Throughout his footballing career, Jordan Henderson has been a divisive figure. Demonstrating his clear potential with Sunderland and the England Under-21s, he has struggled to replicate on bigger stages for Liverpool and the senior England team respectively.
The 26-year-old has enjoyed plenty of success since moving to Anfield in 2011, particularly under manager Brendan Rodgers, when his energy and athleticism were key in an attacking team full of stars, including Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling.
All Liverpool fans will remember the club’s emotional 3-2 victory over Manchester City at Anfield, but not as many will recall the significance of the final few minutes. Alongside Martin Skrtel’s risky but ultimately successful defending, Henderson received a red card for fouling Samir Nasri.
Liverpool may have gone on to win the match, but Henderson’s absence was immediately felt, as Rodgers’ side only just scraped past Norwich City before the turbulent fall arrived against Chelsea and Crystal Palace. Had Henderson been available for those final few games of the title run-in, Liverpool may well have won their first league title for 24 years.
Therefore, in that case, Henderson and Liverpool won the battle and lost the war, and the club never recovered from that under Rodgers.
In contrast, Henderson continued to improve, and enjoyed an excellent 2014/15 campaign, resulting in his ascension to Liverpool captain with the departure of Steven Gerrard.
At the time, Henderson was a good choice, albeit with little else to choose from in the squad for Rodgers.
Yet, once captain, Henderson’s Liverpool career went sour, with injuries severely disrupting his 2015/16 season, which also saw a change in management.
Jürgen Klopp undoubtedly did not get to see the best of Henderson last season, and with Emre Can finishing the campaign strongly, plus the arrival of Georginio Wijnaldum, many feared for the skipper’s future at the club.
At this point, it would have been understandable for Henderson to have doubts over the direction of his footballing career, which had, on the whole, been on a constant upward trajectory since his early Sunderland days.
Yet his impact at international level for England had been minimal, and he was clearly not fit for Euro 2016. Meanwhile, Henderson was struggling to even make the pitch for Klopp, and whenever he did feature, the confidence of the previous two seasons was clearly missing.
However, Henderson is not captain of Liverpool without reason. Replacing Gerrard may be a titanic task, one that no-one at Liverpool could replicate, and Henderson is unlikely to reach Gerrard’s level, yet his commitment and character is without question.
Influential Henderson getting back to his best
Coupled with a manager who clearly displays as much faith in him as Rodgers, Henderson has rebuilt himself this season, now as a defensive midfielder. It may be a shift from a more advanced role, yet he has licence to roam forward at times in a box-to-box fashion, and he still provides the balanced alternative in an ultra-offensive side, as he did in the 2014 title challenging side under Rodgers.
This time, he has Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana ahead of him, though Coutinho and Sturridge also remain.
Initially, Henderson appeared ill-equipped to play as the deepest midfield for the Reds, struggling in the 4-3 win over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, but, as you would expect from the Wearside man, he has continued to learn and evolve in such a short length of time.
Klopp has become skilled at moving players into new positions with immediate, and successful, results, as he has also shown this season with Lallana and James Milner. Now, not only is Henderson impressing for Klopp’s Reds, but he is beginning to transfer that form onto the international stage.
Although it was only against Malta, Henderson delivered a commanding display at Wembley Stadium recently, playing in his new club position, and he deserved the Man of the Match award.
Perhaps more tellingly, England are set to drop Wayne Rooney for their World Cup qualifier against Slovenia, with Rooney being the subject of much debate at both club and international level.
On Saturday, the England captain played alongside Henderson in midfield, and was extremely poor, and Henderson justifiably keeps his place over the 30-year-old.
Henderson’s importance in that England midfield is immediate and indicative of the progress he has made towards playing his best football once again. Not only would such a decision have raised eyebrows even six months ago (when Rooney was beginning to move into midfield), but few Liverpool fans would have started Henderson ahead of Emre Can at the beginning of the campaign.
Had Can been fully fit against Arsenal, Klopp’s decision would have been more interesting, but Henderson has fully deserved the confidence shown towards him by Klopp and England.
With England’s lack of leadership, Henderson is now even being discussed as Rooney’s successor for the England armband, such has been his meteoric resurgence these last couple of months.
Henderson is now excelling both as a player and a captain, and if he maintains this form and authority then he will remain an incredibly important and influential player for years to come – for both club and country.