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

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As Gareth Southgate contemplates changing his starting line-up for the World Cup group finale 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 today (Tuesday), perhaps at the expense of young Jude Bellingham, it is a decision that will not be met with universal love.

Bellingham is England’s man of the moment, an emerging star on the world stage, whereas Henderson is the most experienced member of the squad. In fact, he is at his sixth major tournament, something only Sol Campbell, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney have achieved with 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 win 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. Since June 2019, Henderson has led Liverpool to win the Premier League, the Champions League, the FA Cup, the Club World Cup, UEFA Super Cup and the Community Shield, 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 against Wales at the expense of Bellingham. It might be construed as a negative move from the manager.

Whether that is true or not, 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 Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has described him in the past to understand that.

Klopp has said Liverpool’s achievements over 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 such as those the Anfield club have encountered in the early months of 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 says in Jordan Henderson Is Never Done, a documentary 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 says in that same interview.

It is no secret this season so far has not been a vintage one, for Liverpool as a team or Henderson personally. That is unlikely to dissuade Southgate from trusting the Sunderland-born midfielder, who last started a game for him 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 goalless draw to keep their knockout-phase qualification hopes in their own hands and what Southgate watched that night might 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 provide England with some control.

Look at how the Americans’ expected goals number (xG), which had been creeping up throughout the match, flatlines following Henderson’s introduction.

One noticeable instruction Southgate seemed to be drilling into Henderson was for him to stretch the US back line 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 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 runs towards the halfway line in pursuit of the ball…

…Kane joins him and is able to create a turnover in possession. He then passes to Rice, who quickly offloads to Jack Grealish…

…and England suddenly have four players running at a scattered defence.

Grealish then attempts to get the ball to Henderson but his pass is undercooked and the US reclaim possession.

Had it not been for that under-hit Grealish pass, this move was shaping up to be one of the best by 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.

Looking at his pass map against the US, it is hard to argue against that, given the direction of them is mostly backwards.

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

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 on Friday when Henderson made a late surging run into the penalty area and, had he been played in by Grealish, he may have had a goalscoring opportunity.

Grealish has a small window here in which he can either take the shot on himself or try to thread a pass through to Henderson…

…but he opts to do neither, instead playing it safe with a backheeled pass to Marcus Rashford out wide instead.

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

His Liverpool team-mate Diogo Jota once described Henderson 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 need as they play neighbours Wales with a place in the World Cup last 16 at stake.


Every World Cup question you’ve been too afraid to ask

(Top photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

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