**Special Note** I originally wrote this blog post, and most of its underlying theme long before Henderson had burst onto the scene with Liverpool and established his recent dominate form. I have updated it to include some recent events, but the underlying foundation is still accurate. There is of course, no way for me to prove that, so you will have to just take my word for it. It's not like I am a liar or anything.
Since arriving at Liverpool during the free spending, crazy days of King Kenny's reign that most 'Pool fans have come recollect with a chilling cringe, Jordan Henderson has been one of my favorite players. There was always something about him I liked, and I believed that there was a place in the team for him, no matter the style of football that was played under any manager.
When Brendan Rogers arrived, I looked at Henderson and saw a real potential asset, though the style of football did not - at first glance - match the style of play produced by young Jordan. When I looked at Henderson I saw a young man, determined to do his best, and walk off the pitch having given his all, 100% spent on the grass. I believed then, and still believe now, that there is always a place for a player like that.
Henderson's approach to the game was one of pragmatism. He seemed to know his abilities, and his level of play and was willing to do whatever it took to establish his place in the starting eleven, play any position, run any number of miles, whatever. It didn't matter; he would pay any price to prove his value.
Henderson reminded me of a young Dirk Kuyt; a person with skills that likely would never set the world on fire, but whose drive, determination, will, and endurance would compensate for any lack of perceived finesse or flare. Don't get me wrong, I loved Kuyt as a player and I believed it was the worst loss of the early Rogers days, when Kuyt walked from the tunnels of Anfield to make his way to the crowded streets of Turkey's greatest city. I mean, think about it, when we entered that season having lost out on Clint Dempsey to Tottenham - who would then begin an era of scouting off the back of Liverpool's prospects for the next year and a half - and beginning the league marathon with only Suarez and Borini until the following January transfer window; who wouldn't have appreciated a guy as versatile and energetic as Kuyt. Able to play on the wings, in the center and as a striker, he could have had a positive impact on an otherwise dreary and lackluster start of the campaign.
I have always believed in the expression that a soccer coach of mine told me years ago, when I was just a boy myself beginning my love affair with the beautiful game. He told me: "Hustle beats talent 99 times out of a 100".
I have come to learn in my life the truth of that expression. How many of us know that person, with all the advantages in life, brilliant, witty, smart, from wealthy lineage, with everything going for them and yet somehow they manage to slink through life never really accomplishing anything? In contrast there are those without all of the many natural and splendid gifts of that other individual who seem to set the world on fire and are driven from somewhere deep within to accomplish great things in spite of their limitations.
Those truly exceptional players in sport, the Messi's, the Ronaldo's, the Suarez's are those who are able to couple truckloads of talent, with drive, determination and incredible will.
It is true that Henderson's name will more than likely never be listed in the Ballon D'or finalists shortlist. However his ability to modify his game, learn from those better than him, and hustle his brains out makes him an incredible asset to any team. The fact is that he is NOT skillful enough to compete in arenas where men like those other three and a handfuls of other like them are sought after and grab all the press and media attention. He is simply too... English.
That is not as racists as it might sound. What I mean is he is cut from the prototypical 'English Cloth' and is that sort of player. He is big, strong, and brutish. He is the John Terry, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and James Milner sort of player. That player style of yore who would go out and play a football match in the rain, sleet and mud with gruesome tackles and bloody lips, then spend the afternoon playing Rugby with some friends, only to cap off the evening with a nice and relaxing Pub Brawl.
While there are 'English' players who are up and coming who are more in the Spanish motif of footballers, Jordan Henderson is one of a perhaps a dying breed of boulder faced, square shouldered men blessed not so much with speed, craftiness and finesse, as a endless lung capacity and voracious engine and selfless determination.
I remember a few weeks back just after Coutinho's shoulder injury that Henderson was playing up front in the slot behind the strikers (Coutinho's preferred position). I thought at the time that Henderson was not truly cut out for the role, and at the time I was right. He did not look comfortable there, his final pass - one of Coutinho's greatest strengths - was often lacking and just a few inches short of perfect. But at the same time, he brought something to that end of the pitch Coutinho would never have brought: defensive pressure off the ball. I remember watching him at one point, run past both Suarez and Sturridge to press the center backs. Eventually his effort proved invaluable as he stole the ball on the outside, was able to play the ball back to Suarez and set up another offensive attack on goal. Coutinho, for all his style and flair, is a product of the "offensive player" mold, who often looks at applying pressure without the ball as a chore to get through, like washing the car, or folding the laundry. Though lets admit it, I don't think any footballer does those things. But Henderson, while he lacked the polish of his Brazilian counterpart, was able to prove his value in other way: bringing his hustle to the top of the pitch.
And that hustle, that drive, that humility to adapt and change, is an asset that any team would pay for. And it's paying off for him now as his skills on the ball have improved along with his finishing. His running got him into the mix and onto the team sheet, and that playing time has gained him valuable experience that has increased his individual skill.
Anyone who watched the last few games against West Ham, Tottenham, and Cardiff can see his game improving, his awareness of his teammates building. Sturridge must be hating the time he is missing, seeing how the offensive four or five players are gelling together. At times throughout his career Henderson has looked the odd man out, even surplus to requirements.
But now, he is the quickly becoming the man to beat in the middle of the pitch, due in large part to his hustle, not his talent.