A piece co-written with Hugo Greenhalgh, assessing the rising fortunes of Jordan Henderson and Aaron Ramsey…
After a low-key opening three weeks to the 2013-4 Premier League season, 58 goals scored at a rate of less than two per game is a significant departure from the norm. And yet the focus of this season’s infancy has not been shone towards rejuvenated swashbuckling defences, but to the goal scorers making the difference at the ‘business end’ of the pitch.
Daniel Sturridge and Olivier Giroud have attracted headlines for possessing predatory instincts that have fired Liverpool and Arsenal towards the top of the table, and currently the pair share the golden boot berth with Christian Benteke.
Scratch underneath the surface, however, and you will find an unlikely duo who are no less vital to their respective sides, who provide the elbow grease and unstinting work ethic without which the teams would self-implode. The beginning of this new league season has witnessed the continued renaissance of Jordan Henderson and Aaron Ramsey, and confirmed their centrality to how Liverpool and Arsenal perform.
It beggars belief now but Henderson had come so very close to leaving Liverpool at the end of last summer’s transfer window; tossed around as a £4m bartering tool with the club lurching blindly in the dark to find the means for funding their hair-brained pursuit of a 29-year old Clint Dempsey. His position under new manager Brendan Rodgers was under immediate scrutiny – not just through the £15m purchase of Joe Allen but Rodgers’ now farcical public lauding of Jonjo Shelvey as the messiah of the revolution.
Twelve months on Shelvey has been dumped at Swansea, with Rodgers losing patience at his growing inefficacy and recklessness, and Allen looking to recover the form that saw him glide through the opening stages of the 2012-3 season.
Where the former Sunderland man excels, and where he has overtaken Allen in the pecking order at Anfield, is in his energy. Henderson shuttles across the pitch, up and down, side to side – indeed he is still running after his monumental shift against Manchester United at the weekend, where he outplayed the current occupant of his place in the national side, Tom Cleverley.
What we are witnessing in Henderson’s metamorphosis since the turn of the calendar year is a growth in his stature and responsibility – he is vividly maturing on the football pitch, in both his decision making and courage with the ball at his feet central to this. His stint as England U21 captain has done him no harm in this regard.
His midfield engine has always been present, the talent hidden away deep within, now it is coming to the fore on a more consistent basis. A well-found criticism in the 2011-12 season after his £16m move, was that games passed him by too often – but then again, games regularly passed Liverpool by that season. Unable to dominate through force of will or impose himself, they said.
Rodgers deserves credit for refining Henderson’s role since taking charge at Anfield, something the midfielder has spoken of recently:
“”I speak to Brendan a lot. He tells me what I need to improve and helps me to do so. I think tactically is the biggest area where I feel I have become better, I spend a lot of time looking back over our games and feel I’ve added discipline and become more tactically aware. I never once doubted myself. I’m very confident in my own ability and you learn from the players around you.”
The England international is benefiting from being nurtured by a manager who understands his strengths; his peripheral first season was the result of managerial misuse, with Kenny Dalglish often marooning Henderson on the right of a midfield four, and in the process marginalising his influence on play. This was most notable in his three Wembley appearances during the first 12 months, where he was anonymous and overawed by the grand stage.
His renaissance hasn’t occurred overnight, it’s been a long road of recovery since the Fulham debacle – it wasn’t until November 2012 that he began a league game under Rodgers, a 0-0 stalemate at Swansea.
Little over a week later he was scoring the winning goal in Udinese, hauling a below par Liverpool into the Last 32 of the Europa League. From there he has barely looked back. A long-range scorcher against Norwich, instrumental in back-to-back 2-2 draws at the Emirates and the Etihad; the former of which he graced with a goal that belied his most vociferous of critics from 2011-12 as he bulldozered his way through the Arsenal backline.
Having now started the club’s last 11 straight league fixtures – for which Liverpool are undefeated – Henderson is becoming undroppable; it is hard to see how Brendan Rodgers’ 4-2-3-1 functions without his dynamic and marauding runs in the trident ahead of the deep sitting midfield pair of Lucas Leiva and Steven Gerrard.
For Aaron Ramsey it has been a similar tale of challenging wider perceptions that have seen his early career difficulties go under-appreciated.
‘The Cardiff Ray Parlour’ is a compliment that might not mean much outside of North London. However, Aaron Ramsey’s commitment and midfield efficiency have made him not just a fan favourite but also an integral part of a rejuvenated Arsenal side. Surrounded by more glamorous teammates, Parlour was somewhat of an unsung hero of Arsene Wenger’s great, trophy-winning teams. However, he was a trusted and hard-working player who Wenger was able to count on many times, especially during big games. Similarly, Ramsey now lines up for Arsenal alongside Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and shortly Mesut Özil, yet it is the Welshman who is arguably the key component.
Arsenal have lost just one of their last 16 games in all competitions, with Ramsey starting in 15 of them. Like Henderson, Ramsey has become indispensable to his club. He continues to improve, as both a more confident tackler but also a more adventurous ball carrier with an eye for goal. His three goals and all-round performances in the recent tie against Fenerbache exemplified the capability of an in-form and talented player. In the North London Derby last Sunday, the physical superiority of Tottenham’s midfield was seen as a potentially crucial advantage. However, Ramsey’s reading of the game proved the difference. The player with the most tackles that day? Aaron Ramsey.
No one ever doubted Ramsey’s potential. After standing out in Cardiff’s impressive FA Cup run in 2008, he was destined to join a big club. Ferguson was keen to bring him to Manchester United, but Ramsey opted for Arsenal. A naturally gifted midfielder, he saw it as an opportunity to improve technically. He saw what Wenger had achieved so quickly with Cesc Fabregas and Ramsey now had the chance to learn under them both. First team football in the Premier League beckoned, if he could show his new club he was capable.
Life at Arsenal began well for Ramsey. He made 22 appearances in his first season, including nine in the League, all of which came from the bench. His promising start was rewarded with a long-term contract extension in July 2009. Wenger said at the time:
“He made a very good contribution in his first season and he showed that he is a very intelligent player with great quality. He is still only 18 and we’re really looking forward to seeing him develop with us in the forthcoming years.”
Even now, this player development is continuing under Wenger.
Since then, Ramsey has had ups and downs. He started the 2009/10 season brimming with confidence. As an “offence-minded Roy Keane”, as Wenger put it, he was starting to become an effective and dynamic midfielder. It is unnecessary to dwell on Ryan Shawcross’ leg-breaking tackle; what followed is more important. After loan spells at Nottingham Forest and Cardiff to regain match fitness, Ramsey started against Manchester United in May 2011 and scored the only goal in a man-of-the-match performance. The promising player that Wenger had signed back in 2008 was still there.
The following season was more difficult for ‘Rambo’. Taking on the creative central midfield mantle following the departures of Fabregas and Samir Nasri and a long-term injury to Jack Wilshere, Ramsey struggled at times to take on this burden of responsibility. His critics described him as lightweight and he had a habit of losing the ball in promising areas. However, his work-rate was always an asset, especially when paired with the less mobile Mikel Arteta. Ramsey also began to win admirers as a utility man. He put in an excellent display on the right wing against Manchester City in a 1-1 draw at the Etihad in September 2012 and later last season he covered as right back when Carl Jenkinson was dismissed in a 1-0 win at Sunderland in February 2013.
Henderson and Ramsey’s early career difficulties reflects a larger problem that inhibits developing players learning in the first team. Impatience from the stands is understandable; many resent watching a player’s learning curve costing their team points, and demand that every young player grabs the game by the scruff of its neck and bends its narrative to his will – Roy of the Rovers style – but this is a pair who have come out the other side and won. You won’t find many under-appreciators at Anfield or the Emirates any longer.
Though on a broader spectrum their unstinting efforts may go recognised somewhat under the radar; bar a miraculous turn of events of Michael Carrick proportions neither will make player of the year shortlists come May. Yet it is unlikely that either Philippe Coutinho or Santi Cazorla undervalue what they bring to their game.
Henderson’s rejuvenation at Liverpool is testament above all to himself, his own endeavour and his buckets of mental fortitude. With the problems he faced during his first season – overused and yet misused – along with a wider suspicion at what marked him out as a Liverpool player, and the obstacles present at the beginning of his second, he has surpassed expectations to dodge the scrapheap of FSG’s wage slashing and become the foot soldier of Brendan Rodgers’ Anfield revolution
Any talented up-and-coming youngsters could do far worse than follow the examples of Henderson and Ramsey. While many lament the youngsters that got away – John Bostock and David Bentley spring to mind – who fell off the face of the earth never to return, we should salute the success of those who survive the learning curve and the hostility that inevitably meets them.