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Did Sevilla display prove Jordan Henderson is not the proactive midfielder Liverpool need?

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Following an eye-opening performance in Liverpool’s 3-3 draw with Sevilla, Football Whispers‘ Sam McGuire questions the role of Jordan Henderson.

The second half in Seville on Tuesday evening was a sobering experience for Liverpool fans.

The Reds went into the break with a 3-0 lead but the scoreline didn’t tell the whole story. There was no control, it was end-to-end but Liverpool had been clinical while Sevilla had been wasteful.

The home side had scored just 14 goals in 12 La Liga matches this season and the only time they’d scored three or more came against inferior opposition in Eibar and Cartagena.

It looked like a forgone conclusion with the only question being whether Liverpool would score more than the five goals Spartak Moscow did against the Spaniards on Matchday 3.

It was a chance for Jurgen Klopp and his players to make a statement in Europe. And they did. Just not the sort they would have hoped to make.


Protecting the Lead

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp looks dejected after the game - Nick Potts/EMPICS Sport

It was set up perfectly, on paper at least. Sevilla had to attack Liverpool in the second half meaning the Reds, if they could hold their nerve, could just pick them off on the counter-attack just as they did in the opening 45 minutes.

It didn’t have to be as manic. Klopp just needed to ensure his players showed a resiliency when the home side probed.

But it was immediately obvious that the tide had turned as soon as the second half kicked off. Liverpool players seemed twitchy, their play was rushed and there was no composure.

In this situation you need your captain to slow things down and get a hold of the players.

Yes, they are all professional footballers so shouldn’t need telling what to do and where to be. It’s easy saying that as a fan.

But sometimes they need that guidance, a hand on the shoulder and a quick pick-me-up. Commentators often refer to it as ‘taking the sting out of the game’. Liverpool needed that.

Klopp could, and probably should, have made changes at half-time to solidify the midfield but he trusted his players.

Left to right, Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jordan Henderson and Dejan Lovren look dejected after the game

His general on the pitch, Henderson, appeared to shrink under the spotlight.

Klopp’s side been criticised in the press and people have once again written off Alberto Moreno for his part in two of the Sevilla goals.

But the Liverpool captain hasn’t escaped the ire of the fanbase and it’s obvious to see why. Though not directly involved in the goals he had a game to forget.

It was a performance many had seen coming in the past and has resulted in many wondering why the manager persists with him as his No. 6.


Analysing Henderson’s Performance Against Sevilla

SEVILLE, SPAIN - Tuesday, November 21, 2017: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between Sevilla FC and Liverpool FC at the Estadio RamÛn S·nchez Pizju·n. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

There’s been a lot of talk post-match about the stats he posted for the match.

The numbers have been all over social media; the Reds captain only had a successful pass rate of 55 percent.

The 27-year-old also completed zero take-ons, won zero tackles, won zero aerial duels and committed five fouls.

But he wasn’t alone in posting bad numbers: Gini Wijnaldum and Philippe Coutinho didn’t set the world alight either. So while it’s an easy stick to beat him with, that’s not really the biggest issue when analysing his performance.

It’s in fact things you can’t quantify such as letting players run off you and failing to cover space which were Henderson’s downfall on Tuesday.

Sevilla have a throw-in on the Liverpool right. It’s half-cleared and Guido Pizarro picks the ball up. Henderson had pushed over to cover the throw-in meaning there’s little protection for the defence on the Liverpool left.

The ball is played into the feet of the man just ahead of Moreno and the left-back presses him, repelling the Sevilla man away from goal.

Henderson joins Moreno but both are a little too square meaning the Sevilla player can quickly turn to his right and play the ball out wide.

Now, you can see Sadio Mane is stretching so might not get there, so it’s understandable as to why Moreno is looking to get over there to support him.

The Sevilla man runs across the face of Henderson and the skipper is either telling Ragnar Klavan to cover the space he’s driving into—dangerous as it would leave Liverpool two-on-two in the penalty area—or he’s pointing to where he wants Moreno to go, even though he’s looking in the opposite direction.

Why doesn’t Henderson track the man himself? Remember this is at 3-0, being too defensive isn’t a bad thing.

Moreno accelerates to get back into a good position but he’s too eager and gives away a free-kick.

Sevilla score from it but one thing to note in the buildup is Henderson not covering the space between Klavan and Moreno. All it takes is a clever backheel and the Sevilla player on the edge of the area is driving into the box in a lot of space.

Is that not Henderson’s job during the defensive phase of play, to effectively plug the gaps in defence when players are out of position?

This wasn’t a one-off either. It happened a number of times throughout. Sevilla almost equalised in the first half when Wissam Ben Yedder dragged his shot agonisingly wide.

He was given acres of space and in real time it appeared as though Moreno had gone walkabout. But you’ll see below why the Sevilla striker was afforded such space.

Mohamed Salah’s cross is headed clear and Sevilla pick the ball up.

Henderson pushes over to cover Wijnaldum being caught in an attacking position and there’s nobody filling the space in centre-midfield.

Moreno spots the Sevilla man in a central area and gets over to stop him having a free run at the Liverpool centre-backs (shown in the second picture).

But while Wijnaldum and Moreno hold the attack up why isn’t Henderson getting into a central area so he’s got a better starting position?

Liverpool do win the ball back but it ricochets into the path of a Sevilla player and they’re able to play into the space down the Liverpool left.

But what is Henderson doing? The defensive midfielder is just watching while the rest of the team scrambles to stop the Sevilla attack.

Wijnaldum is just too late to cut out the initial pass in the above picture and Moreno is scarpering to get close to the man the ball is heading towards, but there’s still a Sevilla man free to the left of Klavan.

The Estonian centre-back can’t just push into the wide area because then the Reds are exposed centrally.

Henderson can’t make the ground up to cover the left from his position now, but had he been proactive in the second picture and got into a proper position he might have been able to.

He could’ve least slotted in at centre-back if Klavan pushed to the left or been in a position to press the man Moreno does, which would’ve meant the Spanish left-back could’ve retreated to his normal position.

Instead he’s just ball watching, but this isn’t the worst example of it.

Here you can see Henderson pressing the man in possession. Firstly, he should be forcing him to the Liverpool left because Sevilla have no players there.

Instead he allows him to open the pitch up and he can pass to Steven Nzonzi or Ever Banega. It’s not always possible so just putting him under pressure is good enough.

The ball is played to Banega and for some reason Henderson switches off to the man he was originally pressing. He concentrates on Banega even though Wijnaldum is pursuing him.

Now doubling up on such a creative player isn’t a bad thing if there wasn’t a player running down the middle of the pitch and straight at your defence.

The Liverpool captain is once again oblivious to the man behind him.

Banega cuts back inside onto his right foot and Henderson is almost standing directly behind Wijnaldum meaning both are cutting off the same part of the pitch.

All the while the Sevilla player is ghosting in behind the pair.

Banega holds onto the ball for an extra second before playing a pass between the two Liverpool midfielders and into the path of the man Henderson was pressing just nine seconds earlier.

It’s ridiculously easy for the home side to cut through the Liverpool team and get in at their defence.

Henderson doubling up on Banega prevented nothing, if anything it was the Argentine’s decision even simpler. He continued to ball watch and it resulted in chances for the home side.

In the picture above you see Sevilla have overloaded the Liverpool left, with three players outnumbering Klavan and Moreno.

Nzonzi plays the ball to Banega and Wijnaldum breaks forward to press him. Henderson, for some reason, moves away from the left and into a central area.

The pass was an obvious one but Liverpool aren’t quick enough to stop it. What you see is Henderson standing on no man’s land while Moreno and Klavan have to deal with three Sevilla players.

You could argue that Mane could drop deeper and help the left side, but Henderson’s closer.

Unsurprisingly, Sevilla win the ball forward despite the best attempts of the two Liverpool players. Henderson is slow to react and Mane isn’t quick enough to get close to the man in possession.

The Liverpool captain then drops deeper and allows the man in possession to drift inside. He eventually engages the player but it’s not good enough and the ball is switched to the Liverpool right.

This results in former Man City man Nolito firing into the side netting.


Henderson’s View

SEVILLE, SPAIN - Monday, November 20, 2017: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson during a training session ahead of the UEFA Champions League Group E match between Sevilla FC and Liverpool FC at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

In his post-match interview, Henderson claimed the Reds defended well in the first half. But did they? Or did they rely on luck to keep their clean sheet intact for 45 minutes?

“The performance in the second half undid all the good work we did in the first,” he said.

“We were disciplined, kept the ball at the right times, scored brilliant goals and defended well.

“Even though I thought they had good chances in the first half but I thought we defended well.”

It’s alarming to note just how many times Henderson was caught ball watching against Sevilla.

But it’s not just one game in isolation. He’s not naturally a defensive midfielder yet he’s being shoehorned into that role.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, August 23, 2017: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp celebrates his side's 4-2 victory (6-3 on aggregate) with captain Jordan Henderson during the UEFA Champions League Play-Off 2nd Leg match between Liverpool and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Liverpool suffer because of it and the player himself does, too. It begs the question: why does Klopp persist with playing him there?

He moves the ball well and he can break up play, but if the Reds are trying to evolve into more of a counter-attacking team, which they’ve hinted at recently, then they’re going to come under pressure and they’ll need to be able to hold their nerve.

Can they do that with Henderson ball watching and leaving his defence in unenviable situations? They need a proactive man there, not one who is reactive.

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