As Liverpool raced into a 2-0 lead over Porto at Anfield on Tuesday night, two players more than most controlled the tempo of the match and provided the foundations for the Reds’ front three to wreak havoc amongst the opposition backline.
Captain Jordan Henderson, flourishing in an unshackled role higher up the pitch, and Guinean Naby Keita, starting his second match in five days after an extended spell on the substitues’ bench, combined expertly to pen the Portuguese side inside their own half throughout the opening period.
Danilo Pereira, Otávio and Óliver Torres were tasked by manager Sérgio Conceição with keeping the Reds in check, but the trio couldn’t match the physicality and intense pressing of their Liverpool counterparts.
NABY & HENDO NIGHTMARE FOR PORTO
From the outset, Henderson and Keita relentlessly harried and pestered Porto players into submission. The away side’s passing was rushed and imprecise, their touches unsure, and their cohesion totally disjointed.
It was no surprise, therefore, that Keita so confidently joined the attack in the final-third as he scored the opener. Henderson’s foray towards the box as he played the killer pass to set up Roberto Firmino’s goal minutes later was a sign that Liverpool were in total control of the centre of the park.
The pair were, without doubt, the two best performers on the pitch across the ninety minutes. Keita’s total of eight tackles was unmatched, while Henderson played the most key passes on the night (three), and both had the highest passing accuracy of anybody aside from both teams’ centre-backs.
HENDO’S VERSATILITY A STRENGTH OR WEAKNESS?
Henderson’s career at Liverpool has been consistently littered with criticism. In his early run-outs under Kenny Dalglish, predominantly playing on the left-hand side of a four-man midfield, he was derided for not influencing the game enough. After he was made captain by Brendan Rodgers following Steven Gerrard’s departure, he was maligned for not providing the same level of bombast and raucousness as the Huyton-born icon. Under Jürgen Klopp, his lack of goals and assists from a deeper-laying position has often been a source of frustration.
But Henderson’s eagerness to play any role asked for the benefit of the team is an enormous asset. In the aftermath of Liverpool’s first-leg victory, Klopp told reporters, “He likes that position so it is my fault he played for one and a half years as the holding player, but we needed him there.”
Henderson’s versatility has arguably been his greatest strength and weakness across his eight years with the Reds. It has allowed him to, for the most part, maintain a place in the starting line-up as the names around him and the roles they want to play have chopped and changed. But it has also meant that some supporters perceive him as a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none.
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After Fabinho earned a regular place in Klopp’s first-choice eleven with some fine displays in December, the need to utilise Henderson at the base of the midfield has subsided significantly.
Indeed, the signing of the Brazilian in the immediate aftermath of the Champions League final defeat in Kyiv served as an evident signal that Klopp was seeking to change the balance of his midfield setup for this campaign. If Fabinho had hit the ground running earlier in his Liverpool career, perhaps Henderson’s shift to this advanced role would have come earlier.
Instead, it came with just half-an-hour to play against Southampton. With the Reds toiling, the skipper entered the fray and delivered the perfect mix of determination, aggression and quality to force his side over the line and keep them in the title race.
NABY FINALLY AT THE PARTY
Keita’s increasing impact also comes at a relatively peculiar moment. His arrival from RB Leipzig was highly anticipated, but after a couple of tantilising performances against West Ham United and at Selhurst Park versus Crystal Palace back in August, the number eight failed to string together consistently impressive turnouts. Before his appearance against Southampton, Keita had a played a total of 19 minutes of football in the previous two months for the Reds.
And so his starting berth at St. Mary’s came as a surprise to most supporters, and possibly to Keita himself. But his headed equaliser in that game felt like a breakthrough for a player who, while demonstrably talented, had thus far failed to turn his ability into goals. The fact that he managed to score his second goal for the club in the following match serves as proof that a weight has now been taken off his young shoulders, and that he is ready to assert himself with more confidence in games to come.
Liverpool have five more enormous hurdles to jump in their hunt for the Premier League title, as well as four more matches to win in the Champions League if they are lift the trophy in Madrid.
If their last two outings are anything to go by, Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita might just be crucial in making all of our dreams come true.
*Odds are subject to change
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