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As Jordan Henderson left the field in the 61st minute against Sunderland, Lucas Leiva would have been excused for breathing a sigh of relief. The heat is off, a new whipping boy is in town.
Henderson has received some harsh treatment on radio phone-ins, message boards and on Twitter since his first competitive hour in a Liverpool shirt.
In assessing whether this criticism is justified, the first place to look at is his distribution. His pass completion rate against Sunderland was 88%, the highest in the team. Here is where stats can be deceptive. Henderson only made 31 passes in the entire game. As a point of reference, Charlie Adam made 63. Of his 31 passes, just 8 were played forwards (24%). To use Adam as the reference point again, of his 56 passes 33 were played forwards (59%). This is a remarkable difference. The high pass completion rate emphasises where things went wrong for Henderson: he was so afraid of making a mistake that inertia set in.
His ineffectiveness with the ball proven, let’s look at how he performed when we were chasing the game. Henderson was involved in just 4 50-50s. In comparison, Adam was involved in 17. Adam won 47% of his possession duals whilst Henderson won none. This adds weight to the rants about Henderson being a bit frigid when it comes to getting stuck in. It would be great to see how Henderson performed in aerial duals, but he was not involved in any. The same goes for shooting: he had no shots on or off target. Tackling? One, and it was unsuccessful.
The verdict watching the match was that Henderson did not do a great deal against Sunderland. The verdict from the statistical analysis proves this point conclusively
Kenny Dalglish is the type of manager who will put his arms around the shoulder of a player who is struggling. He understands better than most the importance of confidence. Dropping Henderson after that display could have set him back months. It was no surprise, then, that Henderson got a chance to redeem himself against Arsenal.
An analysis of his first full game for Liverpool helps us understand whether Kenny was right to stick with Henderson despite his abysmal display against Sunderland.
Henderson made a total of 59 passes against Arsenal, double the amount he managed against Sunderland. Impressively, his pass completion was 90% and importantly 24 of his passes went forwards. The improvement here is exponential and shows that Henderson has the ability to understand his development areas and make positive changes. This is a very important attribute for a young player to possess.
Henderson’s all round display was better against Arsenal than it was against Sunderland. He created 2 chances, made 2 successful interceptions and even managed a shot on target.
However, Henderson still has a long way to go if he is to become the complete midfield powerhouse. He lost all 5 of the 50-50s he went in for, meaning that he now has a record of attempting 9 50-50 challenges and losing every single one of them.
He was not involved in any aerial duals meaning that, astonishingly, he is still to attempt to jump for a header against an opponent in a Liverpool shirt. He failed to make a single successful tackle in the entire match and was responsible for conceding 12 chances. Henderson again offered plenty of ammunition for those fans looking for a new whipping boy.
Against Bolton, Henderson started his third consecutive league game for Liverpool. To his credit, it was comfortably his best performance in a Liverpool shirt. It was a day of firsts for Henderson. He managed to break his “Aerial Duel” duck, attempting to jump for two balls and even successfully heading one. He also got stuck in a bit, contesting an impressive eight 50-50 battles and coming out on top in four of them.
Another first for Henderson was his goal. It was taken very well and offered us a glimpse of the player he could develop into. As well as his goal, he also created four goal scoring chances from open play. His performance was impressive but limited. He has a deft touch but no grit, more Lampard than Gerrard.
Liverpool followed up their excellent performances against Arsenal and Bolton with two poor defeats away from home. The first was against Stoke. Henderson’s stats for this game show that he failed to win a tackle, he lost all three of the 50-50s he went in for and he again failed to win an aerial duel. Back to square one.
Against Tottenham the whole team had a car crash of a performance. It was a game so farcical it is hardly worthy of an analysis. It is fair to say, though, that making one tackle in a whole match is not good enough for a midfield player. With two players sent off, we needed the rest of the team to work extra hard. Henderson’s one tackle suggests that he did not even do the job of one man, never mind doubling up for those who were red carded.
His sixth consecutive league game, making him an ever-present this season, came against Wolves. With only one good performance so far, Wolves at home was Henderson’s chance to prove to the fans why he is keeping Maxi, Bellamy and Kuyt out of the first team. A close look at this performance helps us to understand whether he is truly justifying his place in the first XI.
Passing is a key indicator of a good midfield performance. On the face of it, Henderson’s passing was decent yesterday. In the 72 minutes he was on the pitch he only attempted 25 passes, about one every three minutes, not exactly prolific. However, a total of 22 of them found their intended target, so one thing you cannot accuse Henderson of is being wasteful in possession. He was replaced by Dirk Kuyt, who made 9 passes in the 18 minutes he was on the pitch, which is one every two minutes. A 90% pass completion ratio shows that Kuyt, too, is very good at keeping possession.
A more in-depth look at the passing stats tells a different story. Only 28% of Henderson’s passes against Wolves went forwards. Given that we were attacking for most of the game, this is a very significant statistic. Rather than driving play forward, Henderson was holding things up. Kuyt’s play was far more positive. 66% of his passes went forwards during a period when Liverpool were basically playing out time for a 2-1 win. On top of this, 90% of Kuyt’s passes were made in the Wolves half of the pitch. He was a much more consistent threat.
Another really key indicator of how much a player contributes from midfield is the “touch” statistic. This shows how many times each player touched the ball. In 72 minutes, Henderson touched the ball a total of 31 times, once every 2.3 minutes. Kuyt touched the ball 12 times in 18 minutes, once every 1.5 minutes. This is a really clear indication that Kuyt offers more than Henderson from the right side of midfield. He gets involved more, he makes more penetrating passes and his all round contribution is better.
After six games in a Liverpool shirt, Henderson has shown potential, but not much more. He has shown that he has a great first touch, he is an intelligent footballer and he has a sweet right foot. All the indicators are there. He should develop into a really good player.
However, he is not there yet, and he is keeping players out of the team who contribute more than he currently is. In my opinion, at this stage in his career Henderson should be starting from the bench and coming on for Kuyt after 70 minutes, not the other way around.
Against Manchester United and Everton it is vital that we put our strongest XI out. We cannot risk having passengers. Tackling well and playing penetrating balls from midfield are vital. Getting on the ball is vital. At this moment in time, Henderson is not doing these things often enough. He has simply not done enough in his first six games to warrant a starting place in either game.
Looking further forward, Jordan Henderson will come good, but he is a million miles away from his full potential.