Jordan Henderson went home Saturday looking to show his former soccer family how far he had progressed since moving to Anfield. His old supporters at Sunderland were certainly keen to deliver a verdict of their own as well.
This may sound simple, but the 21-year-old hasn’t yet blossomed into the player most believe he will become. It’s not all his fault. Factors outside of his control have slowed his progress in some ways, and sped it up in others. Does it still sound simple?
Henderson joined Liverpool last summer in a £16 million ($25.5 million) transfer from Sunderland. The price tag garnered a lot of attention, as he hadn’t set the league alight in just two years of first-team action. LFC manager Kenny Dalglish has told anyone who will listen that he sees Henderson as an important player in the club’s future.
But circumstances forced Dalglish to thrust the energetic midfielder into the spotlight from the start of the season. Injuries to key players have seen him become an ever-present part of the midfield, and play through the ups and downs that any young player (not named Messi) endures.
Henderson has played 36 games (30 starts) in all competitions for his new club. His scoring output — 1 goal and four assists — have prompted critics to direct their barbs his way. He told LiverpoolFC.com that he won’t let their opinions stall his progress.
“When you look at the price-tag, then you’re always going to get it,” he said. “But the only response I can have is to try to keep improving — by playing as much as I can, to keep learning and keep getting better.”
Henderson has grand plans for his career. He wants establish himself in the LFC team, represent England at major tournaments and win trophies for club and country. Although he is developing nicely, he needs mentors to help him take his game to the next level.
Long-term injuries that Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva suffered have robbed Henderson of the very teachers that he needs to help him add crucial dimensions to his game. Since Henderson came to the club, Gerrard has spent long stretches either in the treatment room or practicing on his own.
By watching the LFC captain every day in practice, Henderson could become more effective in the attacking third of the field, and improve his goal and assist totals. He simply needs to spend more time imitating and soaking up knowledge from Gerrard.
Lucas was arguably having a better season than any other Liverpool player before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in late November. The Reds have missed his work-rate, tactical sense and tackling since he went down.
Henderson could improve in these areas as well. If he brought his own technique and work-rate to the table, and added a pinch of Lucas’ tackling and tactical nous, it would make for a dynamo of a central midfielder. Dalglish would find it impossible not to play him in his preferred central role.
On the flip side, the amount of playing time he’s received in his debut season has made him better equipped to compete for places when LFC is at its strongest. He will come into next season with the confidence and sharpness of a player that has played regular games for three consecutive seasons. He’ll consider one of the midfield spots his own, and make his teammates compete that much harder to take it from him.
Sunderland’s prodigal son returned to the Stadium of Light on Saturday. He said he had no regrets about making the move, as it was the best place for him to reach his career goals.
“It’s about progression,” he said. “That’s why I came here, to progress, and I think I can do that.”
Henderson can do that as a Liverpool player. When the LFC stars return to his side his progression will accelerate. He might return to the Stadium of Light next season, score a goal and set up another. It’s a safe bet he won’t celebrate. He’ll have enough family there to do that for him.