Amidst the milestones that fell when Mo Salah tucked away his penalty to take Liverpool to victory over Aston Villa and secure his 21st goal in his last 22 games, it’s interesting to take note of how the goal originated.
It was deep in the Villa half on the right side that Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jordan Henderson exchanged passes as John McGinn and Matt Targett tried to apply pressure near the byline. Henderson’s cutting ball forward allowed Salah to dart into the area and Tyrone Mings, scrambling back, made his only mistake of the afternoon and brought the Egyptian down.
That passing trio of Alexander-Arnold, Henderson and Salah instigated Liverpool’s breakthrough here and is becoming an increasingly potent trident. It has been evident in recent weeks, and throughout much of the season, that Liverpool’s right side is functioning slickly with its passing combinations often proving the undoing of opposition defences — as Villa discovered after more than an hour of hard graft.
Henderson's role change proving fruitful
On the day that a former Liverpool captain returned to Anfield in the visitors’ dugout, the current captain’s role in the encounter was the most striking. Henderson’s position in Jurgen Klopp’s side has frequently been on the right side of a midfield three with an overarching aim encompassing defence and attack. He has been more accustomed to staying deeper and lifting balls into opposition territory.
On Saturday, with Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi sidelined, and Diogo Jota on the substitutes bench, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was deployed as a false No 9 and it was noteworthy how Henderson at times partnered him at the pinnacle of Liverpool’s attack. Henderson is being given more and more license to station himself upfield and contribute to attacks.
“We are working on it, not only on the right side as we have similar things on the left side, plenty of top situations. It’s just the formation is slightly different on the left side: Thiago is not as high in the formation with Sadio [Mane] and Andy Robertson,” Klopp explained after the game.
“Jordan’s position on that side is pretty flexible, we just have to make sure that one of the three is protecting as well, but so long as we keep the ball it is all fine. His role has changed slightly for sure.”
Henderson’s involvement with Alexander-Arnold and Salah is bringing rewards. Not only does that instil fear into opposing left backs, with Alexander-Arnold capable of overlaps and pin-point deliveries, and Salah an existential threat when cutting in on his left foot, the outnumbering can also prove problematic.
There is no doubt that this has helped Salah start this campaign in such prolific fashion. He appears assured when running at opponents given his current goal tally and hugely impressive form, but knowing that he has support around him, when in the past that may have been lacking somewhat, must surely help him too. Against Villa, it was down the right that Liverpool mounted their most concerted goalscoring efforts.
Consistency allowing team to flurish
Yet, it is Henderson’s switch in emphasis that is most interesting. Already this season he has scored three goals and provided four assists in all competitions which signals his impact in more advanced areas. What’s more, his average shots per game (1.03) is the highest of his past six seasons, and his passes leading to a shot per game (1.64) has also doubled since last season and ranks higher than any of his previous seven campaigns.
Henderson has already created more ‘big chances’ (four) in the Premier League than last season (three) and his goals and assists per 90 minutes is greater than during Liverpool’s title-winning campaign. A collection of positional heatmaps also highlight that the Liverpool captain is playing higher and further right.
Having a settled defence, something which wasn’t afforded to Klopp last term, has allowed Liverpool’s midfield to also become more consistent in personnel which in turn has aided the team’s attacking. Liverpool have scored in each of their past 31 games.
The current potency of Klopp’s Liverpool is undeniable, particularly down the right, and Henderson’s role change has certainly contributed to that.