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talker to mature leader has been
During my time in England I got used to hearing players swear. It happened
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a lot – every game, in fact – and after a while I stopped even noticing it. But then in May 2011 I came across a player whose swearing was at such a high level I took notice again.
I was at West Ham at the time and we were playing Sunderland at Upton Park, in the last game of the
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season. Sunderland won 3-0 and in the centre of their midfield was a young player who did not shut up for the entire 90 minutes. He would say things to his own players as well as our players, loud and clear. He did not mind upsetting people, which for someone so inexperienced and relatively unknown stood out, so I decided to make a mental note of his name. It was Jordan Henderson.
I have followed Henderson’s career ever since and the way he has developed as a player has impressed me. Back then he was raw, charging round the pitch making wild tackles as well as swearing at whoever was near him, but it was clear he had talent and saw himself as a leader, and seven years on he has fulfilled that potential and desire for club as well as country.
Henderson is Liverpool’s captain and under Jürgen Klopp has become a
far more refined player, something he has carried on to the international stage and particularly so at this World Cup. He has been one of England’s most consistent performers and will be crucial to their hopes of reaching Sunday’s final.
Henderson is incredibly disciplined in the No 6 role, protecting the back three whenever required and,
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when England are in possession, showing for the ball and starting the play that gets the team up the field. Because
of his natural athleticism, Henderson is also able to run up the pitch and offer support to the attacking players before quickly dropping back and once again protecting the defence.
According to Fifa’s statistics, Henderson has made only one tackle during the World Cup, which is surprising for a player in his position. But that just shows how well he has done in his role in terms of positioning himself and anticipating opposition attacks so that he has not had to lunge towards the ball in the manner he often did during the early days of his career.
That statistic also speaks to the broader way English midfielders now operate. During my time in the country it was very much about the Steven Gerrard style of playing – hard running, long passing, big tackles – and no doubt Henderson was influenced by that, especially as Gerrard was such a brilliant player.
Older players were influenced by that style, too. I remember watching Wayne Rooney playing as a holding midfielder for Manchester United against West Ham in the last game at Upton Park in May 2016 and noticing how he kept hitting long, “zippy” passes across the pitch. They looked spectacular and got his own fans applauding but they did not take United anywhere from an attacking point of view. And being a centre-forward meant Rooney’s positioning was not always as good as it should have been for a player sitting at the base of midfield.
Now, though, we are increasingly seeing English midfielders who play in that role working hard on their positioning so they are in the right part of the pitch at the right time, which allows them to anticipate play as opposed to constantly reacting to it. And on the ball they are playing a higher amount of quicker, shorter passes which gets their team up the pitch in a steady, progressive way. It is a clear sign of the Spanish style of play influencing a new generation of English players and Henderson, more than anyone, has benefited from that.
Henderson’s lack of tackles has almost certainly also been influenced by Gareth Southgate’s instructions to all of his players not to give away free-kicks. Gareth has stressed the importance of set pieces, for and against England, since the start of the tournament and it has proved crucial to their success in getting to the semi-finals.
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