In a summer of risky decisions, Jordan Henderson’s new Liverpool contract is a safe bet
Liverpool captain and England midfielder Jordan Henderson
For the third summer in a row, Liverpool’s transfer strategy has been open to question. The policies of Fenway Sports Group (FSG) have frequently been counterintuitive but successful – at least in the Jurgen Klopp era. Even so, in a financial environment still overshadowed by the pandemic, the recruitment process has managed to be both cautious and risky.
The knock-on effects of not building from strength after winning the Champions League in 2019 linger on. That gamble paid off and Liverpool romped to the Premier League title in the next campaign. Last year, the failure to replace Dejan Lovren had dire consequences. Midfielders were drafted into the back line after an injury crisis and the team were lucky to get into the top four. The addition of Ibrahima Konate in the close season should solve that problem but the departure of Georginio Wijnaldum means a vital component of the midfield trio that anchored the drive to trophies has been removed.
Contract extensions took centre stage this summer. Pinning down Mo Salah is the next objective. Just like three years ago, Klopp has a core of players with a proven winning pedigree that he trusts. It makes sense to keep them together.
The difference is that Liverpool emerged from the Champions League-winning season with few concerns over fitness. That worry will hang over the coming campaign for Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Jordan Henderson.
The captain is the most intriguing of the group of players whose contracts were renegotiated. The 31-year-old signed a deal that expires a matter of weeks before his 35th birthday. It is the sort of extension that seems to be completely against FSG’s ethos. In the first half of their ownership, long-term commitments to the over-30s were anathema. Youth, and sell-on value, drove their philosophy.
Henderson, too, was everything that the Americans disliked in a player. They believed he had not been scouted properly while at Sunderland, that the £16million fee to bring him to Anfield was too expensive and that he was ineffective on the pitch. Brendan Rodgers tried to offload him to Fulham and John W Henry would have shipped Henderson out at any point in the principal owner’s first six years at the club. It is a remarkable change of heart on so many levels.
Henderson extended his Liverpool contract by four years this summer
For a long time, the people at the top of the club could not see what Henderson brought to the side. His willingness to do the dirty work while others grabbed the limelight was under-appreciated. He was too often judged in comparison with Steven Gerrard. Those who expected Henderson to replace the irreplaceable were bound to be disappointed. Everything Gerrard did, he could do better than Henderson.
But what was revealed, as Klopp’s team coalesced into champions of Europe and England, was that Henderson did what Gerrard didn’t do: cover for the rampaging full-backs, screen the central defenders, protect space in and out of possession and captain the team in a way that brought out the best in others.
Gerrard led by example. Geniuses do. Jamie Carragher was more vocal and closer to Henderson’s style of captaincy. The title-winning skipper operates in a more traditional manner than his predecessor and it suits this team.
For the first half of the 2010s, FSG were obsessed about filling the void left by Gerrard. Klopp eventually solved the conundrum by dispensing with a conventional midfield, switching the emphasis of the attack to the full-backs and using the central players to balance the side rather than relying on them to get forward and score goals.
The owners also groped around trying to find players who could harness the dressing room and provide leadership. FSG quickly realised that the flaw in their plan to fill the side with young players was that inexperienced operators can become directionless when the pressure is on. Some of their thoughts about solving this problem were curious.
Henry was particularly impressed by Craig Bellamy and was disappointed when the Welshman elected to leave for Cardiff City for personal reasons. Bellamy had a lot to offer younger players and was helpful with advice but his knife-edge temperament made him an unusual choice of mentor on the pitch.
The next idea was to bring in an ageing Kolo Toure. The Ivorian was way past his best and was far from leadership material. While FSG groped around for someone to wear the armband in the post-Gerrard era, the answer was under their nose.
Henderson succeeded Steven Gerrard as Liverpool captain
Even given these factors, tying up Henderson for the next four years is a risk. In the absence of Wijnaldum, the captain – along with Fabinho – is crucial to the team. Naby Keita remains unfulfilled and, while the 26-year-old has the engine to perform in a similar manner to the departed Dutchman, he has struggled with the physicality of the game and shown few signs of the positional awareness needed to fulfil the role. Thiago Alcantara lacks mobility. Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott are still learning the game. Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain has struggled to find a slot in the side that suits him and James Milner has too many miles on the clock to be more than a bit-part player.
Milner remains a positive influence on the squad at 35. The former Manchester City man was a huge part of the team that reached the Champions League final in 2018 and though his contribution diminished in the next two seasons, he remained a significant part of the trophy-winning campaigns. That template suggests it is good business to keep Henderson around for the next four years.
Despite this, Liverpool still look a man short in the midfield and that may come back to haunt them. If Henderson or Fabinho go down injured, it will be hard for Klopp to persist with the same system.
What Liverpool do not lack is leadership. Henderson should prove to be worth his new contract for this attribute alone. In a summer of risky decisions, that one is a safe bet.
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