Last week’s Merseyside derby will not go down in the memory as a great one.
However, there was one man at least who put in a performance worth remembering for the Reds.
Jordan Henderson has spent a lot of the season as the subject of speculation — will he be replaced by Fabinho at the base of Jurgen Klopp’s midfield? Will Naby Keita’s arrival herald a move to a 4-2-3-1 and, if so, what space does that leave for Henderson?
However, he was one of the best players on the pitch against Everton (although there was, at times, a distinct lack of quality).
It was the kind of performance to have Henderson-doubters sit down and watch, as his passes spread the play and created chances, helping to drive the team forward.
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Captain on the pitch, he was also captain off the pitch after the disappointing result as well.
“[The result] won’t change our mindset,” he said. “We take it game by game and we need to carry on doing that. There are nine games left so plenty of football to play.
“It is down to us to do the business on the pitch and win as many games as we can between now and the end of the season. It’s no good talking about it, we have to respond on the pitch.”
The Fabinho impact
In fact, it seems like Henderson benefitted from one of the things that caused some to worry for his place at the club — Fabinho’s ability to play at the base of midfield.
Freed from having to sit and screen the back four, and act as basic metronome in midfield, he was able to drop into pockets of space or surge forward to join attacks. The angle, being just to the right of centre, also meant that he had better angles for long balls, which he showed early on with a peach to Mohamed Salah in the 14th minute.
Had the Egyptian been in better form on Sunday, and taken a better first touch, that pass could have turned into an assist.
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This change of role is something that perhaps should be talked about more. Last season, the vast majority of Henderson’s minutes in the league were played as that central figure at the base of a midfield trio. This season, under a third of his time as a starter in the league has been spent in that role.
Interestingly, he has averaged more tackles won and touches inside the opposition box this season than last.
The latter wouldn’t be surprising in a more advanced role, but the former might be. However, it’s a symptom of the fact his role is more ‘search and destroy’ than before. Rather than being the one to mop up the pieces from other peoples’ pressing, he’s been one of the midfielders to go and press himself.
A sign of what’s to come?
The good performance against Everton could be a sign that Henderson might make this role his own for good.
Those central midfielder roles either side of the base have seen a lot of people flourish who wouldn’t be obvious candidates. Georginio Wijnaldum, Adam Lallana, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have all come in and been impressive.
However, Henderson has a leadership quality that those other three haven’t quite built up yet. Sometimes ‘leadership’ is a word that gets bandied about too freely, used to mythologise players who shout and point.
But there’s a certain class of leader, a certain quality that means they show up in the big games, and glide through them where others seem affected by the occasion.
Sunday’s match was no ordinary Merseyside derby. It was one that could turn out to be key in the title race, and everyone in Goodison Park knew that. Henderson wasn’t the only one in Klopp’s team to rise to that, but that he did speaks volumes.
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by Tom Bodell