x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Big price tag weighs heavy on Jordan Henderson

The Liverpool midfielder is yet to live up to expectations after his move from Sunderland in the summer.

Jordan Henderson is yet to find his best form at Liverpool since moving there in the summer.
Jordan Henderson is yet to find his best form at Liverpool since moving there in the summer.

A young player who arrived from the north east of England with a sizeable - excessive, many said - fee struggles to win over his doubters.

It is a familiar tale at Liverpool, even if the continuing issue of Andy Carroll obscures Jordan Henderson.

But there are similarities. To his detractors, Henderson, who cost an initial £16 million (Dh94m) and whose fee could rise to £20m, is overpriced and overrated.

To Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager, he is an investment in the future, a footballer whose worth will become apparent over the course of his contract.

"He will be a fantastic asset for this football club for years to come," said Dalglish.

He is a man with high-profile admirers.

"The kid's got a real chance," said Roy Keane in 2008, before he had debuted for Sunderland. Two years later, Fabio Capello parachuted him into the England team at the age of 20; it was a rapid rise for a player who, before a teenage growth spurt, might have been released by Sunderland. It would have devastated him.

"All Jordan cares about is football; he eats, sleeps and breathes it," said Steve Bruce, who also managed him at the Stadium of Light.

His father, Brian, concurs. "He doesn't have any interests other than football," he told The Sun in an interview. "I remember when he was eight he turned round and said to me 'Dad, I'm going to be a professional footballer'. He had a brilliant determination and focus. From the age of seven he trained three times a week. And when he wasn't at the club he was in the back garden practising and practising."

That dedication is apparent in his habits: Henderson leads a clean lifestyle and returns to his former school to advise pupils about keeping healthy.

A lifelong Sunderland fan, from a family of Black Cats, he is also unusual, especially among players from the north east, in coming from a middle-class background - Brian Henderson runs a double-glazing firm - and has avoided many of the pitfalls of his peers.

He attended Farringdon Community Sports College, whose alumni also include Tony Jeffries, an Olympic medal-winning boxer, and Scott Borthwick, the England cricketer.

A 10-game spell at Championship side Coventry City in 2009 was also instrumental in Henderson's development and he gives credit to Steve Kean, something not many are willing to do at the moment with the Blackburn Rovers manager subject to supporter protests with his side in the bottom three.

"Coventry was a big part of my career and I had a great time there," Henderson told Liverpool's official website after joining in the summer. The manager, Chris Coleman, was brilliant and Steve Kean was there at the time too who was also great with me."

Henderson's maturity has been recognised by Stuart Pearce, who has selected him to captain the England Under 21 team this season.

His first senior cap, won against France last November, has proved his solitary call-up to date. Afterwards, Bruce complained that Henderson was deployed as holding midfielder. He is not that, but the question of where he is deployed persists.

He appears unsuited to supporting the sole striker when given an advanced role in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Most of his football for Liverpool has come on the right, while his preference is to play in the centre of midfield. However, Lucas Leiva, Charlie Adam and Steven Gerrard block his path to the team there.

The captain should be the role model, Dalglish believes. "There certainly isn't anyone better for Jordan to learn from," he said. "If he takes something out of Stevie's book, I look forward to seeing it."

Emulating the older man's goal scoring feats would be a start: whereas Gerrard averages a goal every four Liverpool games, Henderson's Premier League career has brought only five in 81 matches. That does, however, include a well-taken first for Liverpool against Bolton, while he twice came close to a winner against Manchester United in a promising cameo.

Making, rather than taking, opportunities accounted for his recruitment. With Liverpool increasingly influenced by a statistical analysis of sport, it is no coincidence that summer additions Henderson, Adam and Stewart Downing figured in the top eight chance creators in the Premier League last season, the former Sunderland man fashioning an average of 2.22 per game.

Thus far, his only assists in a Liverpool shirt have come in the Carling Cup, with a delightful cross leading to Luis Suarez's winner against Stoke last week. Henderson himself believes he has not been adventurous enough in his distribution.

"Sometimes I can be a little bit cautious in keeping the ball, playing a safe pass rather than an adventurous one," he said. "Maybe I need to take more risks going forward."

It would help, too, if he could establish himself in the side. While involved in every game, he has been in and out. "Rotation is normal," Henderson said. "It's part and parcel of football now."

Especially at the size of club it became inevitable he would join. When he was scouted by Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, his departure from the Stadium of Light appeared inevitable. Liverpool, however, were the only bidders and while Bruce has eulogised the athletic prowess of a midfielder who can cover 13km in a game, illustrating that he was a gifted middle-distance runner at school, the figure that resonates with the majority is the £16 million price tag around his neck.