Liverpool missed the presence of Jordan Henderson in midfield on Wednesday evening as they suffered a disappointing 1-0 defeat at Southampton in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final.
The Reds were put to the test at St Mary’s and they didn’t deliver, as Nathan Redmond’s first-half goal secured a first-leg lead for the Saints.
Jurgen Klopp made eight changes to the side which faced Plymouth in the FA Cup on Sunday but there were still a number of key figures missing from the starting XI.
Along with Henderson, Joel Matip, Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho were all out of the side – though the ‘magician’ came on as a substitute in the second-half, one of the few positives from the night.
There were a number of concerns, as Ragnar Klavan looked sheepish in defence and Daniel Sturridge lacked drive up front, but none more so than the poor performance of the Reds’ central midfielders.
Liverpool’s lack of squad depth was perhaps exposed when Lucas Leiva lined-up alongside Emre Can in midfield and the duo were exposed by Southampton in all areas of the pitch.
Lucas, who recently admitted he sees centre-back as his best position now, may have looked like Xabi Alonso in comparison to Can, but that was more due to just how bad the German was. Nonetheless, Lucas isn’t a suitable replacement for Henderson as the holding midfielder.
Liverpool’s skipper has been criticised by some throughout his career on Merseyside and though that may have been justified to some extent in the early days – albeit when he was being played out of position under Kenny Dalglish – he has clearly shown under Jurgen Klopp how important he can be to this team.
Aside from his leadership and experience, Henderson is the one player who keeps everything ticking and ensures the ball is constantly on the move.
His presence is everywhere due to his work-man-like attitude but you must not underestimate his influence while in possession too.
His passing stats have not been matched in the Premier League, notching almost 300 more passes than any other player in the top flight. Most people will claim the majority of those are backwards passes but even so, he is maintaining the tempo of the game by moving the ball on.
On too many occasions on Wednesday night, Can was caught stumbling with the ball at his feet against Southampton and he appeared to be lost when in possession, slowing the tempo massively.
Henderson may pass the ball sideways but it will be with pace and accuracy which ensures the opposition have little opportunity to regain possession. He knows where his next pass is going even before receiving it and that was something Can and Lucas struggled to replicate on Wednesday evening.
Liverpool have creative players in abundance but if those players do not receive the ball, how can they be expected to produce? Henderson is the midfielder who provides that service to Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sturridge, though he rarely gets the credit for it.
It could be a five yard pass or a 25-yard cross-field ball, but it will find its target the majority of the time and by doing so, ensures Liverpool’s high-tempo possession strategy can continue to run smoothly.
When the time comes, the creative players will make a decisive pass or create the movement which can unlock the defence but they need a patient figure in midfield to provide that pivot.
Aside from the clear advantages he brings to the side through his passing ability, Henderson helps to stretch the opposition midfield and provide space for Adam Lallana to pick out those threatening pockets in the advanced position.
Unlike Can and Lucas at St. Mary’s, Henderson will show himself for the ball and will demand to take over from the back four.
By doing so, he draws out the midfield and creates two-on-one triangles around the pitch. It doesn’t matter if you’re in your own half or the opposition’s – you have to work the ball around players. Henderson helps Liverpool do that.
Henderson’s work-rate is phenomenal and perhaps even more surprising is the number of tackles he has made this season – 74 in total – which is second only to Everton‘s Idrissa Gueye.
Such stats put him above Chelsea‘s N’Golo Kante and Southampton‘s Oriol Romeu and he’s not made many fouls either (just 23 in total which is 18 less than Paul Pogba and Victor Wanyama, who are the worst culprits in the league).
The captain is by no means irreplaceable but in the current crop of players, he is the one midfielder Liverpool look to depend upon.
The side will ultimately be boosted by the return of Coutinho ahead of the weekend’s blockbuster fixture at Old Trafford, but it’s the return of Henderson that could prove more pivotal.