Having touched odds-on at the start of this campaign after a cracking 2013/14 season, one win in four Premier League games has seen Liverpool’s top-four challenge flail somewhat, although one Reds regular’s form is actually improving.
Brendan Rodgers’ side are 11/10 fifth-favourites to retain their Champions League status through the top-flight this term, but with a raft of new players struggling to knit together at Anfield, and big gaps still apparent in the team, those odds seem a bit skinny at present.
There are numerous reasons for the Merseysiders’ relative demise, with the loss of Luis Suarez, scorer of 31 league goals last season, to Barcelona, and Daniel Sturridge, who put another 21 on the board, to injury since the last international break, both crushing blows.
However, while replacing the world-class Uruguayan was always going to prove impossible, Liverpool’s problems have clearly been exacerbated by the lack of support in midfield afforded to Jordan Henderson.
The ex-Sunderland man’s three-match suspension at the end of last term, after being sent off late on in his side’s dramatic win against Manchester City, was seen as a turning point in Liverpool’s fortunes by many Koppites.
After a run of ten Premier League wins in a row, with Henderson in the side for all 900 minutes, Rodgers’ men scraped a nervy 3-2 victory at Norwich before Steven Gerrard’s now-famous slip in the 2-0 Anfield loss against Chelsea.
The final nail in the coffin came in the form of a 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace, with the title practically gone to City by the time Henderson made it back for a 2-1 triumph at home to Newcastle.
The same scoreline in this season’s opener at home to Southampton meant the 24-year-old was ever present for 12 Premier League wins on the spin, which must be a record of sorts.
It’s clear that the all-action England international’s contribution to Liverpool’s 2013/14 cause, when they finished a highly-creditable second, was crucial, but by a number of metrics he’s actually performing better this term for a team that currently lie ninth.
Against the Saints, Henderson supplied a very early contender for pass of the season when deftly splitting Ronald Koeman’s defence, which has gone on to concede just thrice more in the league since that fixture, for Raheem Sterling to finish after 23 minutes.
Having laid on seven top-flight assists over the entirety of the last campaign, the former Black Cats favourite has set up three goals with less than a quarter of this season down.
This increase in creative productivity hasn’t affected other facets of Henderson’s game one iota, with a near-identical 87 percent pass rate to last term logged so far, plus a much better shot accuracy record of 60 per cent, in relation to 42 per cent during 2013/14.*
He’s winning a higher proportion of tackles and headers, pinging the ball around practically the same length on average, with his first Premier League goal of the season, which saw off West Brom last time out, coming two-and-a-half months earlier than last term.
The stats say Henderson is in no way culpable for Liverpool’s super-sluggish start to the season, while Roy Hodgson’s England midfield has also become ultra-dependent on the Reds star, particularly since the summer retirements of Gerrard and Frank Lampard.
With that in mind, and after being made vice-captain by Rodgers in September, the time for Henderson to take even more responsibility on Merseyside looks to be now.
When Joe Allen and Emre Can return from injury later this month, which the pair’s respective fitness records so far in their careers suggests they will, there’ll be no room for captain Gerrard in Rodgers’ team.
The iconic Scouser, who has bagged 176 goals for his boyhood club, is not and never will be the midfield anchorman Liverpool crave, in spite of his ability to launch a pinpoint 60-yard pass, which has been negated by the likes of West Ham’s Stewart Downing already this term.
Calling time on the 34-year-old’s career is obviously a delicate issue for his Northern Irish gaffer to face, but it’s becoming ever more apparent that the Reds won’t progress with Gerrard still in the side.
They got away with it last season, largely thanks to Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling’s triple-threat of pace and precision, despite conceding more goals than six of the Premier League’s final top eight.
The disconnect between Liverpool’s midfield and their defence, which has been furnished with three new starters, is now even wider; one clean sheet in ten 2014/15 fixtures so far points says as much.
With three midfield positions set to be fought out between Henderson, Allen, Can, Gerrard, Lucas Leiva and possibly Phillipe Coutinho in the coming months, it’s easy to imagine the elder statesman of that sextet featuring in a mere cameo role as the campaign draws on.
That would make Henderson the de facto captain of Liverpool, on the pitch at least, barely three years after being derided when first arriving at Anfield as a waste of £17m.
Indeed, Rodgers was willing to recoup that fee from Fulham back in 2012, when a player the Reds gaffer now refers to as a ‘stalwart’ was not seen to be part of the long-term Liverpool plan.
Henderson’s performance in the victory over West Brom, which halted a run of six hapless all-competition games for his side, of which they won just one, could provide a successful framework for Rodgers as the season goes on.
After laying on Adam Lallana’s opener on the stroke of half-time, Henderson dug deep to find a winner around the hour mark following Saido Berahino’s equaliser from the penalty spot minutes earlier.
He ended the match by castigating his skipper for not keeping the ball in the corner. Gerrard signalled his apology.
With a new and improved contract thought to be in the offing at Liverpool, who pulled off a quiet coup recently when cajoling striker Sturridge into putting pen to paper on a new deal, expect to see plenty of Henderson bossing around his fellow Reds in the coming years.
*Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com and Squawka.com