Liverpool: The Jordan Henderson Question

The internet can be a ruthless place, Twitter especially. It’s the Western saloon of the Wild West, attracting all manner of people from across the board, shooting from the hip and asking questions later. It takes no prisoners, it leaves no survivors.

Certainly not after a Liverpool game, and not one as demoralising and gutless as the defeat at Burnley. It was awash with the hallmarks that pre-season was meant to wipe out — a slow start, ponderous possession play and a lack of imagination.

That it came a week after the thrilling, if not entirely flawless, victory at Arsenal seemed to heighten tensions among Reds fans. Two games that summed up the Jürgen Klopp reign so far — one step forward and two steps back. A brutal lack of consistency, with brilliance coming in flashes and stodginess aplenty.

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NINETEEN games. Seven months. Twenty-four hours. Eight minutes.

Ten years ago today, a long ball is pumped toward the halfway line with the Wigan Athletic midfield caught ball watching. Peter Crouch chests it down and within a single, fluid motion, he’s bearing down on the opposition penalty area. Anfield roars him on as he surges up field.

Three touches later, he strides through a gaping hole in Wigan’s defence. They back off and back off, and back off some more, and he shapes to shoot. The roar becomes a cacophony.

Fernando Morientes is to his right, Steven Gerrard is bursting through the middle and Harry Kewell to the left of the captain. Crouch has so much time, so many options, the weight of his 1,299-minute drought on his sizeable yet flimsy frame causes self-doubt. He makes two wrong decisions in quick succession.

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DEJAN Lovren. Two words that have spread fear throughout the Liverpool fanbase like no other.

When Mamadou Sakho crumpled to the floor as he landed awkwardly contesting a header against Crystal Palace, Anfield drew a deep breath. The lanky Frenchman has had a chequered injury record in his two-year spell at the club, but this was different.

This was no muscular injury that he is so susceptible to. The more innocuous an injury looks, the worse its prognosis. Sakho showed the fortitude and attitude that has quickly made him a fan favourite this autumn, as he hobbled back onto the pitch to continue, as if he too had realised what, or who, was coming next.

“Sakho, Sakho” – the chants rained down from a sodden Anfield. But it was clear he could barely walk, that this warrior of a centre-half had been let down by his fragile body yet again.

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Appearances can be deceptive.

In The Empire Strikes Back Boba Fett becomes a mystical cult hero. The bounty hunter utters the immortal line “He’s no good to me dead” as he stalks Darth Vader, and not much else. A lot of standing, a lot of walking, hands invariably glued to his blaster. Mystery, intrigue, villainy. The silent assassin. All the ingredients for a memorable character in an overblown space opera.

After promising so much in such a short cameo role, big things are expected in Return of the Jedi before he is unceremoniously bumped off, his jet pack malfunctioning as he careers into the side of Jabba the Hutt’s barge and slides miserably to his doom in the Pit of Sarlacc.

You’re tempted to ask what the fuss is all about.

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There has been a collective loss of heads in the response to Raheem Sterling’s £49million move to Manchester City. Not at where the hell do Liverpool go from here after losing one of their brightest talents at the age of only 20, but with the idea that this is a brilliant deal  for the club; that is has extracted a poisonous toxin who was never any good anyway and received a bucketload of cash in return.

A coup! Liverpool have pulled Manchester City’s pants down!

It’s nonsense.

The divorce has felt inevitable since the first rumblings of contract disputes in the spring and the nauseating interview with the BBC. Brendan Rodgers’ public announcement that contract talks had been suspended until the summer really set the alarm bells ringing and Aidy Ward’s public campaigning set the mood firmly against the 20-year-old.

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“I’M not just talking about winning games, but the way we do things and the way we conduct ourselves. The class and dignity this club was renowned for. It’s the way Liverpool used to be seen by people and we should be aiming to recreate that.”

Jamie Carragher is speaking on the eve of his testimonial in September 2010 amidst a time of unprecedented turmoil at Anfield. The owners are aloof and vilified, the manager is Roy Hodgson and the summer just been has witnessed a dampening of expectations in the transfer market without the allure of Champions League football. It’s a seismic pre-season in the recent history of the club; marking an abrupt end to the Rafa Benitez era and a sharp change in direction.

In a wide-ranging interview Carragher talks about the club reclaiming its identity, about the end of internal politicking and open hostility with other Premier League clubs. He exudes a positivity completely at odds with the situation at the club as it begins its descent down the domestic and European food chain.

The manager had been appointed not because he was the best person available, but because he was cheap, English and well respected; someone to “steady the ship”. His nationality was widely seen as the most important aspect of his appointment, a reclaiming of traditions and a clean break from the continental ideals that had seeped into the club through 12 years of foreign management.

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HOW do you solve a problem like Raheem Sterling? It’s a luxury that other clubs dream of — and by no means is it Liverpool’s biggest problem right now — but seeing him shunted around the football field so often by Brendan Rodgers this year has created a sense of doubt. Doubt surrounding where on the pitch he should be stationed; about where you get the best out of the precociously talented 20 year-old and about where he can do the best job for the team.

Currently the latter strand has dominated the former. They shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but right now they are. You’d think the position where he can perform at his maximum would be the ultimate priority for Rodgers, but so well coached in his reading of the game is Sterling now that he has become a victim of versatility. The system Liverpool play and the style they use requires this — square pegs filling round holes all over the pitch — and Sterling is the grandest exponent.

It points in part to the fragility of the club’s resurgence since Christmas that the new system — the 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 is still heavily reliant on the personnel that fill the key positions. It needs ball-playing centre-halves — not you, Dejan — it punishes wing-backs who don’t have the engine of a Rolls Royce and relies on intricate one-or-two touch play, pace and incessant movement high up the pitch. It’s as demanding as it gets for a football team.

Within this set-up Sterling has regularly plugged holes in positions where others can’t be trusted by Rodgers. He’s been deployed up front, as one of the two behind the striker and in the wing-back areas — sometimes within the same 90 minutes — and it’s had Liverpool fans wondering where his true position really lies.

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EIGHT Liverpool players that started in the 3-2 win over Spurs were aged 25 and under. Five of them were under 22. Remarkable numbers in a sport where trust is traditionally placed in experience for high-pressure games such as the one Anfield witnessed on Tuesday night.

Philippe Coutinho, Alberto Moreno – 22. Emre Can – 21. Lazar Markovic – 20. Jordon Ibe – 19.

Raheem Sterling, 20, who has played the second most minutes of any other outfield Liverpool player this season behind the 24 year-old Jordan Henderson and wasn’t even on the field this time.

Just remarkable that such a young core of players — all of whom contributed significantly to the win — refused to yield against the most vibrant Spurs side to come to Anfield since the departure of Gareth Bale. They refused to give up. That winning goal, poked in by Mario Balotelli, who is still only 24 himself.

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LUIS Suarez stands five paces from the ball; 25 yards from goal. The Kop stands, expectant. Something brilliant is about to happen. Jaws prepare to drop and spines ready themselves to tingle.

Approaching the ball side on, the Uruguayan whips it goalwards with his magical right boot. It sails over the wall, it curls beyond the left-hand post, but not before swerving back within the frame of the goal posts. It’s nestled into the back of the net before a despairing, diving Vyacheslav Malafeev can get his gloves anywhere near it.

Suarez and Anfield roar as one. His divine free-kick has just put Liverpool 3-1 up against Zenit St Petersburg. From being 3-0 down on aggregate, they now have half an hour to score one more goal to progress to the Last 16 of the Europa League. The momentum is theirs. The Reds are rampant. Rodgers knows it. Anfield knows it. Zenit know it. They’re on the ropes.

A double substitution had been lined up, and Rodgers follows through with it despite the change in scoreline; the change in emphasis. Thirty seconds after the goal he changes it up, with Liverpool in the ascendancy he looks to his bench to provide the fresh legs to kill off the Russians. Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson, the foundation of Liverpool’s comeback are withdrawn. Oussama Assaidi and Jonjo Shelvey are introduced.

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10 years ago today: Liverpool 2-1 Arsenal

LIVERPOOL 2-1 ARSENAL (Alonso 37, Mellor 90+2; Vieira 57)

“MELLOR… My goodness. Where did that come from? The right foot of Neil Mellor… it’s probably the last kick of the game.”

Scarcely believable as it is but the footage of a fresh faced Neil Mellor unleashing an improbable 25-yard last-minute winner against the former Invincibles in front of the Kop is 10 years old today. Mellor’s career may not have hit such stratospheric heights again, though this winning goal was followed by the second against Olympiakos only 10 days later, a golden period in the early days of his Liverpool career.

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