Jordan Henderson: Golden Boy, Problem Child

Kenny Dalglish’s decision to feature Jordan Henderson has had unfortunate consequences.

Mashed peas and football—that’s what England does.

0-1 to Stoke, three down to Spurs, if this downward trend continues we might start thinking that ‘King Kenny’ is actually a cantankerous, milky-eyed old man with a penchant for selling talented foreign imports (Meireles) and buying in vastly inferior, twice-the-price British replacements (Henderson) and not, as Liverpool fans would have it, the Second Coming of Christ Our Saviour. -Tom Midlane.

On June 9th, Liverpool bit the bullet and paid the surcharge, known as the English premium, to sign Sunderland’s Jordan Henderson before other rival clubs stepped in and absconded with the talented young midfielder. But there was little need for worry, since no one is more seduced by this “asset” than Kenny Dalglish.

After failing in January, Liverpool finally rescued the eager Charlie Adam on July 7th from Blackpool. Adam was well aware that he was an addition to a central midfield already populated by the well established Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva. But for some reason, Adam included Henderson in this list, as if a month was sufficient time for Henderson to be considered a player Adam would have to unseat. It may have already been clear to him that Henderson was the manager’s “golden boy”, a status as embedded as proven experienced veteran.

The following week, Liverpool signed winger Stuart Downing, who would find less competition on the left with the right-sided utilitarian Dirk Kuyt, the shadow-of-former-self Joe Cole, substitute Maxi Rodriguez, and of course the golden boy who, if pushed from the center, would move to the right.

Add to this the return of Alberto Aquilani on July 4th from a season-long loan at Juventus, the undecided fate of Joe Cole, an eventually healthy—if fragile—Gerrard, the in-form Raul Meireles, and Liverpool have got themselves a glut of midfielders—ten including Kuyt or twelve if counting Jonjo Shelvey and Jay Spearing. Kenny Dalglish—befitting a king—had the pleasure and privilege of abundant choice (as well as the attendant problems of those left out who think otherwise).

It took the next six weeks—the remainder of the transfer window—to pare this group down. Who would leave the club (permanently or on loan) and who would be relegated to the bench?

Gerrard and Lucas are presumed starters, having their position to lose rather than win. Short on left-sided wingers, the same can apply to Downing. Depending on opposition and playing at home or away, formation will vary, but Dalglish will certainly want to feature his new signings—all good English boys, yet only one being the golden boy. These circumstances made it difficult for Meireles and Aquilani to stake a claim in the first team.

Ill-fitted to the new combinations in midfield, Aquilani was sent on loan again on August 25th to AC Milan, this time with the host club having an option to buy. On August 31st, Joe Cole went to Lille on a season-long loan, and Meireles was sold to Chelsea. On September 30, Shelvey was sent on loan to Blackpool. Spearing, rumored also to be leaving on loan, remained with the club, completing Dalglish’s eight-man midfield (including Kuyt).

Mixed signals, decent preseason performances, and praise from Dalglish obscure whether or not Aquilani wanted, or would have been willing, to stay in England. He arrived with a solid reputation from Italy, but never got the chance to prove himself (partly due to injury) during the psychotic final episode of Rafael Benitez’s reign and the transition and short tenure of Roy Hodgson. But if he did have any desire to stay, Liverpool should have cultivated it. Aquilani’s experience and versatility as an attack-minded holding midfielder could have been useful, although less so with Meireles in the plans. On paper, Aquilani looked to be a good compliment to Lucas.

Dalglish’s game of musical chairs (to “In the Air Tonight” courtesy his captain?) was not a game of equal opportunity—Dalglish is not Andre Villas-Boas. Injury kept Meireles out of preseason and he started the first two league matches on the bench, making late substitute appearances in both. He started the Carling Cup match against Exeter, lasting twenty-two minutes before going off injured. Easing him back into the lineup would be expected, but given that he was a previous manager’s signing, hadn’t been a part of the preseason competition for scarce midfield space, and his late transfer request, his limited playing time was also an indication that Dalglish’s strategy had left him behind. Who would be taking his place?…the golden boy?

Less than a week before the season began, there seemed to be a belief among supporters that Meireles would not only stay at Liverpool, but also feature prominently, especially with Gerrard’s questionable fitness, which should have been a primary consideration. Not accounting for it is an oversight, since none of the new signings, including the golden boy, are adequate alternatives for a club with top four aspirations and delusions of title contention.

Jay Spearing’s inclusion in the squad was based on praise for consistent performance. Like Meireles, the assumption was that good form would be rewarded with playing time, but the season thus far has offered few opportunities now that Leiva’s starting position is undisputed. Dalglish has preferred Adam in a deep central position for his passing ability. Adam, accustomed to a role higher up the pitch with Blackpool, has had to adjust to the competition of his like-minded colleagues, Gerrard and the golden boy.

Now Dirk Kuyt is finding it difficult to accept reduced playing time. He hasn’t scored much (a single goal to be exact), but neither has anyone else. In ten matches, Liverpool has scored 14 goals, only once scoring more than two.

Kuyt and Henderson have both started six of ten league matches, but Henderson has featured in all, where Kuyt failed to get off the bench in two. Henderson also has one goal this season.

The degree of inclusion is somewhat surprising. Take for example the Guardian’s squad sheets for Liverpool’s first two matches against Sunderland and Arsenal. Squad sheets are the product of well-informed guesswork, but neither feature Henderson as a starter, yet Dalglish did in fact start Henderson, as he did for the first six league matches.

Therefore, squeezing Meireles out of Liverpool (he did publicly state his desire to stay) looks to have been a mistake. Meireles will not score twenty goals a season, but his contribution will certainly be missed in a squad with only one proven goal scorer (Suarez), an injured captain, an ineffective central striker, and the remaining offensive threats, all new signings, requiring an adjustment period.

Looking at a sample of match reports and player ratings* for the first eleven matches, which can be considered a collection of general assessments and impressions to date, Henderson has had only two good performances, the home matches against Bolton and Manchester United. Excluding an 88th minute appearance against Everton, he and his performances in the other seven matches have been described as “ineffective”, “lost in the shuffle”, “ looked lost in midfield”, “a touch quiet”, “erratic passing and poor finishing”, “the game had passed him by”, and most recently against Swansea, “anonymous”, after being pulled at halftime; in many live commentaries and match reports his name isn’t even mentioned.

Against a completely demoralized and injury-riddled Arsenal forced to field a reserve squad, Henderson struggled to impose himself. On three occasions, he was substituted in the second half (one being the halftime substitution against Swansea) for Kuyt. Against Sunderland, Kuyt was thrown in to find a winner four minutes after Sunderland equalized. Against Wolverhampton, Kuyt came on to add experience and security to see through a 2-1 advantage. Henderson may start, but is not first choice when it comes to searching for that game winner or preserving a narrow lead.

When down 1—0 to Stoke, Henderson was replaced by Craig Bellamy, a sensible substitution. But against Norwich, Henderson came on for Bellamy—Liverpool’s goal scorer on the day—with the score tied 1—1. This was a mystifying substitution, since Liverpool was playing at home against a promoted side, where a draw would feel like a loss.

This is not intended to anoint Henderson the Kop flop (currently held by Andy Carroll)—he’s only 21 and will certainly have a future. Rather, the aim is to highlight what is looking to be a poor decision by Dalglish. At the expense of the squad, he chose to give far too much playing time to a player who isn’t ready.

Kuyt magnanimously attributed his diminished playing time to a Liverpool squad he qualified as the strongest in recent years. But perhaps he understood the game of politics at hand, wisely not mentioning the untouchable golden boy whom he has watched all too often from the sideline.

10/24/12

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