Cover your ears - Ex-Liverpool man Jordan Henderson should still be in the England squad
Plenty of people were unimpressed that Jordan Henderson is in the England squad - but is Gareth Southgate right to continue picking the former Liverpool man?
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After 78 England caps, three World Cups and three European Championships, you would think that Jordan Henderson has earned the benefit of the doubt. Clearly, he still has it as far as Gareth Southgate is concerned – despite his move to Saudi Arabia and despite the complaints of many England supporters, he remains a part of the international squad and started the game against Ukraine on Saturday evening.
For some inclined towards doubting Southgate’s selectorial prowess, it was evidence of the England manager’s unsupportable persistence with his favourites, just as Harry Maguire’s consistent selections continue to bewilder. Even for those of us who have sincere faith in Southgate’s vision for England, the question lurked as to whether it was time to move on from Henderson.
The Sunderland-born midfielder’s move to Al-Ettifaq, where he will unquestionably be playing at a lower standard (at least for now) is a part of the argument, but the seeds of doubt have been sown more by his long service than anything else. There is a perception that he has slowed down, and that at his relatively advanced age it could be time to move on and let fresh blood come through.
Not that Henderson is a true ancient – he is a relatively sprightly 33, and will turn 34 three days after the opening game of Euro 2024 – but the narrative of a man cresting the hill of his career existed before he made a sunsetting transfer to Saudi Arabia. It’s very hard to convince anyone that you’re still at your prime when you’ve just moved into your retirement home, and as much as he may be keen to tell himself and others that he was motivated solely by the footballing project, it’s a credulous or generous person who believes that.
And with that move sealed, Henderson has added some volume to the voices calling for him to be phased out of the England set-up – his apparent hypocrisy, as a vocal supporter of LGBTQ+ rights taking the Saudi coin, has angered a lot of people, who will not have been calmed by a cloth-eared and ham-fisted interview with The Athletic in which he seemed all too ignorant of the harm his move could cause and even seemed to imply that he was somehow work as some kind of agent on the inside. If he intended the latter, he is either off to a poor start or an impressively inconspicuous one. Perhaps once his England career is complete, he could serve his country with MI6 instead.
Whatever their reasons, there were plenty of people ready to argue that Henderson should not have been in the squad this week, and should not have been on the field in Wrocław. And after a fairly listless performance by Henderson and England’s midfield as a whole, many will feel vindicated. But the narrative surrounding the ex-Liverpool star’s career arc and his place along it is not straightforward.
The blunt fact is that, according to most of the underlying numbers, Henderson is just as effective a player as he always has been. His passing and ball-carrying percentages are only fractionally down on the levels he set as part of the Liverpool team that won the Champions League and Premier League over two years. He’s actually creating more chances than ever – contributing directly towards almost one extra shooting chance per game over the last two years than he did before.
There is a trade-off for that newfound attacking flair, and that’s that he makes fewer tackles – more a result of a more advanced position on the field and fewer resultant tackling opportunities than any evidence of a technical decline, however. The blunt fact is that if age is gradually wearying Henderson, only he knows it – his stats say that he’s as effective as ever.
Now he’s moved to Saudi Arabia, it will be harder to get good statistical comparisons to the player he was at Liverpool. The Saudi Pro League may have taken a massive leap forward but the overall level of opposition will be much lower than he is used to, and we will not get a good side-by-side picture of where Henderson is in terms of age and any negative effects of it for as long as he remains out of the Premier League. But it’s hard to imagine a nine-month deterioration so great that he would clearly be too bad for the Euro 2024 squad.
Some may not feel he should be there at his best, of course, and he has never been the most exciting player – but Southgate clearly prefers to have a water-carrying midfielder doing the heavy lifting and linking defence and attack, and Henderson fits the role perfectly. Which is where the second argument for his continued inclusion comes from – there really aren’t many like-for-like alternatives.
Whenever people scoff at Kalvin Phillips’ continued England selections despite his total lack of gametime, the obvious riposte is – who else, then? Declan Rice is the defensively-minded box-to-box man of choice, Phillips has proven a competent back-up, and England simply don’t have another player who can operate in that role. The likes of James Ward-Prowse and Conor Gallagher simply don’t have the required defensive abilities. Phillips does – so he plays, and because he has earned Southgate’s trust his current situation is deemed irrelevant. The same logic keeps Magiure and Henderson around.
The names that get bandied around for Phillips’ slot do make more sense as viable alternatives to Henderson, of course, and that’s where the strongest argument against him can perhaps be made – Ward-Prowse is less of a runner but more cultured and creative, while Gallagher is a million-mile-an-hour Duracell bunny of a midfielder but maybe lacks a little bit of nuance with his decision-making.
Jude Bellingham could do it, maybe, but that’s surely a waste of his immense attacking talents. Mason Mount is busy using his stint at Manchester United as evidence that he can’t do it, and his anti-audition has been highly successful. Past that, who? As with Phillips, the list gets pretty thin before long.
And sure, Henderson was not great against Ukraine. Neither was Bellingham, who has started his Real Madrid career in absolutely astonishing form and who looks like one of the best midfielders in the world right now. James Maddison, who has been excellent in the Premier League, was poor too. Henderson was no more culpable than anyone else on the pitch, and a rusty team performance isn’t great evidence against an individual cog.
And if Southgate has determined that Henderson’s combination of skill, experience and reading of the game – lest we forget, there is a reason he was a regular starter in one of the best teams in English football over the last five years or so – outweighs the attributes of the other options, then why would he drop Henderson? Why would he decide that now is the right time to shepherd an older hand on if there is no real evidence of decline? Why would he give minutes in a key qualifying game to someone he trusts less, and has less experience of in his teams? Henderson hasn’t just been a great servant to Liverpool, he has been a huge part of England’s most successful side since the Sixties. He has also been grotesquely undervalued by a great many people for a long time.
Perhaps Gallagher, or Ward-Prowse, or another, is ready to take over Henderson’s spot. But as yet there is no clear evidence that any of them are better than he is – yet - he remains the mile marker the rest must pass before they can take his starting spot. One day, he will no longer be worth his space in the side, and it probably won’t be such a long time before that day comes. It probably hasn’t arrived yet, however.