The story going into last Sunday’s game against Chelsea put all the focus on an equally pivotal clash between the two sides back in 2014 — a match Jordan Henderson watched from the stands
This time around, the Liverpool captain was key to his side’s first home victory against Chelsea in seven years.
And he hasn’t looked back.
The role change
There was a real chance that Henderson would miss out or feature from the bench in the same fixture this season.
Jürgen Klopp has rotated heavily this campaign, with Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner and Naby Keita all sharing time in No. 8 roles ahead of Fabinho.
But Henderson took matters into his own hands.
Reports surfaced that the Liverpool captain spoke to Klopp about playing in a more advanced role, rather than the holding midfield role he has predominantly played during Klopp’s tenure.
Having seen Fabinho become first choice in the defensive midfield role, Henderson took it upon himself to improve his contribution to the team.
Speaking after the Champions League first-leg against Porto, Henderson said: “I don’t think the manager had thought about it too much until I mentioned it to him, I suppose when I spoke to the manager, it was that I do feel more natural in that position. I played there for a long time, I was sort of a box-to-box midfielder when the manager first came.”
That game to Porto marked only the third time Henderson and Fabinho have started together this season, with the first coming against Wolves in December and the second in the 4-3 win over Crystal Palace.
Fans don’t really know how often a player goes to speak to the manager about a change of role. In all likelihood, if the manager turns the request down, the public won’t hear about it.
In this case, however, Henderson’s wish was granted and of the last three games in all competitions, both Fabinho and Henderson have started two, with Henderson coming off the bench in the other.
The last time Reds fans saw Henderson in this role? 2013/14 and 14/15. Across the two seasons, Henderson contributed 34 goals and assists in all competitions.
At some point prior to the Southampton game, Henderson had planted the seed in Klopp’s mind, giving him yet another dimension to his midfield.
With his team being held at Saint Mary’s on a difficult night on the south coast, Klopp turned to his captain on the hour mark.
Within half an hour, Henderson had picked up his first club assist of the season, and went on to secure the win with his first goal in nearly 18 months.
He then started the next game against Porto alongside Fabinho and fellow summer signing Keita. Once again, Henderson demonstrated his ability as a No. 8, providing a sumptuous through ball for Trent Alexander-Arnold in the build-up to Liverpool’s second goal of the evening.
On Sunday against Chelsea, the score was locked at 0-0, with neither team creating many clear chances. It was the time in a game when the Anfield crowd can start growing restless, especially in a tight title push.
Some smart play on the right wing led to the ball falling to Henderson in the box, with his touch taking him past his defender to the byline. As Jamie Carragher put it, Henderson produced a ‘golf shot,’ chipping the ball to the back post for Sadio Mané to head into an open goal.
A few minutes later, Mohamed Salah scored a thunderbolt to decide the game. It finished 2-0 and the Reds overcame their toughest league test for the remainder of the campaign.
The hard graft
Once again, Henderson came off the bench in his new role as the Reds saw off Porto to move into the UEFA Champions League Semi-final.
Once again he chipped in with an assist, this time turning provider for Roberto Firmino to soothe the nerves en route to a 4-1 victory.
A testament to the ‘R-Henaissance’ is that in just 20 minutes on the field on Wednesday night, he created four chances – more than any other player managed across the entire 90.
Henderson has always been a player who wears his heart on his sleeve, but the last few games have shown a combination of relief and maybe just a bit of venom toward his doubters.
His celebration against Southampton was one of pure heart and passion.
Against Chelsea, as he chipped a delicate ball to Mané, he stood waiting. The moment the ball hit the net, another explosion of emotion followed.
To paraphrase the club; he is Henderson, this means more.
Reaping the benefits
This recent spell is Jordan Henderson at his best. In the last two league games, he’s provided two assists and a goal. He didn’t have a goal or assist all season prior to Southampton.
He’s been freed by Klopp to press at will, and with Fabinho behind him, has license to roam.
This late-season change could prove pivotal during the title run-in and has already been a boost to the Reds.
In spite of the abuse he’s suffered from his own fans and the heartbreak of five years ago, Henderson is proving vital in one of the closest title races in recent years. IF Liverpool win the League, Henderson more than anyone deserves to lift the title.