of 90.1%, and made an average of 87.5 passes per game.
Now 28, he is in his prime. Henderson was exceptional last season in big matches such as against Manchester City and AS Roma in the Champions League, and Liverpool hope to be involved in games of a similar magnitude in the near future.
He might not be perfect, but Henderson will continue to play an important role for both club and country. A big season for him and Liverpool awaits.