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Jordan Henderson offers leadership and control – a start against Wales would make sense

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As Gareth Southgate contemplates changing his starting line-up for Tuesday’s World Cup game against Wales, having named the same XI in the opening two matches, Jordan Henderson’s name is near the top of the list of expected changes.

If he does play, perhaps at the expense of Jude Bellingham, it is a decision that will not be met with universal love. Bellingham is the man of the moment, an emerging star on the world stage, while Henderson is the most experienced member of England’s squad. In fact, he is at his sixth major tournament, something only Sol Campbell, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney have done for England.

Southgate clearly values that experience — the 32-year-old is regarded as a safe bet when the pressure is on.

He has captained Liverpool to every trophy possible at club level in recent seasons. How many of this current England squad can say that? Look through the spine of the team — Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire, Declan Rice and Harry Kane — and there is not a single major trophy between them. Henderson has led Liverpool to the Premier League, the Champions League, the FA Cup, World Club Cup, Super Cup and has won the League Cup twice.

Despite that longevity — perhaps even because of it — there will be fans who are unhappy if Henderson is included at the expense of Bellingham. It might be construed as a negative move from the manager. Whether that is true or now, what we do know is why Southgate might choose him. Henderson brings experience, safety, energy and motivation. He’s a leader on the pitch and away from it. You only have to listen to how Jurgen Klopp has described him in the past to understand that.

Klopp has said Liverpool’s achievements of recent seasons would have been impossible without Henderson. And that, crucially, he is a player who has helped keep the group together in difficult moments — the like of which Liverpool have encountered this season.

“He’s captain of my side because he was captain when I arrived here and I saw no need to change it — that’s maybe the biggest compliment,” Klopp told documentary ‘Jordan Henderson is Never Done’, released earlier this year. “I obviously didn’t know Hendo when I arrived here; I knew him as a player but not as a person. He brings everything you need to lead a football team.”

Henderson had everything he wanted from his captain away from the pitch, as well as on it.

“He has speed, he has endurance, so he can run for ages. Defensive skills are great, offensive skills are really great: awareness, vision, passing,” Klopp said in that same interview.

It is no secret this season has not been a vintage one for Liverpool or Henderson. That is unlikely to dissuade Southgate from trusting the Sunderland-born midfielder, who last started a game for England in March.

Against the United States on Friday, Henderson was brought on for Bellingham in the 69th minute with the opponents on top. England played out a 0-0 draw but what Southgate watched must have convinced him that starting the Liverpool captain against Wales was the right idea.

So what was it that stood out? What did he do well?

Well, first of all he helped to provide England with some control. Look at how the United States’ expected goals total (xG) flatlines after Henderson’s introduction with just over 20 minutes to go.

One noticeable instruction Southgate seemed to be drilling into Henderson was for him to stretch the US backline by pushing out to the right to help open spaces for team-mates to run into.

Henderson did not just push out to the right side of the pitch as instructed. There were also times when he cropped up on the left too.

His pressing was another thing which stood out straight away. With fresh legs to run at the opposition, Henderson raced after the ball on several occasions. There was one moment, in the 81st minute, when his charge helped England win the ball back, enabling them to launch an ultimately short-lived counter-attack.

Henderson ran towards the halfway line after the ball.

Harry Kane joined him and was able to make a turnover in possession. He then passed to Declan Rice, who quickly offloaded to Jack Grealish.

England then had four players running at a scattered U.S. defence.

Grealish then attempted to get the ball to Henderson but his pass was undercooked and the U.S. reclaimed the ball.

Had it not been for that under-hit pass from Grealish, this move was shaping up to be one of the best from England all game and it all started with Henderson’s pressing.

One of the criticisms of Henderson will be that he is too safe in possession. When you look at his passes against the U.S. it is hard to argue against that given the direction of passes are mostly backwards.

Henderson likes to keep things ticking over. But that’s not to say he can’t pass forward. He can and will.

As mentioned one of his qualities is making selfless runs into space to free up or combine with team-mates. There was one moment in the 87th minute when Henderson made a late surging run into the box and, had he been played in by Grealish, he may have had a goalscoring opportunity.

Grealish had a small window in which he could have taken a shot on himself or threaded a pass through to Henderson.

The Manchester City player opted to do neither, instead he played it safe and with the back of his heel played a pass to Marcus Rashford instead.

It wasn’t going well for England in a drab and slow game and Southgate looked to Henderson to bring energy and control.

His Liverpool team-mate Diogo Jota once described him as a manager on the pitch.

“He tries to speak with you always, not always good words. He keeps you pushing forward, the role of being a manager inside the field. I know that I cannot rest for a second because he will be right up against me.”

Maybe that is exactly what Southgate feels his team needs as they play rivals Wales with a place in the World Cup last 16 at stake.

(Top photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

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