The gulf between the very best players and those dismissed as useless is never as vast as people would like to make out. Gervinho has shown this season that even players who have been derided can, when fully fit, look like world-beaters when confident and playing in a tactical system that suits them. Particularly with big signings, the pressure is often there for players to perform immediately, with no time to feel their way into a new squad, a new home and a new way of playing.
Take, for example, Jordan Henderson. Anybody who’d seen him at Sunderland knew what Liverpool were buying when they paid an initial £16million to sign him in 2011. Henderson was promise: he had looked a good player in an average side, was physically extremely fit and, perhaps most importantly, had proved himself to be both disciplined and diligent. His improvement over his two seasons of appearing regularly had been prodigious. In that context, the size of the fee was a surprise, but his potential made it far less absurd than many made it out to be - provided he continued to develop.
And develop he has - to the point that he’s not merely a regular this season but has been recognised as one of Liverpool’s most consistent players. If he continues to play like this, he must have a decent chance of making it into Roy Hodgson’s squad for the World Cup finals. “He’s an outstanding young player,” said Brendan Rodgers at the weekend. “I think he is going to be a top player over many years for Liverpool.
“He will be an unsung hero. He is one of those guys who does a lot of work and over time, supporters will really appreciate and I think that’s what’s happening now. I have been really impressed. Tactically his understanding of the game is improving - you see the composure he is playing with now. He has got great physicality. His stature - he’s a big boy, he can run, he has got legs and he presses the ball well. He has composure on the ball and at 23 years of age, all the best years ahead of him.”
Much was made when he signed of his chance creation - reportedly the stat that impressed Liverpool’s sporting director Damian Comolli most of all. In that last season at Sunderland, 2010-11, he averaged 2.2 key passes per game. That fell to 0.9 in his first season at Liverpool - a certain drop-off was inevitable given how many more players at Liverpool had a creative capacity - but rose to 1.1 last season and is at 1.3 so far this.
Pretty much every metric follows the same pattern: a sharp fall on leaving Sunderland followed by a gradual improvement to this season, while in many cases he is outstripping what he did at the Stadium of Light. Tackles per game fell from 1.7 to 1.4 and are now up at 3. Passes per game fell from 44.4 to a low of 33 and are now at 52.6. He was dispossessed 0.6 times per game in his final season at Sunderland, a figure that rose to a high of 1.1 per game but is now at 0.5. All that is reflected in his Whoscored.com average rating: 6.96 at Sunderland, down to 6.58 in 2011-12, to 6.7 last term and this season 7.19.
It all speaks of a player who, after a dip in confidence, is now coming back stronger than ever. Dribbles, perhaps, say more about style than performance, but Henderson’s figures are relevant nonetheless. His dribbles per game fell from 0.6 to 0.2 but are now up to 0.8: that he is now willing once more to take opponents on says much for his state of mind.
Perhaps even more telling - particularly given what Rodgers said about Henderson’s tactical awareness, is his pass completion ratio, which has risen in each season at Liverpool, from 81.2% at Sunderland to 83.9% to 84.5% to 86.5% this season. That suggests three things: that Liverpool have a style more based on short passing than Sunderland, that Henderson has better players around him who make better options for the pass, and that he is learning to play within his talent, making more certain of passes.
In almost every respect, Henderson has improved. Complete midfielders are rare these days, almost unfashionable as the three-band systems of old make way for four-band systems that make a clear distinction between defensive and attacking midfielders, but Henderson has a wide skill set and that makes him versatile. He may never stand out for his goals or brilliant passes or big tackles, but his all-round game has improved to the point that he is a hugely valuable player for Liverpool.
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