When the Serie A side travelled to Anfield for their Champions League semi-final tie, many fans feared what the Belgian aggressor would do to a usually tepid Liverpool midfield.
Few could have envisaged what transpired on the night. Jurgen Klopp’s men blitzed the Italians, taking a 5-0 lead at one stage before finishing 5-2. Amidst the chaos, a key ten seconds in the game continue to be overlooked.
It wasn’t a goal or a pass. It wasn’t a moment of individual genius. It wasn’t even something that will live long in the memory of Liverpool fans, either. It was stoppage time of the first 45 minutes and Nainggolan picked up a loose ball just inside his own half before driving forward.
It caught the home side cold and Roma had Edin Dzeko and Stephen El Shaarawy running at Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren. If the midfield powerhouse could release the ball to either of them then there was an opportunity to pull a goal back.
But Jordan Henderson quickly closed down the Roma No.4 and buffeted him off of the ball. The Liverpool captain didn’t just regain possession, he put a player many had built up to be the Bogeyman on the floor. He simply brushed him aside like the one-time Chelsea transfer target was nothing more than an annoying gnat.
The confidence in Henderson’s game was there for all to see. This was a player relishing the big occasion. Often accused of taking too long on the ball, after winning back possession he floated a first time pass forward to Mohamed Salah and Roma braced for impact. The pitbull had been leashed and he wasn’t the only one of Eusebio Di Francesco’s men to be dominated by the former Sunderland youngster.
Henderson won 75 per cent of his tackles – three in total which no other Liverpool player could match – on the night and made one interception. He had 66 touches with only Trent Alexander-Arnold seeing more of the ball.
Furthermore, 60 per cent of the Liverpool No.14’s touches came in the opposition’s half. It’s an interesting stat given the Reds played a more direct game on the night, looking to exploit Roma’s dangerously high line at every given opportunity.
It showed he was looking to support the forward line and wasn’t being passive in his approach. A stick often used to beat him with is how safe he is with his play. But the stats against Roma paint a very different picture. One of a player looking to put his stamp on proceedings. It’s something he’s looked to do throughout the season.
The subtle changes to Henderson’s style have been evident but it’s come to the boil in recent weeks. During the 2016/17 campaign he was accused of slowing the play down and allowing the opposition to get behind the ball. But this year he’s opted to take risks and it’s benefited Liverpool as a team.
The percentage of passes going forward has increased to 31 per cent from 28 per cent. The Liverpool skipper is playing slightly more open play key passes per 90 minutes, too. He’s also attempting 0.12 more dribbles per 90 minutes. All while playing, on average, fewer passes.
The speed of Salah no doubt helps with the Liverpool midfielder often playing hopeful passes into the channels and in behind the opposition as he looks to utilise the Egyptian’s pace.
Henderson’s approach when in possession is now, for the most part, progressive and prying. There’s a maturity to his play now as opposed to a naivety.
It says a lot about the 27-year-old that he’s been able to adapt his game to suit his team-mates but without a transitional period and a lull in performances. Liverpool are better off for it, as is the player himself.
It’s been a real coming of age season and he’s steadily grown into the captain’s armband. It now doesn’t appear to be weighing him down and is instead getting the best out of him. The Roma match was the Reds’ biggest in quite some time and Henderson’s performance more than justified Klopp’s decision to put his faith and trust in him.
Barring an injury, he’ll be leading the Reds out in Kyiv to face Real Madrid in the Champions League final. Just like the manager, Henderson has managed to turn doubters into believers and it couldn’t have come at a better time.