Jordan Henderson is unlikely to ever be regarded as one of the best midfielders in the world, but his improvement has made him a game-changer just like his predecessor.
In early January 2015, when Steven Gerrard announced that he would be leaving at the end of the season, it wasn’t obvious that Henderson had the attributes to succeed him as Liverpool captain.
It was a sad time for Liverpool fans, and it raised the important question: who could possibly succeed such a figure?
In truth, the pickings were slimmer than Yossi Benayoun’s arms.
Henderson, vice-captain at the time, was the odds-on favourite by a country mile, and the only other candidates given any chance were Adam Lallana (on the grounds that he captained Southampton), Mamadou Sakho (on the grounds that he captained PSG) and Martin Skrtel (on the grounds that he looked scary).
There was something a bit underwhelming about that state of affairs. In 2014–15, Henderson enjoyed his best-ever goalscoring returns, but that did little to diminish the impression that him becoming captain was the mother of all downgrades.
“If he becomes captain, he will carry it with great honour,” said a diplomatic Rodgers.
Nobody doubted Henderson’s sense of honour, of course. Many, however, including the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel, doubted the midfielder’s ability to play football very well.
“Both are central midfielders, both regarded as leaders within the group,” Samuel wrote of Gerrard and Henderson in January 2015.
“Yet time and again, Gerrard has used his position and influence to conjure a vital result for his club. Henderson is yet to prove he can do that.”
Two weeks after Gerrard’s announcement, in Liverpool’s two-legged League Cup semi-final against Chelsea, Henderson managed to steal the headlines both home and away.
But on neither occasion did he prove that he could conjure a vital result.
First, on January 20, the midfielder confronted Diego Costa in the tunnel at Anfield, earning semi-earnest praise from fans for showing a bit of grit.
A week later at Stamford Bridge, things didn’t go so well, as he missed a sitter in extra time. Chelsea won the tie, and the general verdict was that Gerrard would have buried Henderson’s opportunity.
Henderson did become captain, of course, and expressed typical determination not to cock it up.
“I’ll look to give my best all of the time, put the team firmly first and try to give them — or help them with — whatever they need from me,” he said.
“I’ll use what I learnt from [Gerrard] to help me, but I also have to do things in the way I think is right.”
Fast forward four and a half seasons, and one suspects that Henderson’s continued excellence is mainly down to himself, partly down to Jurgen Klopp and maybe a little bit thanks to Gerrard.
After all, Henderson always had captain-like attributes about him; if fans were sceptical of his ability to handle the role at Liverpool, it was more to do with his technical limitations than his leadership qualities.
But as the skipper continues to display those leadership qualities week in, week out, it’s those fractional improvements in technical ability — more than his heart-on-sleeve attitude — that seem to have transformed the Sunderland graduate from admirable try-hard to formidable force.
On Thursday night against Wolves, Henderson leapt for a header that was, in truth, much harder to score than that sitter he missed at Chelsea in 2015 — a miss that provided a terrifying glimpse into a Gerrard-free future.
On this occasion, the midfielder timed it just right – well, kind of – shouldering in Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner for a second league goal of the season.
Was that an intentional metaphor for the greater responsibility Henderson shoulders these days? If it was, it was delivered perfectly: later on, under a great deal of pressure with the game tied at 1-1, Henderson’s cool pass on his weaker foot set up Roberto Firmino to win the match.
It’s these kind of moments, moments where a matured Henderson now uses, in Martin Samuel’s words, “his position and influence to conjure a vital result”, that makes it tempting to see the player as a man reborn — a skinny lad with a dodgy running style who has become a giant of the game.
Maybe the reality is less dramatic than a rebirth though.
After all, Henderson’s Champions League triumph — for all its emotion — didn’t feel like the apprentice finally stepping into the shoes of the master, because Henderson always had those Gerrard-like leadership qualities in his locker.
Nor has he transformed himself into a radically superior footballer. He still doesn’t score much, and his £20million transfer fee still seems — weirdly, for a Champions League winner — just about right, neither an indulgence nor one of the great bargains of our time.
Yet it’s those very marginal improvements, those training ground hours that have turned narrowly missed headers into converted ones, hopeful punts into killer long balls, that have fine-tuned Henderson into an incredibly effective player.
He’s not perfect, and he never will be, but his gradual improvement will go down as a major factor in Liverpool’s long-awaited Premier League triumph.